Skip to content

Greater Victoria struggles to retain students as grads lack local prospects

Diversifying the local economy, boosting housing could help keep grads in the region
Students and economic development officials are highlighting Greater Victoria’s barriers to retaining students after they graduate from local post-secondary programs. Pictured is students walking at the University of Victoria in April. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)

While being in Victoria for almost four years, much of Jessie Niikoi’s time was taken up by working more than two jobs at a time, on top of her schooling at Camosun College.

“I didn’t really have the time or the opportunity to get into the things that are happening in Victoria,” Niikoi said.

That meant she didn’t have many personal connections to Victoria that would make her stay after graduating, so when an appealing opportunity arose elsewhere, she jumped on it and made the move to Vancouver.

Niikoi and other Greater Victoria students’ challenges highlight the barriers to sticking around after their schooling and local officials see the struggle to retain new grads as something that could stand in the way of the region thriving.

For Niikoi, the combination of affordability challenges facing youth and a lack of community supports for post-secondary students underpins why young people are leaving Victoria after graduating. She now works for the non-profit B.C. Federation of Students (BCFS), advocating for more affordable post-secondary education so students actually have the time to integrate into the area where they attend school.

“Students are so busy working and going to school at the same time, so they’re not able to take part in the community or engage in the community,” she said.

Victoria’s job market, housing availability and overall cost-of-living are out of step with its post-grad opportunities, causing youth to look to cheaper markets instead, Niikoi said.

Story continues below photo

Jessie Niikoi works for the B.C. Federation of Students after she left Victoria upon graduating from Camosun College. (Courtesy of Jessie Niikoi)

The capital region is an attractive place for youth with its access to nature, good post-secondary instructors and vibrant community, said Dallas Gislason. Where Greater Victoria falters is having an economy that’s dynamic enough to create ample career opportunities that would allow students to stay, the acting CEO of the South Island Prosperity Partnership (SIPP) argues.

“As a region and as leaders, we need to be more deliberate about how we want to engage those people while they’re here and then also retain them once they graduate,” Gislason said in an interview. “If there are good jobs and places to live, then Victoria sells itself.”

In a regional job market focused around government-related roles, tourism and, more-recently, a growing tech sector, Gislason said diversifying the local economy is vital. Otherwise, he said students will flock to Vancouver, Toronto or Calgary where there are a wider array of employment opportunities.

The South Island Prosperity Partnership is trying to put Victoria on map as a hub for ocean and marine technology as the region already hosts various water-based law enforcement agencies, harbours, industrial shipyards and the UVic monitoring organization, Ocean Networks Canada.

Gislason said the goal is attract start-up industries that will hire the region’s intelligent youth to work in globally important ocean fields, such as addressing climate change, kelp production, tidal energy, carbon sequestration in seabeds and more.

“Our region is ripe to be a centre of excellence within that broader blue economy landscape, we just need to be deliberate about it,” he said.

Jobs in that sector would seemingly cater to Wyatt Maddox, who will exit his UVic studies with a PhD in coastal erosion and climate change mapping. But there are currently not enough jobs that would allow him to stick around, and even fewer positions that would pay enough to allow him to live in Victoria’s increasingly expensive rental market.

“The inflated cost of housing and basic living needs have caused grad students to flee upon graduation,” the chair of UVic’s Graduate Student Society said in a statement. “Unless students are able to obtain employment with the BC Public Service, Victoria has little to offer educated professionals.”

Since starting his program three years ago, five of the six people who have graduated from his lab in that time have all left the region or the country, and the one outlier who remains here is likely to move away soon due to the lack of opportunities. Maddox is from the capital region, but he expects he’ll leave upon graduating as he said the current economic state of Victoria doesn’t make it enticing to stay.

Gislason warned local business and community leaders about the implications of not retaining enough grads during an economic conference in Victoria in March. He was joined on a panel by UVic legacy giving officer Kelsi Langdon, who raised similar concerns.

“In my role at UVic, I have the opportunity to interact with really passionate, engaged students that come to the city seeking high quality of life, seeking education from a very high-quality institution,” she told the conference. “And it’s such a shame to be witnessing all of these really passionate, wonderful students leave the community.”

Story continues below photo

Students and economic development officials are highlighting Greater Victoria’s barriers to retaining students after they graduate from local post-secondary programs. Pictured is students walking at Camosun College’s Lansdowne campus in April. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)

Among the several action items needed to curb the loss of local talent, expanding housing was mentioned by every one in this story. Gislason said all forms of housing – and especially the currently lacking missing middle builds – are needed to support people during every phase of their lives, while Maddox’ society wants the province to build 500 more dorm rooms on campus to alleviate pressure on students and wider rental market.

Both Maddox and Niikoi note that students often incur a lot of debt as they make low wages, if any, during their studies, so they’re calling for a drop in post-secondary costs. Niikoi highlighted how students need jobs that can quickly help pay off those debts, which leads to another issue where they’re are applying everywhere and taking the first position available amid long response times.

It’s a situation familiar to her as the former biology student applied to Island Health and it took them six months to get back to her about a food service position on the low end of the pay scale, even though she had experience in that field. That half-a-year wait only saw the health agency say she could come in for an interview.

Gislason has heard from people moving here that the region’s demographics are also not diverse enough. He noted that a more diverse workforce have been linked to companies having higher innovation rates, and a less homogeneous local population would also provide support networks for newcomers and bring new cultural events, experiences and cuisines to the region.

“Diversity is just such an important ingredient of a healthy, vibrant community, for not just the economic reasons but also cultural reasons,” he said.

READ: Royal BC Museum enters 20-year agreement to house iconic Terry Fox collection

Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
Read more