“Many initial salaries for tradespeople are competitive with graduates in the high paying college majors”

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Morgan Brausen, 25, is already employed as a child and youth worker and a part-time restaurant server on top of owning her own residential cleaning business. Now she’s paving yet another career path as a real estate agent after passing a pre-licensing exam in June.

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That wasn’t always the plan.

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A bachelor of arts graduate, Brausen studied sociology at Edmonton’s MacEwan University, where she specialized in criminology, found an interest in restorative justice and set her sights on law (farther down the road). After graduating in 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, she wanted to apply her education with some work experience but struggled to find a job that fit her bachelor’s degree.

Brausen doesn’t fault the program or the economy for the difficulty, but recalls a lot of social pressure in her high-school years to pursue a university education.

“The implication was that if you get a degree, you’re going to get a high-paying job and it’s more respectable,” Brausen said. “In high school especially, parents and everyone are pushing you to get a degree, when in reality I could have graduated, taken the real estate test and be where I am now without $50,000 of debt.”

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Those voices pushing for a university education may have had their hearts in the right place, because statistics show that bachelor’s degrees tend to have an edge over college certificates, apprenticeship programs and high school diplomas when it comes to earning.

In 2015, Canadian women between the ages of 25 and 64 with a bachelor’s degree as their highest level of education had a median annual earning of $68,342 — 40 per cent more than those with a college diploma, and 58 per cent more than women with only a high school diploma, according to a Statistics Canada analysis of 2016 census data.

Men in the same age group who landed with a bachelor’s degree also had stronger median earnings at $82,082, but the gap between them and those with an apprenticeship certificate ($72,955) or a college diploma ($67,965) was smaller, particularly in Western Canada as well as Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Where a person works, the agency noted, also has an effect on earnings.

Saskatchewan stood out as the only province where men with an apprenticeship certificate had higher median earnings ($86,059) than those with a bachelor’s degree ($84,825) or college diploma ($78,176). After adjusting for inflation, the earnings of men with apprenticeship qualifications grew 42 per cent from 2005 to 2015 in the province, Statistics Canada said, pointing to an oil boom in the previous decade that likely increased the demand for skilled trade workers and may have led to those higher earnings.

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A little farther west, Alberta also stood out as the province where men and women at every education level had higher annual incomes than other provinces, likely due to the rising price of oil from 2002 to 2014, the agency added, which led to investment and production in the industry, and a greater demand for labour — particularly for those in the skilled trades.

Further analysis shows that the fields students pursue during their post-secondary education can play a part in earnings too.

Jeffrey Penney, an assistant professor with the University of Alberta’s economics department, said there is evidence of substantial differences in initial salary depending on the subject of study.

“Recent research has found that the difference in earnings between different college majors can be as large as the average difference between having a degree and not having one,” he added, “and so the choice of major can be seen as important as the decision to pursue higher education.”

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From 2006 to 2013 in Atlantic Canada, for example, the average degree holder in the social sciences earned approximately $30,000 per year after graduation while graduates in health-related programs earned about double, Penney noted.

The same goes for skilled jobs in Canada, where, depending on the trade, workers can see large differences in income, Penney said. In 2017, a heavy-duty equipment technician working in Canada earned about $79,000 after certification, while plumbers earned approximately $54,000, he added.

“Many initial salaries for tradespeople are competitive with graduates in the high paying college majors,” Penney said.

For Brausen, a career in the trades never really figured into her career plan, and not for lack of opportunity. Originally from Hardisty, Alta., a hub for the crude oil industry about 200 km southeast of Edmonton, she has several family members who work on pipelines throughout the country.

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While looking for ways to earn in the years following graduation, Brausen said she worked in a related field for a few months as a health, safety and environment administrator for a pipeline construction company, where she earned about $2,800 a week including a living allowance.

“I’ve seen how good the money is,” she said, “but I don’t think that’s the lifestyle for me.”

Morgan Brausen offers a bit of analysis for where high school grads can get the best bang for their buck. Greg Southam/Postmedia
Morgan Brausen offers a bit of analysis for where high school grads can get the best bang for their buck. Greg Southam/Postmedia Photo by Greg Southam /Greg Southam

At the end of the day, shift work and the likelihood of travelling to job sites far from home didn’t agree with her.

It wasn’t until 2021 that she broadened her search and found several opportunities as a child and youth worker. The role required a four-year degree, and with a history of volunteer experience working with children, Brausen said she was a natural fit.

But she’s chosen to remain a casual worker in the field while juggling a serving job and running her own business, which she plans to expand to include commercial cleaning services as well. Law school is still on her mind, but instead of just restorative justice, she’s also considering how to combine it with a budding interest in real estate.

There’s a lot to juggle, but she’s found her footing in the present while keeping an eye on the future.

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Looking back, Brausen only really wishes she was given a more comprehensive overview of her options, and a sense of how to leverage a university education in the job market. At the very least, she said, she wishes she would have taken a year off to consider her options.

“They don’t really tell you in university or high school that, ‘Once you get this degree, here are the things you can do with it,’” she said. “But a society needs so many other jobs to function, and I feel like that wasn’t discussed.”



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