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Sonya Tomas – Conference replay: Lessons from the popcorn machine

A few weeks after our Learning to Earning conference, we here at HEQCO are still replaying the lively discussions that took place during and after sessions (especially next to that break-time popcorn machine). For those who couldn’t make it to the event, here are a few takeaways from a research analyst/rookie conference planner/perpetual student at heart.

Whether you were listening to a panel discussion or eavesdropping on a neighbouring conversation, you likely heard the term ‘student focused’ bouncing about the conference. But what does that really mean? Historically, colleges, more so than universities, have embraced the notion of employment preparation as part of their mandate when serving students. However, a culture shift is occurring within more and more universities as the notion of preparing students with transferable labour market skills gains momentum. Feathers were ‘playfully’ ruffled (but no popcorn took flight) during a discussion on whether universities should be embracing this role at the potential expense of a focus on learning.

The assumption that learning and labour market outcomes cannot mutually coexist was challenged by programs like Mitacs, which provides internships to research graduate students, and Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone, which helps youth entrepreneurs start and expand their business.  Developing critical thinking, communication skills and general knowledge should not be lost in the discussion, but for this daughter of two hard-working-permanent-immigrant-turned-Canadian parents, education has always been about both the learning and the potential earning.

The top reason students cite for pursuing higher education is to improve their employment outcomes. It’s not surprising that during economic downturns the pursuit of higher education is tied to the hope of easing up and out of the crammed economic trough. One research panel at the conference was skeptical of the skepticism directed towards the return on investment for nonprofessional degrees. As it turns out (SPOILER ALERT for those reviewing the presentation slides),  engineering and science/technology university graduates do earn more relative to other disciplines after graduating, but the earnings advantage decreases overtime – and more so for females (hmm…potential fodder for upcoming blog?) So as individuals accumulate work experience, the impact of field of choice on earnings actually declines.

We heard that the difference in unemployment rates between disciplines is not considered significant (although those looking for employment may consider the difference significant indeed). And despite the sustained plea for more STEM students, not only are students not responding, but contrary to the theory of supply and demand, the wage premium for these occupations has been stable.

But how do individuals succeed in the marketplace when there are growing numbers with similar credentials? It’s a complex issue that requires a concerted effort, according to conference speakers, including improving the credit transfer system; peer-to-peer mentoring that provides academic and career support; professional development programs for graduate students; and more opportunities for work-integrated learning across disciplines. As an undergraduate student, I took part in work-integrated learning before the term was even part of my lexicon. It refers to activities that combine in-class learning with relevant ‘real-world’ experience—for example, through co-operative education, internships and applied research projects. In my world, few people have made as big an imprint as Dr. David Goldstein and Dr. Lynn Hasher at the University of Toronto, who offered this psychology student the chance to create projects that not only enriched my learning but also assisted with monthly expenses.

Our thanks go to the more than 300 people who braved the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy to be at this conference. I hope that the business cards enthusiastically exchanged by that popcorn machine are being used to continue the conversation.

-Sonya Tomas, HEQCO research analyst

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