STEM courses give leg up to students seeking work

Facing rising tuition and debt, new study suggests students look to STEM


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Hunter Loewen and Katie Moist are typical engineering students.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/09/2017 (1834 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hunter Loewen and Katie Moist are typical engineering students.

When the University of Manitoba undergrads are not studying, they generally are working to help cover their tuition and other costs. And like their peers, when they’re not doing either of the above, they do like to engage in a little on-campus levity from time to time.

“We definitely work hard, but we still take some time for celebration,” says Moist, in her final year of civil engineering.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Hunter Loewen (left) and Katie Moist at the University of Manitoba’s Fort Garry campus.

“The ‘work hard, play hard’ motto — that hasn’t changed much over the years,” adds Loewen, also in her final year of biosystems engineering.

Both undergrads are also part of the leadership council of the University of Manitoba Engineering Society, giving them a firm handle on the challenges faced by many engineering students.

“We (engineering students) are generally very, very busy,” Loewen says.

Besides a heavy course load, Loewen works part-time teaching dance during the school year and full-time in her field of study in the summer. Thanks in part to bursaries and scholarships, Loewen has avoided debt even though she has no RESP (registered education savings plan) to draw upon.

“The ability to work a summer job as an engineering student definitely helps,” she says, adding many others do the same.

Just as important, Loewen and Moist are confident about career prospects.

“An engineering degree does position you, unlike some other programs, to move right into industry,” Moist says.

A recent survey and related study by CIBC appear to support their take on post-secondary education. The survey found students generally spend about $14,000 a year on school and graduate about $30,000 in debt. The report by CIBC Capital Markets found those studying in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — have a better likelihood of finding gainful employment.

The reason: these areas of study have the strongest job growth.

Not enough young Canadians are enrolling in post-secondary programs, however, to give them the right skill set to work in these vocations, says Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist with CIBC Capital Markets in Toronto.

“There is a mismatch — we have people without jobs and jobs without people.”

Canada has among the highest number of adults in the developed world with post-secondary education. The problem is that we also have the highest proportion of grads in the developed world who are living in poverty, Tal says.

The tide is turning when it comes to training, however. More Canadians are seeking training for STEM jobs, either enrolling in post-secondary programs as their first choice, or taking secondary courses after completing an undergrad or a master’s degree. In fact, almost three-quarters of those surveyed by CIBC indicate they plan to take additional education.

But like other post-secondary opportunities, the major barrier to enrolling in STEM post-secondary programs is cost — only more so.

Tuition for STEM fields already costs more on average than other areas of study and fees continue to rise at a faster rate, Tal says.

“So the system is penalizing students for choosing the right field,” he says, adding governments need to provide more funding to support these programs and reduce their cost.

Computer science student Chris Bishop certainly feels the pinch of rising education costs.

“For a year of tuition, books, transportation and food, it costs about $15,000,” says the 22-year-old Ryerson University student, who lives with his parents in Markham, Ont., and spends about $2,000 annually on transit alone.

“Based on what I can make part-time while in school and full-time during the summer, I need to borrow about $6,000 a year, so I expect to graduate about $24,000 in debt.”

Compounding his troubles, unlike other STEM grads, he says finding a job in his field after school is unlikely without additional training.

“Unfortunately, an undergrad degree in computer science alone doesn’t really allow you to get a job in the field.”

That’s why he recently spent $1,500 to take an off-campus course on cybersecurity. Other students in his computer science program are doing the same, spending thousands to take, for instance, web development programming boot camps in their spare time.

“It’s kind of expected that you have an undergrad plus additional certificates,” he adds.

“Even when you get a job, your education doesn’t stop there because the shelf life of your knowledge is roughly two years with computer science.”

Despite the increasingly steep financial path to higher learning, CIBC also found many students are not prepared to grapple with the rising costs.

About two in five have no savings in place, relying on loans or other sources. And more than two-thirds do not have an RESP.

These are troubling statistics, says Chris Giulekas, vice-president of regional banking for central Canada at CIBC in Winnipeg.

“It takes a really disciplined, detailed plan to make sure you’re ready financially,” he said.

And while the glass is more than half full — almost 60 per cent of students do have savings for school — the fact that more than six in 10 have no RESP indicates Canadians could be doing more.

“The numbers speak to the fact that people need to plan — children and parents — and that they can’t start early enough,” Giulekas says, adding the RESP has been around for about 20 years.

For that matter, families that aren’t saving monthly in an RESP are missing out on more than $7,200 in matching federal government grants per child, as well as the opportunity for savings and grant money to grow tax-free until withdrawn for school.

“The sooner you can start planning and saving for education, the better, because the trend is not for education to get cheaper,” Giulekas says.

Of course it’s not just a problem of the future. Students already feel the sting of rising costs, even engineering students.

“It is an expensive program to be in because it requires a larger amount of credit hours than other degrees,” Moist says. “Honestly, the cost of textbooks is the worst.”

Still their program’s tuition is less than the cost for comparable programs in most other provinces.

“At least we take comfort in the fact that it’s doable,” Loewen says.

Yet even Loewen’s post-secondary education journey will not end upon graduation in 2018. She plans to apply to medicine soon.

“As it stands right now I would say there isn’t an enormous degree of anxiety about (jobs) among engineering students, but that doesn’t change the fact industries are changing and that perhaps finding work with an undergrad degree may be more of a challenge moving forward.”

Meanwhile, the outlook for students in other programs remains less than utopian.

“Most of my friends in the faculty of arts have had to take out loans to be able to pay their tuition,” Moist says. “It’s not the ideal situation — and while paying for school is a challenge for everyone, we do feel very lucky to be in engineering.”


Updated on Saturday, September 16, 2017 9:12 AM CDT: Photo added.

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