Overqualification leading to Underemployment—a modern challenge

On January 31, 2013, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) aired a documentary entitled Generation Jobless.  In the 44-minute-long feature film, Ann-Marie MacDonald interviews employment professionals, futurists, underemployed university graduates, and more to gain an understanding of the current job market facing young people and what should be expected in the future.[1] The results of the investigation are sobering; at the time of the documentary’s release, young people faced an unemployment rate of 15% which was more than double the unemployment rate encountered by the general adult population (7%).[2] [3] To this day, the unemployment rate of young adults remains double that of the general adult population.


Though unemployment is an undesirable way to start off one’s career post-graduation, there is another large, tandem threat to the career prospects of young adults—overqualification and underemployment.  According to the Canadian Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), 40% of young adults within the labour force are overqualified for their occupation years after graduating from university; this number, along with tertiary education-related expenses such as tuition, textbooks, and costs of living, has climbed from a low of 32% in 1991.[4]  Young people are paying more money for a university education with higher prospects of underemployment after graduation when compared to twenty-six years ago.  Despite the relatively challenging environment for recent university graduates, underemployment and overqualification varies greatly between undergraduate fields of study.  For example, in 2011 only 16.9% of males and 18.1% of females with undergraduate degrees in the education field were working in positions requiring some college education or less whereas 63.5% of males and 66.1% of females with undergraduate degrees in visual and performing arts were employed in jobs requiring a college-level education or less.[5] Many policymakers have championed greater college and trade school education for young adults as an alternative to entering university (this topic was discussed at length in the August 14 edition of this publication).


The issue of underemployment and overqualification is a problem that extends far beyond young people and recent university graduates.  According to Statistics Canada, about one in five (20.6%) members of the Canadian population (Canadian citizens and permanent residents) are foreign born.[6]  Though immigrants come to Canada at various ages and with varying levels of education, foreign arrivals can encounter a myriad of difficulties when adjusting to the Canadian job market.

As Table 1 shows (Table found below), though overqualification rates for men and women in general are largely equal, immigrants holding university degrees often are overqualified for their employment positions and suffer from underemployment at rates higher than that of the native-born population; 23.4% of immigrant men holding a university degree work in occupations requiring a high school education or less (significantly more than the rate for the native-born population, 15.5%).  Furthermore, a similar discrepancy can be seen between overqualification rates for immigrant and native-born women.  Additionally, it can be observed that overqualification rates for men and women have largely remained steady over the twenty-year period between 1991 and 2011.


As evidenced by the data in Table 2 (Table found below), immigrant men and women with degrees from universities in the United States and Canada experience significantly lower overqualification rates and are less likely to be underemployed when compared to peers who received university educations outside of the United States and Canada (37.5% to 61.3% for men and 42.3% to 67.3% for women).  Over two-thirds (67.3%) of immigrant women with degrees from non-Canadian/U.S. universities are overqualified for their employment position and work in occupations requiring a college education or less.

In conclusion, overqualification is a major issue within the Canadian labour market that particularly impacts young adults and immigrants (especially those with foreign university degrees).  In addition to encouraging trade school and collegiate education options to prospective high school students, governments and policymakers must work to ensure that Canadian universities provide students with the right skills to enter the job market after graduation; furthermore, education policymakers and accreditation officials must work to streamline the certification and equivalency process for foreign degrees so that highly educated immigrants are able to find employment that fits their education and training. Though overqualification, and the related underemployment, are problematic issues, governments must work to address these subjects to generate greater economic growth and ensure efficient labour markets.


John Butler

Works Cited

[1] Generation Jobless, Documentary, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (2013), http://www.cbc.ca/doczone/episodes/generation-jobless

[2] Generation Jobless, Documentary, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (2013),

[3] Unemployment Rate, Statistics Canada, http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/170505/cg-a002-eng.htm

[4] “PBO report warns recent university grads are overeducated, underemployed,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (2015) http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/pbo-jobs-1.3317890

[5] “Overqualification among recent university graduates in Canada,” Sharanjit Uppal and Sébastien LaRochelle-Côté Statistics Canada (2011)

[6] “Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity in Canada,” Results of the National Housing Survey, Statistics Canada (2011)

Picture titled, "job", taken by Hamza Butt on June 26, 2017, obtained through Creative Commons (https://flic.kr/p/Wa2Afv)