From high school, into postsecondary education and on to the labour market

In 2020/2021, almost 354,000 young Canadians graduated from a regular high school program, with an additional 24,000 graduating from a vocational program and 9,000 graduating from a general program for adults.Note 

The pathway for young graduates from a high school program, through postsecondary education and into the labour market may be linear for some, while more circuitous for others. This fact sheet, using the latest indicators available, aims to provide insight on how young CanadiansNote  move from largely compulsory secondary education, into and through their postsecondary experiences and finally onto the labour market. Notably, while the pathways of people who complete their high school diploma later in life or through general programs for adults are interesting, they will not be explored in this paper, as its aim is to focus on the main pathways of young people’s school to work transitions.

Start of text box

A note on reference periods in this fact sheet

While the organization of this fact sheet follows the pathways of young people from mandatory schooling through to postsecondary and into the labour market, it does not present a cohort-based analysis, i.e. it does not follow the same people through these transitions. Instead, it presents the most up-to-date data on each of the following transitions and outcomes:

  1. High school graduation
  2. Postsecondary participation
  3. Postsecondary pathways, including persistence and graduation rates
  4. Labour market outcomes

As this fact sheet presents the most recent data available for all the indicators it covers, not all indicators will have the same reference period.

End of text box

The first step – graduating high school and transitioning to postsecondary studies

The first transition that Canadian youth will generally make is graduating from high school, and either transitioning to postsecondary studies or into the labour market. Almost all young Canadians eventually make this transition – in 2021, only 5% of Canadians 25 to 34 did not attain a high school diploma.

In Canada, a high proportion of young people complete their studies within the expected time, which is three years after starting grade 10 (or “Secondary 3” in Québec).  In 2019/2020, during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, 84% of young people graduated on time, up from 81% in 2018/2019Note  . This proportion was higher for girls at 87% than for boys at 81%.

Some students may take longer to complete their high school studies. If we extend the timeframe to complete a high school diploma to five years after starting grade 10 (secondary 3 in Quebec), this percentage increases to 89%. This proportion was 86% for boys, while it was 91% for girls.

What proportion of youth participate in postsecondary education?

In Canada, if a young person has completed their high school diploma “on-time”, they are typically 18. The following section looks at the participation rates of 18- to 24-year-olds as this is the most likely time that young Canadians will be participating in postsecondary education.

Half of all young Canadians in this age group are undertaking some form of education. In 2021/2022Note  , 4% were still working towards their high school diploma, and thus may be included in the extended high school graduation rate. Thirteen percent were pursuing their studies at college, while one-third (33%) were studying at university.

The other half (50%) of 18- to 24-year-old Canadian youth were not in education in 2022Note  . Of these youth, 38% were employed, while 12% were not in employment, education, or training.

From high school, into postsecondary education and on to the labour market

Data table for Chart 1

Data table for chart 1

Table summary

This table displays the results of Data table for chart 1 Percent (appearing as column headers).

Still in high school 4
College 13
University 33
Employed 38
Not employed, not in education 12

While a directly comparable proportion of youth pursuing apprenticeships is not available, by examining the number of 18–24-year-old Canadians who are registered apprentices, and comparing it to their number in the population, a participation rate for an apprenticeship can be estimated. In 2021, 101,727 18- to 24-year-oldsNote  were registered apprentices, while the population in Canada of 18- to 24-year-olds for the same year was almost 3.3 millionNote  . This leads to an estimated participation rate for apprenticeship of approximately 3% of 18- to 24-year-olds.Note 

Postsecondary pathways – persistence and graduation rates for postsecondary students

Once they enter and participate in postsecondary education, how well do Canadian youth do? This next section provides insight into the persistence and graduation rates of young Canadians enrolled in an undergraduate degree, college diploma or apprenticeship program.

Undergraduate degrees

One of the most common postsecondary credentials undertaken by Canadian students is the undergraduate, or bachelor’s degree. These programs are typically four years in length, or three years in Quebec. This section reports on the latest data (reference year 2020/2021) for the average time to graduate, the persistence rate and the graduation rate for undergraduate degrees.

