One month before graduation, thousands of panicked university and college students will pile into career centres across the great nation of Canada, scrambling for advice, resume help, and job leads. They will be about three years too late. The concept of career planning is, sadly, completely foreign territory to many people undertaking undergraduate studies. For these students (and I know because I was one), education takes place in the classroom and the library only, with no attention paid to anything but coursework. Little do they know that, while they are busy doing J-ELLO shots, others are starting careers and getting ahead, leaving stragglers in the dust behind.
Everyone else is doing it so you should too.
“We’re seeing more and more first and second year students [come in for career help],” says Ann Soucy, director of student employment services at the University of New Brunswick. “Last year, 16 percent of people who used our services were in their first year.”
Avoiding peer pressure is normally a sign of personal strength, but it could be extremely detrimental in this case. Should you eschew career opportunities in your first couple of years, you run the risk of lagging behind the rest of your class. And when it comes time for graduation and companies are recruiting, the guy with three summer internships in his field is going to be going up against the girl whose only summer job was recuperating from university life.
So, what does a “career” mean, anyway?
Starting your career in the first half of your studies is crucial, but that doesn’t mean that people expect you to be a freshman student with a full-time management job at a bank. On top of the obvious internships and part-time or summer jobs, there are a number other ways to gain vital experience and develop useful skills sets — from getting involved in extra-curricular organizations to volunteering to joining professional societies. Career development is all of these things and more.
“The biggest thing that we see is that students often have some career ideas. And sometimes they are not using the (existing) opportunities while they are in university to test drive those ideas or to develop skills,” says Lynda Peto, an employment advisor at the University of Manitoba.
While it’s true that senior students are often given preference when it comes to scoring internships or part-time professional jobs, there is space for first and second year students in the mix. It’s all about finding the right opportunities, meeting the right people, and thinking outside of the box. Many summer programs actually require you to be a returning student, so the odds are even occasionally in favour of younger students. In any case, there are always ways to connect career interests with employment opportunities if you are creative enough.
“There are some opportunities to be more strategic in what we are looking for,“ says Peto. “If there was a student in education, for example, I’d encourage them to find summer jobs to test drive that idea. Could they focus on their career by working in summer programs with young children?” Peto encourages brainstorming about ways to develop transferable skills that can be highlighted on your resume. A first year engineering student isn’t going to find a summer gig as an engineer, she says, but he can certainly work construction.
Volunteer experiences can also be valuable career development. Not only will a volunteer be exposed to many people with which to network, but he or she can also get a feel for a professional work setting and expand upon existing skills, depending on the opportunity. Employers like to hire candidates that are well-rounded and passionate.
Take your career choice for a test drive.
“The first year, in particular, the student might be in a program because parents encouraged them,” says the University of New Brunswick’s Soucy. “It might be best to do some career exploration and see if they are in the right program.” Soucy gives the example of a business student who focused all of her time on accounting. After a summer job in her later university years, she discovered she actually hated the field. By trying out your intended career early, you’ll ensure that it won’t be too late to refocus your studies and still graduate on time.
In addition to recognizing when a career choice or a major is a wrong fit, job opportunities allow students to obtain a sense of what’s out there. Three summers of work might turn out completely different results if done in separate sectors. A not-for-profit job is completely different from a corporate job, regardless whether the roles are similar or even identical. And employment at a large international firm is incredibly disparate from work at a small business or a start-up. The more roles and settings a student can try out, the better.
Get your name and face out there.
Forget about the skills that can be developed and the exploration that can be undertaken. If there’s one reason why every student should start his or her career early, it’s this: networking. The more internships and jobs a person holds, the more people they meet. The more people they meet, the more contacts that have to exploit once graduation rolls around and the full-time job-hunt starts.
In some instances, summer gigs, part-time jobs, or internships can lead to opportunities down the line. “We have had students who have worked summers for one employer and when they graduated, the employer hired them,” says Soucy. “It’s certainly an opportunity for the employer to try the student out. And the student to try the employer out.”
Set yourself up for success.
“When I work with student to help them develop their resume, the difference between someone with no real relevant work experience versus a co-op student [or someone with internships] is huge,” says Peto. “Many don’t think about employment until the very end (of their time in university). They almost let their careers happen to them instead of being in charge of their careers.” The bottom line? The more you do, the better off you will be. And since the clock is ticking, it pays to start early.