Gordon Nixon has observed an interesting phenomenon in his role as vice-president academic at SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary.
"What we’re seeing in the current economy is typical of what we’ve observed in the past three recessions," said Nixon.
Applications to the school, he says, increase whenever the economy sours.
SAIT, which specializes in career education that spans the gamut from the trades to applied degrees, accepts 4,000 new students yearly and turns away an equal number. But the minute jobs begin to disappear from the economy, the demand for those programs increases.
"During economically good times, we see students come out of high school and choose either to pursue post-secondary education or go into the workforce," said Nixon. "Those who enter the workforce with a high-school education go into unskilled, low-paying jobs. But those are often the first jobs to disappear during a recession and the people who choose that route become unemployed." And that unemployment, he says, leads those workers to realize they need marketable skills fast and many turn to technical-vocational colleges. SAIT’s enrolment is up three per cent this year over last, and would have been substantially higher had there been room and funding for additional students.
Enrolments at George Brown College in Toronto, meanwhile, are up about eight per cent this year, according to Marjorie McColm, associate vice-president academic. And the students are just as likely to be mid-life career changers as young people at the beginning of their careers.
Recession layoffs, says McColm, can be perceived by workers in one of two ways.
"It can be catastrophic or an opportunity," she said. "Some people get trapped in careers in which they’re well-paid but unhappy. It sometimes takes a layoff or the threat of a layoff for them to make the change." Because George Brown offers practical career education in such fields as the culinary arts and construction, about half the student population is comprised of mid-life career changers, many of them looking for training in areas that guarantee quick employment in the sectors of the economy not affected by recession.
The story is the same in Ottawa, where students are flocking to Algonquin College in search of recession-proof career training. "In a recession, people have career change decisions made for them," said Robert Gillett, president and CEO of Algonquin.
"Fortunately, they have opportunities to get government funding to go back to school as long as it’s in an area that has future employment prospects." One such area, says Gillett, is the skilled trades, where there is already a severe shortage of manpower, which is expected to worsen as the baby boom cohort retires from the workforce.
"The trades need another 40,000 workers to break even in the next 10 years," he said.
There are several other sectors that also need manpower.
"Healthcare seems to be insatiable because of the aging demographic," said Gillett. "Police and social programs are also big and information technologies continue to grow." While half of Algonquin’s enrolment consists of young adults fresh out of high school, the rest are mature students "who want to enhance their careers," he said. "We’ve grown by 10 per cent in the past year and that number would have been higher if we had had the space." Gillett says there is emphasis in the job market now for post-secondary accreditation.
"Employers are getting sophisticated about saying: ‘You have a (university) degree but what can you do?’ College students have a competitive advantage when employers ask about skills. They add value from day one for their employers." SAIT’s Gordon Nixon says one of the strengths of technical-vocation education is its direct connection to industry.
"Industry helps us develop our curriculum," he said.
He says students are flocking to such programs as automobile mechanics, construction and engineering technologies, health care, legal assistance, information technology and business administration.
Fay Prince fits the profile of many mature students retraining for new careers. At age 47, she’s wrapping up a program in cabinet-making at Rosemount Technology Centre in Montreal, a school that offers a variety of practical hands-on training and has a high rate of job placement.
"I read on the school’s website that they have a 97-per-cent placement rate and that was one of the selling points for me," Prince said.
Now close to graduation, she knows the sector she’s chosen is in dire need of manpower. In Montreal, the aerospace industry snaps up cabinet-making graduates from Rosemount Technology Centre to work on the interior finishing of aircraft.
Prince, however, is working on landing an internship in a private furniture-making company. "I’m employable now," she said.