Wednesday, 6 August 2014

From Airport to Internship: How a semester abroad prepared me for work

Today's blog post comes from Nicole Hoffman, CAPS' Communications Intern, who recently completed a semester abroad at Universit√© Catholique de Lille in Lille, France.

When my parents asked me why I wanted to spend a semester in France, I told them “studying abroad will make me more employable.” I had read it somewhere on a travelling website, and at the time I had suspected that it was an exaggerated statement, but it was reassuring to feel that there could be practical value to my trip. When I decided to go, it was to improve my French and to see a bit of Europe, but what I didn't expect was how much studying abroad would change me.

It wasn't until I returned that I discovered how much I had evolved during my exchange, and it wasn't until I started my new internship that I saw how the skills that I’d gained abroad have improved my competence in the workplace.

Adaptability and Openness to Change. On the first day of orientation in my French university, I met a student who was majoring in Languages. He had hardly introduced himself to me before he was complaining about life in France. He hated the food, his residence, the northern French accent, the weather and the university policies. Despite only having been there for a week, he seemed overwhelmed and was struggling with culture shock. He didn’t seem to know how to adapt to his new circumstances, and while I felt for him, I came to think of him as an example of how I didn’t want to spend my semester. If I concerned myself exclusively with the ways in which France was not like Canada, I would be perpetually unhappy, and would be unable to enjoy the amazing, exclusively French experiences. This goes doubly in the workplace, which can often be subject to change. You and your employer will both benefit if you are able to thrive in an evolving work environment, and are willing to try new positions or responsibilities.

Diplomacy and Interpersonal skills. When you’re an international student at another university, your closest friends are likely other international students. Essentially, this means that your friend group becomes a diverse mishmash of personalities and backgrounds. The personality clashes that resulted from this grouping were both frustrating and enlightening. I began to gauge my reactions carefully when speaking with my international friends. What was the source of my reaction? Was it a language barrier? A cultural difference?  How could I explain my position without seeming rude or aggressive? Refining this sort of tact took some time, but the experience taught me to be more open to other opinions. Every workplace is full of people with different ideologies and goals. Rather than allowing these clashes to bring productivity to a standstill, it is important to mediate and compromise with coworkers. After all, the collaboration of different perspectives is an opportunity for the generation of fresh ideas.

Confidence. When I first arrived in France, I discovered that I was nowhere near as fluent as I needed to be. I was embarrassed by my lack of proficiency, and found the idea of speaking to a francophone in their native tongue daunting. It took me a long time to work up the nerve to attempt a conversation with one of my French neighbors, but when I did, I found that she was more than willing to help me practice. She was patient with my clumsy French, and encouraged me to work with her on my speaking skills. The improvement was almost immediate. What I realised then was that I needed to learn to be confident not only in the knowledge that I already possessed, but in my ability to learn quickly. In an interview, an employer needs to be assured that new employees will become an active, growing part of the team. Don’t be shy about acknowledging your strengths, and think about how you can use them to expand your skill set to make yourself an invaluable asset.

Making Connections. I’ve never been one to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Unfortunately, when you have a train to catch and you need to find your platform, you don’t have the luxury of being timid. The ability of approach people was a requirement that, once I got used to it, became a pleasure. I made friends with people that I may have previously been too shy to approach, and every encounter brought me different information and connections from all over the world. It was like a networking crash-course for travelers. By becoming more outgoing, I opened myself up to countless friendships. In the professional world, networking can be invaluable both to yourself and your company. You never know what types of opportunities will arise from the people you meet. Whether they teach you something new, become a good friend, or turn out to be a valuable contact, it is always worth it to take the initial step and just say hello.

Looking back on how different I am now from the person that I was before my trip, it’s strange that I didn’t notice the change until I returned to Canada. While I didn’t truly go to Lille to become a better employee, I came back more open, motivated, independent, outgoing, confident and diplomatic than I ever thought I’d be. While all of these attributes are assets for an employer, they’ve also made me more engaged and happier in my work, which is infinitely more valuable than simply being “more employable.”

