How a college degree is the ticket to a massive career

We asked the presidents of three top Canadian schools why the best preparation for a fast-changing job market starts at college

October 4, 2023

We may have finally started to put the pandemic in our rearview mirror, but there’s plenty of disruption still on the horizon, with artificial intelligence and other technological advancements poised to transform work. Students aren’t just looking to graduate with skills that can keep pace with an evolving job market—they also want to make an impact in their communities, moving into industries that create a more secure, sustainable and compassionate world. A college education can fast-track their success. Sarah Fulford, Maclean’s editor-in-chief, met with three college presidents to find out how.

Colleges, by design, are closely connected to industry. How does Canada’s current labour shortage affect what you offer at your schools?

Ann Marie Vaughan: More than 95 per cent of Canadians live within 50 kilometres of a college or institute, and about 86 per cent of Indigenous individuals live within 50 kilometres of one. That proximity provides an accessibility that’s unique in the Canadian economy. Every program at Humber has its own advisory committee made up of industry and employers, and many of our faculty continue to work in industry. At Humber, partially because of our size and complexity—we have 86,000 learners—we like to see ourselves as nimble and local, but also broad and national. We have five innovation centres that bring together industry, employers and students—in business, social innovation, health, technology and entrepreneurship—so industry is continuously engaged in our programs and in applied research. We also give our students the characteristics and qualities they need to be successful in life and in the job market—in digital fluency, innovation, professionalism, sustainability and so on. By the time our students graduate, they are trained in how to do a job but also in the skills they need to be successful in life and work.

Which jobs are students asking for now?

Brad Donaldson: The generation entering our college now is much more attuned to sustainability. There are so many stories of things going wrong in the world; they want to make a contribution to the environment and to the sustainability of the community. From an agricultural perspective, that can mean locally produced food, underscoring the concept of getting a secure food supply that’s economically and socially sustainable—without shipping produce from Peru or California. Students want to make a difference and create a future they can live in.

Vaughan: In some cases, the jobs they want are very much aligned to what we’re seeing in the world around us. The demand for health care programs, for instance, is escalating. In Ontario, colleges can now offer a bachelor of science in nursing, and it’s one of our biggest growing disciplines. So are green careers in sustainable energy and buildings, engineering and so on. Colleges can respond to that in a rapid way. In Ontario, we also see that 25 per cent of college entrants have university degrees—more students are looking to blend that experience of university and college. And we’re seeing a need for personalized learning—students who want remote learning, students who want in-person, and students who are looking to learn for new careers.

How do you train today’s students for the careers of the future?

Don Bureaux: Personal skills are at least as important as technical skills. With COVID, we had a social, economic and health crisis, and it forced a lot of changes in how we do our work. Now we’re starting to see another disruption of the economy with AI. We need to produce graduates who have a sense of self and what they want to do to contribute to society. Traditionally, that wasn’t the job of colleges. We have to look at the whole person going into the marketplace, because the career they start with won’t be the career they end with—they’ll have five, six, seven careers, continuously reimagining themselves.

Donaldson: It’s critical to have those connections with industries, because they see the changes day to day, which we then build into the curriculum. With the technical component moving so quickly, it’s the human component that we have to make sure we’re developing. You need those creativity skills and curiosity and critical thinking. Doing industry projects—what we call capstone projects—is a key way to enable that continuity. But also applied research is becoming a more critical component. At Lethbridge, we’re especially connected to the agricultural community, where there are many innovations to improve crop yield and conserve water. Essentially, it’s about working with the community you’re serving and evolving as quickly as possible.

Is there a real difference between college and university, or is that a false dichotomy?

Donaldson: Students often choose college because they’re going to experience real-world opportunities to find real-world solutions, and be able to go into the workforce and make a difference. I see a number of university grads coming to my college who recognize that if they want a job, they need to go to college. There are multiple pathways to learning, and each student needs to figure theirs out. For some, it’s a university—if you’re going to become an engineer or a doctor, it’s for a specific purpose. College programs typically are shorter and the degrees are more focused than at a university.

Bureaux: We meet learners where they are—individuals each begin their education in a different place. At our college, almost 40 per cent of our students are the first people in their family to attend post-secondary. That changes the very fundamentals around the dinner table at home. I was talking to one recent grad who told me that since she graduated, her own kids are getting higher grades at school, because they see their mom as a role model. That’s the kind of thing that gets me fired up.

Vaughan: Many people look at college as strictly about program delivery, but increasingly we’re involved in applied research; industry brings a problem to us and we put our brain power toward helping to solve it. We’re doing some really interesting work with the manufacturing sector here in Ontario, with Siemens and Magna—they even have a footprint on our campus. People need to know that industry engagement these days includes applied research, and that our students are engaged in it. That’s a different way to think about colleges in Canada. By working together, we’re helping make industries more competitive and agile. And those companies are looking to hire our students—they get exceptional employees.

Our country has big targets for immigration and population growth, and a popular way into this country is through the education system. How do colleges support immigration?

Bureaux: In order to have effective immigration, you have to have effective integration. In order to have effective integration, you have to have accessible education. Education creates a soft landing for newcomers. In Nova Scotia, we have a Study and Stay program that makes sure those newcomers have a connection with a local employer. It can’t be that they walk off the stage and begin to look for employment. In addition to that, every international student who comes to Halifax has the opportunity to spend a whole day in September at a library with the city’s mayor, who introduces them to 25-plus community leaders, including the police chief and the chief medical officer. They quickly see that there are many people in our province who care about their success.

What advice do you have for incoming students on how to maximize their college experience?

Vaughan: I came into this profession many years ago after being a student politician, so my advice is to be engaged in the institution in any way you can. It’s about finding your path, but also finding a way to be engaged with the college experience outside the classroom. That’s often complex for many people—some of our students are older or have families of their own, so they have complex lives. But the more they’re engaged, the more they’re able to bring those skills they’re learning to the outside world. The great thing about colleges is that many programs have work-integrated learning, so students have an opportunity to practise skills. I’d tell students to take that seriously and lean into those opportunities.

Donaldson: I’d underscore that learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom. Take advantage of opportunities to engage in other activities and make friends. And don’t be shy: one of the advantages of a college education is the ability to interact with your instructors. Reach out, ask questions and take advantage of all the supports that are available.

Bureaux: I always tell new students to give themselves permission to not have their entire lives figured out at 18 years old. This is not about trying to figure out what doors will open up in the future, but being prepared so that when that door does open up, you’re able to walk through it.


This article appears in print in the Maclean’s 2024 Colleges Guidebook. Buy the guidebook online here, and subscribe to the Maclean’s monthly print magazine here.