After high school

For Yukonomist readers born in 1995 and later, thoughts are now turning to summer jobs and what to do after high school. For Grad 2013 the end of the runway is approach fast, and for Grad 2014 it's time to get serious about the future.

For Yukonomist readers born in 1995 and later, thoughts are now turning to summer jobs and what to do after high school. For Grad 2013 the end of the runway is approach fast, and for Grad 2014 it’s time to get serious about the future.

Amid the grad parties and celebratory family dinners, it’s important to fit in a bit of strategic planning. You really don’t want to be the student who skips a bunch of Shakespeare assignments and finds out – too late – that your English 12 mark is one per cent too low to get into college. Or that you want to do a medical technician program but didn’t take enough science classes. Or, perhaps worst of all, end up putting four years into a degree you didn’t really like and which doesn’t get you a job anywhere but a coffee shop.

It’s a cliche of graduation ceremony speeches that education is important to your future. But it is nonetheless true. However, you have to get past the generalities that “everyone should go to university.”

TD Economics recently released a study that identified the job families that grew the fastest in Canada over the last decade. Computers and information technology was the fastest growing category, followed by engineers, lawyers and judges, trades and health care.

A couple of observations about this. First, fast growing job categories usually mean staff shortages, which means it’s easier to find a job and easier to get raises. Unemployment rates among skilled staff were dramatically lower than average in the recent recession. TD Economics figures show professionals earning 2.3 times more than low-skilled jobs on average. SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary reports that 84 per cent of its 2011 graduates found a job related to their training and these graduates had a median salary of $48,000. Not bad for recent graduates.

Secondly, all of these fast-growing jobs require more training after high school but – importantly – not just any kind of post-secondary training. I loved my Roman History classes at university, and they broadened my mind in many ways. I still read on the topic, and was nerdily recommending Polybius to someone just the other day. But it was probably sensible of me to get an economics degree as my main focus.

You’ll have noticed trades and health care on the list of fast-growing jobs. These are both sources of steady and well-paid jobs, but the path to them often goes through apprenticeship or technical training at places like SAIT rather than a general undergraduate degree.

Thirdly, you probably won’t be happy in a job you hate, so don’t just proceed like a sheep into the fastest growing job category. However, despite the wisdom of this last point, you also shouldn’t dismiss these categories too quickly. Many people end up loving jobs that their high-school selves would have snorted at.

Most high school students find themselves in a crossfire of advice coming from parents, friends, great aunts, high school counsellors and so on. Let me try to distil everything I’ve heard into a few pointers below.

1) Plan ahead and do some research. You are the one that owns your future. You have to do the research and make the decisions. Parents love you, this must be your decision. High school counsellors often serve hundreds of students each, and literally don’t have more than a few minutes a year to think about your future. You need to take control.

One useful research guide is the Maclean’s magazine guide to universities. Don’t start with the ratings at the back, but instead read the chapters up front on what to look for in a school and what you need to apply.

Look specifically at what you need to attend the programs that interest you. SAIT has different application requirements from BCIT. Avionics is different from heavy equipment repair. Ditto for UBC and the University of Alaska. Pick several places to apply, including a “fall back” option in case you don’t get into your first choice.

Make sure your course selections and grades will get you where you want to go.

2) Create option value for yourself. You’re young, and you’ll probably change your mind. Maybe several times. So keep your options open. Don’t drop math and science too early. Your high school counsellor probably knows dozens of students who had to take remedial math courses after high school to get into the program they wanted.

The same applies for those going into first-year university. Make sure your first-year course selections give you a wide range of courses, and lots of choices later to specialize and pick a major. You may enjoy Roman History, Women’s Studies or English Literature, but your practical side will probably want to have options to get a degree more closely linked to those fast-growing job categories.

3) Ask for advice. You own your future, but you are not the first person in history to face these choices. Ask older friends who are already studying where you want to go. Ask people, even your parents’ friends, who work in jobs you think you might like. You don’t have to do what they say, but you’ll probably get smarter from the conversations.

4) It’s never too late. Even if you haven’t done any of the things above, you can start now. I have a friend who bombed Math 12 at F.H. Collins in a truly spectacular way. He’s now a highly successful electrical engineer in Europe. He just took a few detours.

That’s my advice. It’s up to you now.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.