Friday, 25 July 2014

Dr. Jim Bright on the Chaos Theory of Careers

I've written elsewhere on this blog (more than once) about CAPS' approach to career development. It is one that emphasizes action over planning, that recognizes the role that happenstance plays in shaping people's careers and that normalizes career uncertainty. These themes are also taken up in many of the guest bloggers who have contributed to this blog over the past couple of years.

Recently, a colleague sent me a link to a YouTube video featuring Jim Bright. Dr. Bright is author of The Chaos Theory of Careers. It is one of the publications that has really informed CAPS' practice. Enjoy!

Friday, 11 July 2014

Publishing opportunities, discovering new interests, finding a mentor and community, and more!

Today’s blog post comes from Monica Chahal, recipient of a Green and Gold Student Leadership and Professional Development Grant. The Green and Gold Grant is administered by CAPS and funded by the University of Alberta Annual Fund. At CAPS, we strongly encourage students to actively engage in their career and follow their curiosities because such action often reveals – even creates – opportunities for them. Monica’s experience shows the career impact of the actions we take and connections we make – in Monica’s case, publishing opportunities, discovering new interests, finding a mentor and community, and more! 

The Green and Gold Grant enabled me to attend the 35th Annual Popular & American Culture Studies Conference.  The reason I wanted to attend the conference was for its uniqueness and the potentiality of including public pedagogy, science fiction and urban culture in the classroom.

The conference itself was a truly unique and extraordinary experience, receiving the Green and Gold Grant gave me a much needed confidence boost and forced me out of my comfort zone. I attended three separate professional development sessions, all of which became extremely important and useful in the months following the conference. For the first time (due to lack of confidence and opportunity), I was able to speak to a publisher, directly, at the session on academic publishing and glean much needed information and direction.  I also had the benefit of being able to chat with the editor of a particular journal, which led to the editor offering to read two abstracts for two different papers in order to provide feedback and guidance regarding future publication possibilities, ultimately resulting in the submission of these two articles to her journal. I was also able to connect with a publisher for Intellect, who was very interested in publishing a journal on Hip Hop Culture and I will be contacting him over the summer to see if I can provide some assistance in the creation of this publication. Currently, Intellect publishes 82 double-blind peer reviewed journals world-wide; to be able to work on this from the ground up would be amazing. Additionally, I also attended a professional development session regarding the job search in academia, my first session of its kind outside of the University of Alberta and hosted solely by American Academics. As an urban researcher, many of my possible job opportunities lie in the United States, and I felt that this session provided me with an immense amount of guidance, advice and information regarding everything from how to write a curriculum vitae, to how to prepare for the interview and the multiple forms an academic contract may take. This session became tremendously important when I had my first academic interview in an American Institution 2 months following the conference.

Next the conference presentations themselves. The presentations I attended were extremely insightful, fascinating and useful to my practice, both as a pre-service educator, academic and beyond. For example, I spent a morning (8:00 am-11:45 am) attending presentations under the heading Rap and Hip Hop Culture 2 and 3.  My own research is linked to my personal interest in marginalized student populations, and as a result I have begun to explore Hip Hop Based Education and Pedagogy.  However, at the University of Alberta, and in particular within my own faculty, I am isolated. This was the first academic session I have been able to attend that focused solely on Hip Hop as an academic pursuit. While attending the first session (Rap and Hip Hop 2) the speaker, a professor from Howard University, offered to mentor my work and research.  Without attending this session, I would not have made a contact that I know I will cherish for many years. 

At the end of the second session (Rap and Hip Hop 3), I received the business card from a professor and journal editor from the University of Maryland. Due to my newly found confidence in networking, I have now submitted an article to his journal and am awaiting a response from another critical contact I had formed. In my final session, I was taught about the Harry Potter Studies, and was able to learn how to integrate a canon that is widely popular among youth of all ages into my own classrooms at the University, while still educating students in science, ethics and morality. Even more beneficial, was the connection, I was fortunate enough to make with the Area Chair for this section, who, after hearing about my focus on marginalized students and white privilege, invited me to submit a chapter proposal for his edited volume. Finally, in between the attended sessions, I was able to further connect with other conference participants inspiring a feeling of community of which I had not felt in a very long time.  Also, as a result of the many contacts I have made, myself, along with colleagues met at the conference, are now leading small publication groups with others at the University of Alberta.

