Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Guest post: Lousy journalism and youth unemployment

This weekend, CBC posted an article entitled 'The Millenial side hustle,' not stable job, is the new reality for university grads. CBC is usually the best remaining traditional media source. 

But, as Erik Strikwerda, Assistant Professor of History at Athabasca University points out, not everything CBC publishes is reliable.

-- Bob 

How to write a misleading semi-long Sunday morning read and pass it off as hard investigative journalism.

Step One: Come up with a provocative title that seems true, and generally confirms what many people already think.

“The ‘Millennial Side Hustle,’ not a stable job is the new reality for university grads”


Step Two: Begin lead paragraph with an anecdotal story that supports the title.

One young man who recently graduated from university with a mechanical engineering degree can’t seem to find a job, despite applying for 250 jobs in his field.


Step Three: Imply the anecdotal story is representative of a much wider trend by asserting that the subject of the anecdote isn’t alone.


Step Four: Use completely misleading or irrelevant figures to ‘verify’ that the anecdotal story is representative of a wider trend.

“More than 12% of Canadians between the ages of 15 and 24 are unemployed and more than a quarter are underemployed, meaning they have degrees but end up in jobs that don’t require them.”


This is really meant to be the meat of the analysis. But obvious questions come to mind, even to a casual reader. “Canadians aged 15 to 24” represents nine years. However, most university students won’t graduate with a degree before the age of 21. So fully six years of the 12% unemployment figure aren’t relevant to the story.

Most of the Canadians represented by the statistic, then, couldn’t possibly have completed a university degree.

But 12% sounds like a lot, so, whatever.

How many of the remaining Canadians between the ages of 21 and 24 actually have a university degree? We don’t know, because the story doesn’t say.

But 12% sounds like a lot, so, whatever.

It gets worse.

“… more than a quarter (of Canadians aged 15 to 24) are unemployed, meaning they have degrees but end up in jobs that don’t require them.” Wow. More than 25% of Canadians with university degrees can’t find work in their field?

Wait a minute! Canadians aged 15 to 21 don’t have university degrees because they’re either a) still in high school or b) still finishing their degree or c) aren’t in university at all. How does the article account for this? It doesn’t.

But more than 25% sounds like a lot, so, whatever.

What about Canadians aged 21 to 24? Surely they all have university degrees! Some do, that’s true enough. But many don’t because a) they didn’t go to university or b) they did go to university but left before graduating. How many fit into this category? We don’t know because the article doesn’t say.

Still, more than 25% sounds like a lot, so, whatever.

Step Five: Introduce more statistics that aren’t relevant.

“The latest numbers from Statistics Canada show that the unemployment show rate for 15-to-24 year olds is almost twice that of the general population.”


Well, this is true enough (even if we don’t bother accounting for the fact that employment statistics are notoriously unreliable, failing to take into account people who have stopped looking for work for example, or ignoring people who aren’t in the job market at all, for a variety of reasons).

After all, the 12% unemployment rate among 15-to-24 year olds is ‘nearly twice’ the current average unemployment rate of all age groups (6.6%).

And surely this 12% unemployment rate includes some people in the 15-to-24 age group with university degrees. But it also just as surely includes many more people who a) are still in high school b) have dropped out of high school c) didn’t go to university or d) didn’t graduate from university.

How does this 12% unemployment rate statistic bolster the story’s premise that having a university degree doesn’t translate into a job? It doesn’t.

But unemployment ‘almost twice that of the general population’ sounds dramatic. So, whatever.

Step Six: Ignore statistics that don’t support the original assertion.

Research from the very Canadian Teachers’ Association report on which the story relies shows that unemployment rates for actual university graduates have been steadily falling, from just under 10% in the early ‘90s to around 4% by the late 2000s.

Further, figures from 2011 show that Canadians with a university degree earn more in the workplace than their counterparts without a university degree, too. University-educated Canadians earned an average of $80,000 per year. High school graduates with no university degree, by contrast, earned less than $50,000.

Step Seven: Having ‘established’ the numbers that don’t back up the story, bury them by piling on more anecdotes that, without context, are completely useless.

Here’s a young woman, featured in the article, with a political science degree working as a bartender, a yoga instructor, and a house-sitter. Is her experience the norm? She says many of her friends are in the same boat, so I guess it must be the norm.

Here’s another women who is a precariously employed contract instructor at a university. The nature of the university contract worker business these days means that she has to reapply for her job every four months. She’s been doing this for nearly 20 years. Is this fair? Absolutely not. But the deeper question is why do university administrators continue to rely on contract instructors rather than offering them job security? Does the article ask this question? Nope.

The contract instructor says most of her students don’t believe they’ll be precarious workers once they graduate. Doubtless this is true. Unfortunately for these students, according to the article, “economic indicators that track employment reveal a trend toward more precarious jobs.” 

The article offers no source for these economic indicators. Nor does it offer any context for the assertion itself. Are these precarious jobs being filled by university graduates, and therefore relevant to the story? We don’t know, and the article is silent on the matter, save the story about the contract instructor.


Step Eight: Completely miss the opportunity to raise some hard questions about the state of post-secondary education in Canada.

In what ways do universities make available to employers a highly skilled, publicly subsidized workforce that helps their bottom line?

Why are universities increasingly relying on contract instructional labour rather than replenishing the ranks of retiring full-time faculty? Is it in order to cut costs in an era of chronic state underfunding of post-secondary institutions?

What role should universities play in readying graduates for the labour market?

Should universities tailor their programs and degrees for the capitalistic marketplace? Or should they focus on turning out highly skilled graduates with wide sets of knowledge and competencies?

I know traditional media is going through hard times these days but sheesh! This article doesn’t even pass the very basics of logical reasoning, let alone research!

-- Erik Strikwerda

1 comment:

  1. Excellent and thought provoking post!