Universities can’t just leave half their students without job-ready skills

Theory and critical thinking shouldn’t be the only skills graduates bring with them to the job market

It’s time we change the way a university education is structured. Illustration: Alex Vanderput/The Peak

By: Madeleine Chan, Staff Writer

We’ve all heard it: “What can you do with a [x] degree?” Whenever I hear these words, I spiral into a void of existential future crisis right before my extended family’s ignorant eyes. As someone nearing the end of their communication degree I’m really feeling that “how can I get a job when all I know are the basics of famous theorists” vibe. This shouldn’t be an ongoing feeling any student should have. Our education should be better preparing us for our professional futures with practical, skill-based learning integrated into our chosen programs.

The majority of students’ intent at university is to gain the skills and knowledge to find a way to sustain themselves financially after graduation. However, the growth of the mobile workforce, gig-based work, and rising costs associated with living have changed the traditional idea of what a career is, and what it means for recent graduates. People are no longer vying for a single, life-long career that could previously be obtained through a non-specialized bachelor’s degree. A degree may not even be enough to get you a job anymore as companies like Apple and Google are hiring based on skill.

Because of this work shift, other post-secondary education paths like trade schools provide a tempting alternative for students anxious over their future financial stability. To avoid becoming obsolete, universities — particularly programs in the liberal arts and social sciences — have to change to match the needs of students graduating into a different work environment from previous generations. 

Imagine programs like gender studies and women’s studies teaching students how to practically write for social change, rather than for academia. Communication courses actually showing students how to create professional documents and media. Political science courses engaging with local politics and teaching public speaking. And picture having mandatory work experience semesters or classes at no extra cost that allow students to work and build practical skills, make professional connections, and dip their toes into their potential future.

While programs like contemporary arts, engineering, business, and STEM already offer a more career-oriented approach to learning, this isn’t the case for all departments. Universities shouldn’t be leaving some students at a career disadvantage just because they happen to have different intellectual skills or interests. 

University is great for building skills like critical thinking, writing, and a disciplined work ethic, regardless of program. However, the types of skills that are usually learned are incredibly niche, and only really applicable in an academic setting. The problem is that academia is not a viable career choice for most graduates. This means that most of the fundamental skills learned at university are either not immediately applicable, or are simply wasted — along with a considerable amount of money.

There are some ways in which SFU is already testing more career oriented learning, in a very limited scope. Offerings like Career and Volunteer Services, the new FASS Forward “microcredit” courses, and, most importantly, the co-op program allow students an opportunity to combine their studies with work. However, these resources are positioned within the university system as more of an “extra” thing that students can do rather than a built-in step in their degree. Furthermore, these additions to a degree program often cost more time and money than many students are able to afford. What if, instead of having students scramble for “easy” yet ultimately pointless Breadth credits, the university made some form of career training mandatory? 

Overall, the goal of a degree program should lead to employment, not a piece of paper. A re-evaluation of university curriculum needs to implement post-grad skills training in all programs so that new graduates aren’t stuck in an endless loop of “What can I do with a [x] degree?”