In conclusion, all of this has been immensely gratifying as within my curriculum vitae my weakest section has been that of peer reviewed publications. As a young academic, I have had difficulty in finding a match between my articles and journals, and had become quite frustrated. However, the Green and Gold Grant provided me with the realization that I am supported, giving me confidence and thus encouraging me to put myself forward, ask for guidance, and gain much needed feedback . Consequently, I am certain that as a result of this single conference, I will become a published author.

This was hands down, the best conference I have ever attended. More importantly, it is a conference that has created for me, many professional networks, publication opportunities and a newfound sense of purpose. 

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Labour Market Trends and Rising Stars in Fort McMurray - Part 2

Today's post is from Amy Roy Gratton, Experiential Learning Coordinator with CAPS: Your U of A Career Centre.

I often get the question, “what do you do all summer when there are no students around?” I’m fortunate to be able to explore careers first hand in order to be more knowledgeable about career options and labour market information when I advise students. 

This summer I was thrilled to participate the Oil Sands Careers Education Program hosted by Inside Education where I got to explore Alberta’s oil sands in Fort McMurray. I love Inside Education because their programming includes multiple perspectives. This was particularly important with the oil sands where debate continues daily regarding its environmental and economic impacts. In my last blog post I talked about life as a commuting employee – but that was just half of the experience. In addition the tour also explored educational, government, industry, human resources and labour market perspectives.

The packed two-day tour began with an overview of labour market trends over the next 20 years. According to the human resources professionals at Cenovus, a Canadian oil company employing about 5000 people in Alberta and Saskatchewan, the biggest threat to oil sands production is a human resources problem: not having enough skilled workers to make the work happen. Age-related attrition caused by a retiring workforce means creative strategies are needed to develop flexible work options for retiring employees who are valuable in mentoring new employees. There are also the usual concerns such as turnover; however, it’s not just local competitors offering enticing opportunities, it’s now a global market making offers that can’t be refused.

It seems the most common career shortages that we hear about are trades, science and technology. However, on this tour I was encouraged to see the variety of jobs that exist in supporting roles within the oil sands industry. All disciplines including communications, aboriginal relations, workplace health and wellness, information systems, finance, environmental, policy development and distribution are needed, valued and important.

If you’d like to learn more about the variety of people that make the oil industry work, the May 2014 issue of Oil Week Magazine highlights 12 Rising Stars who are key contributors. Not only did they profile a variety of careers, they also emphasized the career theory CAPS supports: that we are not one dimensional people; we have multiple interests and multiple goals, beyond work, that are just as important as the work that we do.

Although there seems to be an impression that people with less than a high school education can find lucrative work in Fort McMurray; this is a myth. The message we heard over and over again is that oil companies need trained (and trainable) people who can learn fast and who won’t cause costly mistakes. Our first stop, to reinforce this point, was a visit to Keyano College. At the college we received an overview of Heavy Equipment Technician, Power Engineering, and the Crane and Hoisting Equipment Operator and the Environmental Technology Program – which now includes a wildlife component mandated by the courts after the tailings pond incident of 2008. The tour was fascinating for me because of the cross over between our university and college programming.  Louis Dingley, Chair of University Studies Science and Environmental Technology, shared a statistic that surprised me: for every Professional Engineer, three Engineering Technologists are needed to support that role which shows how interdependent colleges and universities really are.

Keyano College bring hands on education to another level with their Oil Sands Power and Process Engineering Lab, a $29-million dollar facility that allows students to operate a plant from start-up to shut-down on a daily basis. At a real plant in Fort McMurray there is no time for emergency shut downs. Real shut downs waste thousands of dollars. This plant allows these emergencies to be simulated and training to be tailored around the student’s skill level to prepare them for any scenario. One of the instructors – a retired Process Engineer, was the perfect example to illustrate the labour market trends we discussed at the beginning of our tour: he had enjoyed an international career and was scooped up out of retirement to pass on his experience to a new generation of process engineers.  

