Do Postsecondary Graduates Land High-skilled Jobs?

Students generally choose a post-secondary education program based on interest, program availability and cost, and prospective employment, earnings, and job outcomes. Another potential education outcome would be the skill requirements of jobs in the chose field, as they are good indicators of what students are likely to be doing in the labour market after completing their studies. If students entering post-secondary (or even secondary) education and training could know what skills they would need in jobs after graduation, they would be better able to avoid career paths outside their areas of interest, resulting in a better job match. However, Canadian students are challenged by the lack of information on the skill requirements of prospective occupations.

To address this gap, the study authors, Marc Frenette and Kristyn Frank of Statistics Canada’s Analytical Studies Branch, take an innovative approach that links a US resource to Canadian data to associate skill requirement outcomes with occupations, fields of study and levels of post-secondary education. Note that this summary of that study will highlight non-university education, which is the level most relevant to employment practitioners.

The methodology was in two stages. First the authors matched the Canadian National Occupational Classification (NOC) system to the U.S. Occupational Information Network (O*NET) to assign skill requirements to the NOC codes. The NOC, which is typically used in Canadian research and practice to code jobs, is deficient in terms of the skills required in occupations: its employment requirements information is expressed in terms of education, training, certification and employment experience, but not skills. By contrast, the O*NET does contain measures of skills needed in jobs, based on data collected in a survey of job incumbents, who, along with job analysts, rated the jobs as to the skills actually used in the job and the perceived importance thereof to performing it. In this way, the authors were able to assign skills requirements and importance ratings to the NOC codes. For simplicity’s sake, the researchers analytically grouped the original 35 O*NET detailed skills into nine groups: reading comprehension; writing; mathematics; science; process, complex problem solving, and systems; social, including communication, negotiation, service orientation; technical operation and maintenance, including installation, operation, repairing, quality control; technical design and analysis; and resource management including management of financial, material and personnel resources.

The second step was to analyze the NOC-based data, now including O*NET-based skills requirements levels, from Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey (NHS, replacing the Census for that year) to associate skill requirements with different post-secondary programs and levels. While doing so, the authors controlled for age and immigrant status. This procedure resulted in requirement ratings for each of the nine skill groups (as above) by program of study (n=11: e.g., personal, protective and transportation services; agricultural, natural resources and conservation; health) and education level (n=9: less than high school, high school certificate, trades certificate, registered apprenticeship, college diploma/certificate, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, doctorate, professional degree).

The main analytical sample consisted of men and women 25-34 years of age, to focus on young graduates who likely had obtained their credentials in recent years. In addition, only individuals who worked 30 or more hours as a paid employee in a defined occupation during the census reference week were retained.

The study presents information that would be useful to prospective post-secondary students deciding on a career path (and the practitioners who advise them). This includes data identifying common occupations held by college graduates in different programs of study for young men and women. Also, concordance tables between the NOC-O*NET occupational classification systems and between the NOC codes and occupational skills requirements are available by request from from Marc Frenette, one of the Statistics Canada researchers authoring this report. The study also presented some useful findings on skills requirements for different programs, as illustrated by the following three Canada-wide results, which could presumably be reproduced for British Columbia in future analysis and used by practitioners in this province.

First, skill‑level requirements in all skill and program areas generally increase with educational levels. One notable exception is that above-average technical operation and maintenance skills levels are required in the jobs occupied by male non-university, post-secondary graduates, particularly for those who reported a registered apprenticeship or a trades certificate as their highest level of completed education.

Second, the skill requirements of occupied jobs differ between college and university graduates for different fields of study; for example:

  • Architecture, engineering, and related technologies: the relative skill ranking of jobs occupied by male college graduates from this program is considerably lower than that of the jobs of their counterparts with a bachelor’s degree, particularly with respect to the skill areas of reading comprehension; writing; and process, complex problem solving, and systems.
  • Mathematics, computer and information sciences: the jobs of male college graduates of this program area have the highest overall skill ranking across all nine areas of skill requirements, and in fact are first in such skill areas such as reading comprehension; writing; mathematics; process, complex problem solving, and systems; and technical design and analysis. At the bachelor’s degree level, male graduates from these programs are in jobs rated in the top three in only five skill areas.
  • Education; visual and performing arts, and communications technologies; humanities: the jobs of bachelor’s degree graduates in these programs are ranked near the bottom in most skill areas, whereas the jobs of college graduates in these programs are ranked closer to the middle in many skill areas.

Third, there are far more gender differences in job skill requirements among college graduates than among bachelor’s degree holders with regard to skill requirements by field of study. For example, male college graduates have jobs that require higher maintenance skills than male bachelor degree holders. By contrast, among women, the skill requirements of the jobs they occupy are below average regardless of whether or not they completed their schooling. Moreover, such skills are no more required in the jobs of women with a trades certificate or a registered apprenticeship than for women with other educational qualifications.

This article would of be interest to practitioners helping their young clients make a career choice when choosing among different programs of study that matches their strengths and interests; to program designers who wish to improve the content of post-secondary education programs; and to Canadian researchers conducting provincial and national analyses of job skill requirements using NOC–coded data.