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Pursuing an entry-level job? BYO work experience

An entry-level job used to be synonymous with a first job, but that could be changing, according to a new report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario…

Toronto, Nov. 20, 2014 – An entry-level job used to be synonymous with a first job, but that could be changing, according to a new report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO).  A study of Canadian job ads found that employers posting entry-level positions expected applicants to have up to two years of work experience.  But the majority of those who got hired had more – in some cases substantially more.

“In the past, a postsecondary credential might well have indicated to Canadian employers that a job applicant had the necessary skills to succeed in the workplace,” say report authors and HEQCO researchers Sophie Borwein and Erica Refling. “But as Canada’s postsecondary attainment approaches 60%, is it possible that previous work experience has become the new indicator of ‘work-ready’ skills?”

The three-part study follows on sustained debate about Canada’s so-called “skills gap” and the role of higher education and employers in shaping the country’s skilled workforce. Through a literature review, a content analysis of 316 entry-level Canadian job ads, and follow-up survey responses from 103 of the employers, the study focused on how entry-level jobs specifically geared to postsecondary graduates were advertised and filled.

According to the job ads for entry-level positions, less than one quarter of the employers would consider hiring candidates with no work experience.  On average, employers wanted more than one year of experience and as much as two years.   The follow-up survey found that 84% of the employers filled the advertised positions. A majority (59%) of those hired had three or more years of previous employment and one quarter had more than five years.  Insufficient work experience was cited by half of the 14 employers who did not fill their advertised positions.

Some 86% of the employers said they were generally satisfied with the employees they hired and 90% believed that their new employee had the necessary skills for the job. Among valued skills were the ability to work well with others, effective oral communication skills and strong computer skills.

“Given the sizeable work experience of this study’s sample, it begs the question – what skills did the applicants develop during their time in the postsecondary sector and what skills did they develop during their time in the workforce?” say the authors.  Although the job ads specifically referenced some form of postsecondary education, almost half the employers didn’t care whether the credential came from a college or university. The same proportion also didn’t care what field the candidate had studied.

The literature review found that employers tend to mean one of three different things when they talk about skills – formal education, essential skills such as team work and communication, or work experience. The three are often conflated into a single skills gap narrative, according to the report, making it difficult to identify whether there is a problem and what might be done about it.

Though small in scope, the study suggests that college and university graduates have the right skills for the labour market. Given the considerable work experience of the new hires, there is also the question of whether the successful applicants were recent graduates. The authors note, however, that the skills gap is a multifaceted issue and even if no widespread gap is evident, gaps might exist in certain occupations and/or locations and in some skills but not others.

The report identifies areas for further exploration, including whether colleges and universities are teaching the core skills employers say they want and what responsibilities employers have for skills development.  Better labour market alignment through active collaboration of postsecondary institutions and employers will be required to ensure that college and university graduates have the right skills for the Canadian labour market.

About the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario is an agency of the Government of Ontario, established in 2005 to contribute to the improvement of Ontario’s postsecondary education system.  HEQCO is mandated to conduct research, evaluate the postsecondary education system and provide policy recommendations to the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities on improving system quality, access and accountability.

For further information, please contact:

Susan Bloch-Nevitte
Executive Director, Communications
Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario
(416) 212-5242 / sbnevitte@heqco.ca  

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