Although technical training like this is important, the ability to communicate was highlighted as the most important skills beyond any other. Complex organizations have a dynamic mix of people making them run effectively. The ability to communicate with inter-disciplinary colleagues and cross-functional teams means everyone from public relations to distribution is working toward the same goal, despite their differing viewpoints. Professionals need to be knowledgeable in their field but also need to understand a problem from multiple perspectives and explain their knowledge in a non-technical way.

Although I was aware that soft skills are important in the workplace, hearing this message from a very technical, industry perspective was great reinforcement for the advising I do. The whole experience was myth busting and enlightening. To challenge your own biases toward the oil industry and create your own memories, consider contacting the University of Alberta Oil Sands Student Delegation to learn how you can explore Fort McMurray and see what the big town that has it all has to offer. 

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Book Review - Lean In for Graduates by Sheryl Sandberg

This week's post comes from Christine Gertz, Library and Information Specialist with CAPS.

Lean In for Graduates by Sheryl Sandberg and Others. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Since its appearance in early 2013, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead has sparked debate and discussions, not only about the encouragement the book gives to women to devote energy to their careers, while also encouraging both men and women to treat women more fairly in the workplace and at home, but also about the privilege of the book’s superstar author, Sheryl Sandberg. (Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, was ranked number one on Forbes list of the World’s Most Powerful Women in Business, and recently lost her status as a billionaire when Facebook’s stock decreased in value.) If you haven’t heard about Lean In, it is possible that you have seen Sandberg’s original talk on TED, which has now collected over 4 million viewers.

Lean In for Graduates includes the original Lean In content, with the addition of about one hundred new pages of content. These new chapters include personal stories about career and life setbacks, advice on job seeking for graduates, and two chapters on salary and negotiation skills. The whole book is highly accessible and well written, including autobiographical examples, as well as examples from research.

Sandberg uses a metaphor for careers and career development, a jungle gym, which is similar to the model developed by CAPS. For Sandberg, she didn’t plan her career path, and recommends that readers move up, laterally and down, if needed, to move toward the career you want.  Sandberg also recommends seizing opportunities, as well as developing focus and “leaning in”, as is the case when she describes the advice she was given when she hesitated over taking her initial position at Google: “If offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.” She also states that risk aversion, as well as underestimating one’s abilities, can hold a person back from career momentum, including this advice from research at Hewlett Packard which showed that men would apply for a position if they had 60% of the requirements of the posting, while women would only apply if they had 100%. However, when the discrepancy was revealed, women began applying more for positions where they had most of the criteria, but did not cut themselves out of the competition when they did not have it all.

For grads, the message of plans don’t always work out or that make a plan plus a contingency and reevaluate, as well as taking chances when the rewards are worth the risks, is good advice. Sandberg also suggests that coming together to discuss career and workplace issues, the Lean In Circles that were formed in the wake of the original book, are also a viable idea for grads who are looking for encouragement, support and advice. If you read the original Lean In and enjoyed it and if you were looking for a graduation gift for a career-minded grad, Lean In for Graduates includes plenty of good advice and encouragement for the graduate audience.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Career Highlights and Myths Exposed in Fort McMurray – Part 1

Today's post is from Amy Roy Gratton, Experiential Learning Coordinator with CAPS: Your U of A Career Centre.

One of my favourite things about being a career advisor is the chance to explore different careers first-hand. My role at CAPS is to coordinate programs that get students out of the classroom to experience careers themselves so it’s only fitting that I sometimes get out of my office to do the same!

Last month I was one of 24 people chosen to participate in the Oil Sands Careers Education Program hosted by Inside Education, an Alberta-based not-for-profit organization whose mission is to make first-hand environmental and natural resources education accessible to teachers so that they can bring real-life experiences to students in the classroom.
The tour was two-fold: To experience the life of a commuting employee and learn the technical terms and challenges within the oil sands industry. To experience the life of a commuter, we boarded a charter flight with North Cariboo Air from the Edmonton International Airport to Fort McMurray which took 1 hour and 10 minutes. In my past life as a Human Resources Recruiter for Western Canada I took over 500 commercial flights. I can’t begin to describe the ease of flying with a charter airline from a passenger perspective. There is very little waiting around – arrive, check-in, fly out! When you’re commuting weekly into Fort McMurray I can see why the expense of charter flights is justified. Once up in the air it was a thrill for me to see the changing landscape from Edmonton’s farming quadrants to northern Alberta’s forest packed landscape.

