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July 2001     Vol. 2, no. 7

Liberal arts degrees and the labour market

Philip Giles and Torben Drewes

The perception of technology as a principal driver in economic change and widely publicized reports of skill shortages in the information technology sector have focused attention on the ability of the postsecondary sector to produce graduates in advanced technology fields. Within this context, a debate has emerged about the labour market value of the traditional liberal arts and science programming that has been a mainstay of universities.

In one view, future economic growth is jeopardized by the failure of Canadian universities to supply sufficient numbers of technically skilled graduates. Typically, the argument is not that university enrolment is too low but, rather, that the program balance is incorrect. In 1998, approximately 39% of university degrees granted were in social sciences while only 7% were in engineering and applied sciences. Twice as many degrees were granted in the humanities (12%) as in mathematics and physical sciences (6%).

In the alternative view, postsecondary education should not be judged solely on its ability to prepare students for the labour market—but even if it is, graduates in humanities and social sciences possess the problem-solving, interpersonal, communications, and learning skills that employers claim are needed in the emerging economy.

Because universities are a primary source of highly skilled labour, graduating almost 150,000 people annually, the match between their enrolment patterns and the needs of the labour market is important—not only for the economy, but also for the graduates. With $12.1 billion spent in 1997-1998 in the university system, a mismatch between labour market requirements and enrolment patterns may result in a significant efficiency loss. By the same token, a similar loss may occur if universities respond to the increasing use of program-specific funding incentives by provinces and alter a program mix that is already well-matched to labour market needs.

Surprisingly little empirical evidence is available on the relative labour market performance of university graduates from different programs. One study, which compared unemployment rates and annual incomes of university graduates in the humanities and social sciences to those of their counterparts in more applied streams, found the labour market performance of the graduates to be roughly similar (Allen, 1998). This result was confirmed by another study, which found that in 1992, two years after graduation, the unemployment rate for bachelor's graduates in humanities and social sciences was the same as the rate for engineering graduates and four percentage points lower than for applied sciences graduates (Lavoie and Finnie, 1999). Their mean annual earnings exceeded the earnings of pure and applied science graduates. An examination of rates of return by field of study found considerable variation within each field, as well as between the six fields used (Appleby et al). These variations make generalizations difficult, but median rates of return appear to be lowest for arts and humanities and highest for health-related fields of study. Rates for administration and social sciences appear quite similar to those for chemistry, physical and natural sciences, but both fall below architecture and engineering.

This article used the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics (SLID) to look at the labour market experiences of graduates of bachelor's level programs. SLID offers rich detail on the labour market experiences of individuals from the beginning of 1993, and its longitudinal design is ideally suited for tracking changes over time (see Data source and definitions). Some undergraduate programs are vocational in nature, with a close association between skills taught and skill sets required in identifiable occupations, and prepare students for immediate entry into these occupations upon graduation. Humanities and social sciences, on the other hand, focus more on the development of generic skills such as communications and analytical reasoning than on occupational preparation. Such skills, however, may permit a greater degree of mobility between labour market sectors. One would then expect to see differences in occupational mobility, wage growth, and human capital acquisition between the two groups of graduates, particularly for more recent labour market entrants.

Several dimensions of labour market experience were examined. Graduates at the bachelor's level in the more vocationally oriented educational fields enjoyed an hourly wage premium over their humanities and social sciences counterparts. For women in the former group, however, this premium may be offset by longer and more frequent periods of unemployment. And the skills of the humanities and social sciences group appeared to allow a greater ability to move across industries and occupations.

Characteristics of graduates and their jobs

Almost one-quarter of the jobs held by graduates in humanities and social sciences were in educational services, more than double the concentration in trade, the next largest industry of employment (Table 1). The single largest concentration of jobs held by graduates in applied programs was in professional, scientific and technical services, but the concentration was much lower (17% versus 23%). For this group, three other industries stood out: public administration, health care and social assistance, and finance, insurance, real estate and leasing. note 1 

By occupation, 30% of jobs held by the humanities and social sciences group were classified as social science, education, government service and religion. In fact, 19% of humanities and social sciences graduates were teachers and professors. Once occupations in business, finance and administration are included, over 50% of the jobs held by the humanities and social sciences group were accounted for. The applied programs group shows a broadly similar representation in management and in business, finance, and administrative occupations. The difference in occupational distributions between humanities and social sciences and applied programs graduates is due primarily to educational and government service, natural and applied science, and health occupations.