For the 2014/2015 cohort of Canadian students, the average time to graduate was 4.24 yearsNote  . In addition, the persistence rate after one year is high for undergraduate degrees. For example, for the 2019/2020 cohort, 90% of enrolled students were still in this program one year later. By year two, 84% of the 2018/2019 cohort were also still in this program.

Almost three-quarters (74%) of the 2014/2015 cohort of Canadian students had completed a bachelor’s degree after six years. As for the “on-time” rate – 44% of the 2016/2017 cohort of students had graduated after four years.

Career, technical or professional training diploma

Another popular type of credential for Canadian students is a career, technical or professional training diploma. These programs can vary widely but must be a minimum of two yearsNote  . The following section reports on the latest data (reference year 2020/2021) for the average time to graduate and the completion rate for these programs.

For Canadian students, the average time to graduate from a career, technical or professional training diploma was 2.6 years. Notably, the completion rate for these programs is much lower than for undergraduate degrees. Over half (57%) of the 2016/2017 cohort had graduated after four years, while just under half, or 48% of the 2017/2018 cohort of Canadian students had graduated from this program after three years.


Another pathway available to Canadian youth is apprenticeships. Registered apprentices are enrolled in a supervised work training program in a designated trade. To complete the training, the apprentice must be registered with the appropriate governing body, usually a ministry of education or labour or a trade-specific industry governing body.Note 

While program durations vary by province and trade, the most common program duration at the national level is four years.

The credential at the end of an apprenticeship program is called a certification. The requirements for being certified varies by the jurisdiction in Canada. In most instances, apprentices are issued a certificate when they have completed requirements such as supervised on-the-job training and technical training and passing one or more examinations.

For the cohort of apprentices who began their apprenticeship in 2014, just over 1 in 5 (21%) certified within the duration of their program or ‘on-time’Note  . This proportion goes up to 34% who certify within 1.5 times the duration of the program. The median time to certification within 1.5 times the program duration was 3.2 years.Note 

Educational attainment of 25- to 34-year-olds

Ultimately, three-quarters (75%) of young Canadians will attain a postsecondary qualification. In 2021, 30% of 25- to 34-year-olds had a bachelor’s degree, 24% had a college diploma, 12% had earned a Master’s or doctorate, and 9% had a trade certificateNote  .

Labour market outcomes

Unemployment rates

In general, the more years of education that a young person has attained, the lower the unemployment rate. The chart below displays the unemployment rates of 25- to 29-year-olds from 2000 to 2021Note  .

Data table for Chart 2

Data table for chart 2

Table summary

This table displays the results of Data table for chart 2 Less than high school , High school , College or trade and University, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).

Less than high school High school College or trade University
2000 17.2 7.8 5.6 4.3
2001 15.9 8.3 6.3 5.5
2002 15.7 9.5 6.8 5.8
2003 16.1 8.4 6.5 5.6
2004 15.5 8.7 6.3 6.6
2005 14.9 7.4 5.8 5.7
2006 13.6 7.3 5.2 4.4
2007 15.9 7.3 5.3 4.5
2008 13.6 6.9 5.0 4.8
2009 16.5 10.8 7.4 5.8
2010 17.7 11.1 6.5 6.6
2011 17.1 9.5 6.7 6.5
2012 16.4 9.1 6.3 6.0
2013 15.9 9.4 6.4 6.1
2014 16.2 9.6 6.6 6.0
2015 17.2 9.9 6.4 5.5
2016 17.1 10.3 6.2 5.9
2017 15.3 9.0 6.3 5.8
2018 11.2 8.0 5.3 5.4
2019 12.3 8.7 5.2 5.2
2020 17.7 14.8 10.0 8.5
2021 14.6 12.0 7.3 6.1

In addition, Chart 2 shows that while unemployment rates are generally similar for college or trade graduates and university graduates, in times of economic shock, such as the pandemic in 2020, college or trade graduates experience a steeper rise in unemployment than that faced by university graduates. This effect is even stronger for people who do not have a postsecondary credential or high school diploma.

