The Great Skills Divide, Bridging the Divide

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 (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 the report authors. “But as Canada’s postsecondary attainment approaches 60%, is it possible that previous work experience has become the new indicator of ‘work-ready’ skills?”

Project description

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 entry-level job ads, 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.   Although the job ads specifically referenced some form of postsecondary education, almost half of 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 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.

Understanding the extent of Canada’s skills gap problem is hindered by disagreement over what actually constitutes such a gap, according to the report.  Employers tend to mean one of three different things when they talk about skills – education, essential skills or work experience. Some employers cite an inability to find workers with the credentials and/or disciplinary knowledge they require. Others refer to a lack of essential skills in prospective employees, such as writing, oral communication and working with others. Still others cite an inability to find “work-ready” employees — those with the skills believed to be acquired only through work experience.

“Unfortunately, these different employer concerns have too often been conflated into a single ‘skills gap’ narrative,” says the report, “making it difficult to ascertain if there is a problem, what that problem is 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.

Recommendations /Further research

The study identifies important questions for both employers and postsecondary institutions. Do employers prefer job candidates with work experience because they find recent graduates from postsecondary institutions to be ill-prepared for the labour market, or are employers shirking their responsibilities to train new employees?  More broadly, what skills should postsecondary institutions be teaching and what skills should properly be learned through on-the-job training?  Better labour market alignment through active collaboration between employers and postsecondary institutions will be required to ensure that college and university graduates have the right skills for the Canadian labour market.

Author of The Great Skills Divide: A literature review and Bridging the Divide, Part 1: What Canadian job ads said, is HEQCO researcher Sophie Borwein. She and HEQCO researcher Erica Refling are co-authors of Bridging the Divide, Part 2: What Canadian job ads produced.