How do wage rates compare?

While both groups received substantial average hourly wages, wage rates for applied programs graduates were about 6% higher for both men and women (Chart A). note 2  Since the sample was restricted to individuals whose highest educational attainment was at the bachelor's level, the wage difference cannot be attributed to medical professionals in the applied programs group. However, a simple comparison of means may be misleading. With significant variation in wages across individuals, many humanities and social sciences graduates earned a wage rate higher than the mean in the applied programs group.

The wage advantage enjoyed by the applied programs graduates declined with age and actually reversed for those 45 and older, a pattern also found by Allen (1998) in his analysis of annual earnings. This is consistent with the hypothesis that skills acquired in humanities and social sciences programs allow a relatively greater accumulation of human capital after formal schooling. It may also be that, with a less direct connection between humanities and social sciences programs and occupational skill needs, graduates of these programs took longer to find their career path.

To provide an overall sense of wage differentials, the natural logarithm of available hourly wage observations was regressed against a categorical variable set to 1 for humanities and social sciences graduates and to 0 for others. Controls for sex, years of full-year full-time experience, job tenure, marital status, and province of residence were added (Table 2). The resulting coefficients can be interpreted as the proportional effect of a unit change in the explanatory variable. Thus, each year of experience increased the hourly wage by an average of 0.87% (equation 1). Humanities and social sciences wage rates were lower than applied programs rates by an average of 9.5% once controls for sex, experience, tenure, marital status and province were used. To obtain an estimate of the male/female wage gap within each group, separate wage regressions were run for each educational category with a dummy variable (0 = male, 1 = female). The male/female wage gap was larger in the applied programs group, where women's hourly wage rates averaged almost 16% less than men's (equation 3), compared with 7.5% in the humanities and social sciences group (equation 2).

How do unemployment experiences compare?

Although the wage rates of older humanities and social sciences graduates matched or exceeded those of their applied programs counterparts, the return on their education was likely lower. How then can the continued popularity of the former programs be reconciled with models of rational economic decision-making? One answer may be to invoke the portfolio choice paradigm of financial investment, which postulates that a lower expected return on investment is willingly accepted for reduced risk. If the generic skills acquired in humanities and social sciences programs carry a wider currency in the labour market, they may permit a greater degree of mobility between employers and between occupations or industries, lessening unemployment risk. Depending on personal attitudes towards risk, an individual may well regard a lower return as a price to be willingly paid to avoid the risk of investing in occupation-specific skills that could be rendered obsolete by future trade or technology shocks.

To examine this issue, the unemployment experiences of the two groups were compared. Doing so also addresses more directly the 'employability' debate over the relevance of an education in the humanities and social sciences.

SLID provides a number of different perspectives on unemployment, including total weeks of unemployment during the survey period. Over the 260 weeks from January 1993 to December 1997, the humanities and social sciences group averaged over one week more of unemployment than the applied programs graduates did (Chart B). The difference was almost entirely due to higher unemployment among humanities and social sciences men.

The unemployment difference was particularly striking among young workers (Chart C). Graduates of humanities and social sciences programs appeared to have a more difficult transition into the labour market than their applied programs counterparts. Generally speaking, humanities and social sciences programs do not offer a direct connection to a well-identified occupation so graduates may spend more time experimenting with jobs—and facing the consequent periods of unemployment in between. Once they were established in the labour market, however, their unemployment experience compared favourably. Indeed, after age 45 humanities and social sciences graduates faced fewer average weeks of unemployment than did members of the applied programs group, a pattern that reinforces the suggestion of labour market advantages to humanities and social sciences programs in the longer term.

Were the weeks of unemployment generated by recurring short spells or by infrequent long spells? note 3  The number of periods of unemployment per person was identical for women, but considerably higher for humanities and social sciences men than for applied programs men (Table 3). The difference in the percentage of men affected by unemployment was not as dramatic, indicating a higher incidence of multiple instances of unemployment among humanities and social sciences men. The mean duration of a spell was almost a week longer for humanities and social sciences men. This, together with a higher incidence, was consistent with their greater number of weeks of unemployment (7.2 weeks, compared with 5.5 weeks).

For women, however, the story was quite different. Applied programs women faced substantially longer spells of unemployment than did humanities and social sciences women or applied programs men. Humanities and social sciences women, on the other hand, had shorter spells than the men in their education group. The higher rates of unemployment among humanities and social sciences women compared with their male counterparts were attributable to a greater incidence of unemployment, whereas the same phenomenon among applied programs women and men was attributable to both a higher incidence and a longer duration.

The relative ability of humanities and social sciences graduates to avoid unemployment or to find work once unemployed presents a somewhat mixed message. Women in the two groups became unemployed at the same rate, but humanities and social sciences women exited significantly more quickly. Male humanities and social sciences graduates experienced unemployment more frequently and took longer to find employment than applied programs men, although the difference in mean lengths was less than one week (16.3 versus 15.4).

Job mobility differs

If the human capital acquired by humanities graduates is more general, then they should have a greater ability to move between sectors of employment. Moreover, with a greater transferability of skills they should also be more willing to change sectors since attendant wage losses (if any) would be smaller. High rates of mobility could be regarded as either negative (job instability) or positive (opportunity for mobility). Looking at 'voluntary' job movements involving a change in occupation captures transitions that are more likely to test the transferability of skills, since a change in industry need not imply a change in the type of work done. (Transitions refer to any movement from one main job to another, with or without an intervening spell of unemployment. For an individual returning to a job after a period of employment in another, only one transition is recorded.)

The average number of job transitions during the five-year period was comparable, with the humanities and social sciences group recording slightly higher overall transition rates for both sexes (Table 4). The higher rate among young humanities and social sciences men indicates a difficult labour market transition, perhaps caused by the lack of a clear and direct link between their educational program and eventual vocation. By the middle age category (25 to 34), the transition probability for humanities and social sciences individuals was dramatically lower and below that for the applied programs group. However, this trend was reversed for the oldest of the age categories.

The higher proportion of job separations among both groups of women—the result of child care and other family responsibilities—accords with expectation. The job separations of women were also less likely to be job-related quits—a category that includes separations initiated by the employee (although these may not be entirely voluntary, involving as they do factors such as sexual harassment, poor working conditions or undesirable hours of work). Job transitions among humanities and social sciences men were less likely to be job-related and more likely to be involuntary than among applied programs men. Humanities and social sciences women also showed a greater likelihood of separations being involuntary, but, unlike thir male counterparts, the proportion of job-related transitions was also higher. The high proportion of transitions taking place without a reported reason makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the relative ability of individuals in the two groups to choose to move between jobs.

The proportion of job changes taking place across industry or occupational sectors is more accurately measured and, for both sexes, humanities and social sciences individuals had significantly higher incidences of sector changes. This may reflect an enhanced ability on their part to transfer human capital across those sectors. The rates of change appear extraordinarily high, but these percentages apply only to job transitions, not to the entire sample of individuals. In fact, the majority of both groups remained in the same industry and occupation during the five years.

Conclusion

Graduates of university programs in the humanities and social sciences acquire skills that are different than those obtained in more vocationally oriented programs—as is evident from the different industries and occupations in which they find jobs. And, as a group, humanities and social sciences graduates receive lower wage rates. Furthermore, male graduates of these programs experience higher unemployment.

These aggregate comparisons, however, mask important, long-term dimensions of labour market experiences that may be attributable to the nature of the skill sets these graduates have obtained. The wage disadvantage, for example, was caused by very significant wage differences among young workers of both sexes. By the age of 45, wage rates among humanities and social sciences graduates were above those of their applied programs counterparts. Similarly, higher relative unemployment was attributable to very drastic differences among young workers since older humanities and social sciences workers faced fewer weeks of unemployment.

The picture that emerges is one in which individuals graduating from programs in the humanities and social sciences had considerably more difficulty with the school-to-work transition, as might be expected given the lack of a clear connection between their programs of study and occupations. But once that transition was made, the generic nature of the skills they acquired appeared to stand them in good stead—because these skills have a greater longevity and are complementary to continued, lifelong learning in the face of labour market changes. The shorter unemployment durations for humanities and social sciences women and the higher occupational and industrial mobility among both sexes in this group reinforces the interpretation that their skills were more portable, thus providing them with broader re-employment opportunities.

What is the appropriate balance between investments in general or in technical or vocational skills? While income levels or unemployment rates from cross-sectional data can provide some insights, a more complete understanding of the labour market returns to these different skill sets requires observations of individual career dynamics of the sort afforded by SLID. While the data are extremely complex and the analysis in this report permits only tentative conclusions, the initial findings suggest considerable promise for future, more structured approaches.