Employment income

Regarding employment income, for the class of 2018, undergraduate degree graduates had a median income of $50,900 two years after graduation, compared with a median income of $39,700Note  for college diploma graduates. For apprentices who certified in 2018, two years after certification in the trades, their median employment income was $59,000Note  .

Employment income over time

For the 2015 cohort of Canadian graduates of career, technical or professional training diplomas, the median income two years after graduation (in 2020 constant dollars) was $38,400, and five years after graduation was $43,700 – an increase of 14%.Note  For Canadian graduates with undergraduate degrees, the median income was $48,200 after two years and $60,100 after five, an increase of 25%.

For apprentices who certified in 2016, the median employment income was $54,461 at time of certification, $64,793 after two years and $62,882 after four years. Note that four years after certification for this cohort occurred in 2020, a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic had negative impacts on the economy, and on journeypersons in particularNote  . While the growth in income between two years and four years after certification was negative over this period, overall, there was a growth in median employment income of 15%Note  relative to the year of certification.

Income over a lifetime

Another way of looking at income growth is to examine workers’ average earnings or employment income by age and highest level of education.

Data table for Chart 3

Data table for chart 3

Table summary

This table displays the results of Data table for chart 3 15 to 19 years, 20 to 24 years, 25 to 29 years, 30 to 34 years, 35 to 39 years, 40 to 44 years, 45 to 49 years, 50 to 54 years, 55 to 59 years and 60 to 64 years, calculated using dollars units of measure (appearing as column headers).

15 to 19 years 20 to 24 years 25 to 29 years 30 to 34 years 35 to 39 years 40 to 44 years 45 to 49 years 50 to 54 years 55 to 59 years 60 to 64 years
No certificate, diploma or degree 4,782 17,448 26,251 31,778 34,432 36,406 37,595 38,429 36,986 31,556
Secondary (high) school diploma or equivalency certificate 7,915 17,170 31,643 39,152 43,258 47,032 48,926 48,833 45,996 36,610
Apprenticeship or trades certificate or diploma 12,255 28,332 42,499 48,785 50,759 52,453 52,853 53,297 51,874 41,303
College, CEGEP and other non-university certificate or diploma 8,572 19,883 35,680 44,535 50,375 54,338 57,141 58,665 55,088 43,350
University certificate or diploma below bachelor level 8,069 18,874 33,936 43,496 50,488 57,145 60,567 63,515 61,042 46,576
University certificate or degree at bachelor level or above 8,253 19,114 40,498 56,182 68,788 81,328 89,175 92,970 94,543 76,079

As can be seen from Chart 3, while workers at all levels of education see growth in earnings and employment income up to age 55 to 59, this curve is steepest for those with a university certificate or degree at the bachelor level or aboveNote  .

The effects of the COVID 19 pandemic

This fact sheet has provided an overview of the pathways of Canadian youth out of compulsory education, into postsecondary and beyond,  or into the labour market. As new data become available, it will be important to observe the role that the COVID-19 pandemic has played, and continues to play, on these pathways.

For apprentices, some effects of the pandemic have already been observed. The onset of the pandemic in 2020 had a negative impact on the economy as a whole and newly certified journeypersons in particular. Among the restrictions provinces and territories implemented to contain the spread of COVID-19 was the closure of many worksites. Without the capacity to perform their jobs virtually, newly certified journeypersons were more affected than some others in the labour force at the beginning of the pandemic.

This also made it difficult to start an apprenticeship in 2020, as finding an employer willing to take on an apprentice is a prerequisite for anyone looking to start a career in the tradesNote  . While tight labour markets in 2021 and 2022 helped the apprenticeship system regain losses experienced in the depths of the pandemicNote  , the number of new registrations in apprenticeship programs remained below pre-pandemic levels.

As new data become available for the other pathways presented in this paper, the following questions could be explored: Will the disruptions to in-person learning at the elementary/secondary level lead to longer times to high school graduation? How will the switch to virtual learning affect the persistence and graduation rates of postsecondary students? And, what are the longer-term effects on labour market outcomes for college and university graduates and apprentices?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *