Young people completing their university degrees are graduating into a job market that can be challenging, even for those who choose high-demand fields such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine (STEM). It’s a challenge Surya Nareshan knows all too well.  

Nareshan graduated in 2023 with a degree in engineering physics from Carleton University. He chose this degree for his interest in physics and the career prospects of engineering.

Nareshan was prepared for long hours and higher tuition fees compared with many other programs but expected that the price and “extra hours compared to other degrees would be compensated by immediate employment post-graduation.”

Engineering graduate Surya Nareshan is struggling to find employment 10 months after graduation. [Photo courtesy Surya Nareshan]

“This was a naive presumption in retrospect,” he admits. 

Nareshan says he has applied for dozens of jobs and that while he has had a few interviews, he is often competing with people who have years of professional experience. 

Recent research from Glassdoor, one of the world’s largest job and recruiting sites, suggests Nareshan’s experience is not isolated. The report found that “most entry-level jobs require two to five years of previous experience.”

Even so, compared to others, Nareshan says he is lucky. He completed four internships while in school, which has given him more experience than many of his peers.

Riad Abdullah, who graduated from Carleton with a degree in biomedical and mechanical engineering in June 2023, has also faced job market challenges.

The international student from Kuwait was initially optimistic about his career prospects. When his second and third year were moved online because of the pandemic, he realized he would have to reassess.

“Before the pandemic, the general consensus was that students in my degree wouldn’t have a hard time finding a job in their field. As time went by, it became harder to secure co-op positions and gain industry experience,” Abdullah explains.

After months of applying for jobs, Abdullah had accumulated some interviews and many rejection emails.

“The market lacked entry-level positions, with a lot of the positions geared towards senior engineers, executives, and applicants with post-graduate degrees.”

Eventually, Abdullah reached out to recruitment agencies. Soon after, he accepted a job working in the packaging department at Siemens Healthineers.

For Abdullah, after months of unemployment, the job is a way to get “his foot in the door.”

Most students share the stress that Nareshan and Abdullah experience, says Robert Wharram, manager of career development at Carleton University’s Career Services Office. 

“Students, regardless of their program of study, are certainly concerned about what lays ahead after school. Of students surveyed since September 2022 to present, 54 per cent identified they feel stressed about finding meaningful employment after graduation.”

Wharram adds 72 per cent of respondents say that having a career goal reduces their stress, but adds that the labour market is expected to slow in 2024 and that areas such as “manufacturing and health care have all seen receding employment numbers.”

He says that there are certainly still good jobs available for STEM grads, but the market has become more competitive. 

As the pressure to find stable employment is heightened by the cost of living, some students are looking outside of their field. 

“We have seen a growing trend of STEM students move into non-STEM industries after after graduation. Specifically, in growing fields, such as finance,” said Wharram.

According to a report by a the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers, “[a] graduate from a Canadian university with a degree in engineering has about a 4 in 10 chance of working in engineering.”

However, the report also found that 80 per cent of engineering graduates are nevertheless working in a professional position.

Importance of ‘soft’ skills

When finding ways to stand out when looking for a post-grad job, soft skills could make all the difference. 

“Employers are seeking recent grads with strong communication and leadership skills, regardless of degree,” said Wharram. 

“We have seen a trend in students looking to other competencies to make themselves marketable.”

Ian Hartlen, who previously worked at Shopify as a staff program manager where he participated in hiring at the Canadian ecommerce giant, said his team focused on how candidates communicated and how they responded to difficult questions. 

Hartlen said he thinks universities have placed too much emphasis on vocational training, focusing on hard skills at the expense of more transferable skills like critical thinking, communication and conflict resolution. 

He sees a pattern of universities tailoring to the job market, instead of focusing on being a place for young adults to explore ideas and develop their minds. 

“We are allowing businesses to offload their responsibilities of training to post-secondary educations,” Hartlen said, adding that he fears universities will “transform themselves into boot camps before they realize it,” eventually becoming “private career colleges.”