 

Data source and definitions

The Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics, a longitudinal household survey, began in January 1993. Every three years, approximately 15,000 households enter the survey. Over a six-year period, each household completes two detailed questionnaires annually, one on labour market activity and another on income. The data used in this article are for five years, 1993 to 1997.

The study was limited to bachelor's level graduates who had obtained their degree by January 1, 1993. Of the 1,446 individuals, 59% were from humanities and social sciences and the rest were from more applied programs. The two groups are similar in a number of important labour market variables, including age and years of work experience (measured in full-year, full-time equivalents). They differ sharply, however, in their proportions of men and women, which has to be taken into account in making labour market comparisons.

Information was collected on all jobs held during any year, to a maximum of three jobs in 1993, and six in each of the following years. In cases where jobs overlapped, a main job was identified based on hours worked. In order to focus on job transitions, the analysis was restricted to main jobs for each of the 60 months. This yielded 1,174 jobs for the liberal arts and sciences group and 856 jobs for the applied programs group.

Field of study for undergraduate degree uses Statistic Canada's standard classification. Humanities and social sciences comprises studies in education, recreation and counselling services; fine and applied arts; humanities and related fields; and social science and related fields. The applied programs group includes commerce, management and business administration; agriculture and biological sciences and technology; engineering and applied sciences; engineering and applied science technologies and trades; health professions, science and technology; and mathematics and physical sciences.

Reasons for job separation

Personal: Own illness or disability (work or non-work related), caring for own children or elder relatives, other personal or family responsibilities, school, retirement.

Job-related: Found new job, poor pay, not enough or too many hours, poor physical conditions, sexual harassment, personnel conflict, work too stressful, to concentrate on other job.

Involuntary: Company moved or went out of business, seasonal nature of job, layoff/business non-seasonal slowdown, labour dispute, dismissal by employer, temporary job/contract ended.

Other: Other, don't know.

Notes

  1. These relative concentrations are sensitive to the classification used to distinguish the humanities and social sciences group. For example, their relative under-representation in the public administration and finance sectors is at least partly because commerce, management and business administration was included in the applied programs group.
  2. The survey design complicates wage rate comparisons since rates may be available for different jobs for an individual and/or at different times for the same job. SLID records hourly wage rates (either reported directly by respondents or imputed using income and hours of work information) at the beginning of each calendar year for jobs in progress at that time. End-of-year rates are also available for jobs in progress at the end of the year. Finally, the last wage rate received in any job ending during the calendar year is reported. A job begun during the year does not trigger a wage observation, so the starting wage is not explicitly recorded. However, SLID indicates whether or not wages change during the year, so that starting wages are implicitly available for those jobs for which wages do not change before December 31.
  3. The weekly labour force status attached to each personal record in SLID can be used to determine the incidence and duration of periods of unemployment. Spells beginning before January 1993 or continuing past December 1997 are truncated, so average spell duration will be underestimated. Given the five-year span, this underestimation will likely be small and biases in comparisons across educational categories smaller still. Of 657 spells, 71 overlapped the beginning or the end of the survey period. Dropping these because their true length is unknown would introduce new biases, since longer spells are more likely to be dropped (longer spells are more likely to be observed at the beginning and the end of the period).

References

  • Allen, R.C. The Employability of University Graduates in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Education: Recent Statistical Evidence. University of British Columbia, Department of Economics Discussion Paper 98-15. 1998.
  • Appleby, J., D. Boothby, M. Rouleau, and G. Rowe. Distribution of Rate of Return by Field of Study and Level of Education in Canada. Ottawa: Applied Research Branch, Strategic Policy, Human Resources Development Canada (forthcoming).
  • Lavoie, M. and R. Finnie. "Is It Worth Doing a Science or Technology Degree in Canada? Empirical Evidence and Policy Implications", Canadian Public Policy-Analyse de Politiques, Vol. XXV, No. 1, pp. 101-121. 1999.

Authors

Philip Giles is with the Income Statistics Division. He can be reached at (613) 951-2891 or giles@statcan.gc.ca.

Torben Drewes is at Trent University. He can be reached at (705) 748-1011 (ext 1545) or tdrewes@trentu.ca..

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