When we arrived in Fort McMurray we were picked up and transported by Diversified Transportation, a company that employs 3,500 employees and has been transporting employees from their homes or camps to worksites throughout Fort McMurray since 1967. I held my breath as the bus turned on to the infamous Highway 63. Judging from the line up of cars on the highway, I could immediately see why the pressures exist to twin the highway. As I came to find out, the worksites have introduced many educational campaigns aimed at changing driver behaviors including driver fatigue, passing aggressively, speeding and distraction.   
Our tour continued at SAGD Operations (pronounced: sagg-dee) also known as In situ Operations (Latin for “in place”) run by Connacher. This plant is located one hour outside of Fort McMurray city limits where we got to see everything from the accordion pipelines that expand and contract with weather conditions to the final oil product that gets shipped by truckload for sale.
That evening we spent the night at a camp where we got to see how companies set themselves apart by creating a supportive, clean, nutritious environment for their staff. Managed by GRC Camp Services, camp life is not at all what I expected. I expected to be roughing it “camping style.” Instead I had a small hotel-style room including a bed, a shared bathroom, a television, desk, closet and sink – everything I would need for a comfortable rest before the next 12-14 hour shift. The supper, a seafood medley and pork tenderloin, was prepared by culinary trained professionals and was the best thing I had tasted in months! Menus are planned in detail to include all food groups with two entrees each (like herb crusted lamb chops and slow roasted prime rib with Yorkshire pudding) and side dishes to complement the meal! Although employees are there to make a living, Connacher focuses on giving them a life which also includes a workout facility, pool tables and a mini movie theatre.

Because of its remote location, Connacher places special emphasis on wildlife interactions and survival –
both for humans and animals. From a recruitment point of view it was interesting to hear that when deciding between two applicants, if one has spent time camping and exploring the outdoors and has equal theoretical knowledge to someone who is not familiar with the outdoors, the lover of the outdoors has the advantage. The first-hand outdoor education provides the employee with the know-how of how to deal with wildlife encounters that are very common up north.

The next day we set off for a tour of Syncrude where mining and processing bitumen is a 24 hour, 7 days a week, 365 day operation. One truck filled with bitumen is worth $20,000. In the 15 minutes we were there I saw three pass by. Each tire those trucks is $50,000 and there are six on each truck! The Syncrude tour was informative and addressed many myths regarding tailings ponds and reclamation.

Across the road from the active mining site is Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch. Wood bison, once native to the area, were thought to be extinct until 1957. The current herd of 300 bison was recovered from 31 animals loaned from the Elk Island National Park in 1993. I was inspired by the transformation from tailings pond to nature reserve working to nurture the growth of a once endangered species.

Having been a commuting employee for less than 48 hours I came to realize that this life is not for everyone. However, those who have dedicated themselves to their work and made this their life do really love it. Fort McMurray was built on innovation and we saw examples of this everywhere. To get the full picture, make time to visit the big town by applying for the University of Alberta Oil Sands Student Delegation. Fort McMurray is full of enthusiastic people, eager to share their story of how the town welcomes commuters, both near and far.  

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

I am not at university to get a degree

Today's post is from Kristina Drozdiak, student in the Faculty of Arts and CAPS' Communications Intern for the past year.

I have a number of friends who advocate that university is a waste of time; all you need to get a job (and some lucrative ones at that) is a high school diploma.

When I tell people I am studying English, the number one response is: “What are you going to do with that?”

Valid points and valid questions, but they don’t align with why I’m at university. I am at university to learn. I did not decide to study English to break into editing, publishing, writing. I’ve never consciously looked at the labour market.

I chose to study English because it’s a subject I enjoy. Maybe that’s naive, but I think the best way to be happy in this life is to pursue the things that bring you joy. My English degree has let me stretch my wings and do a lot of things that I enjoy: reading, analyzing and articulating information, critical thinking—the list goes on.

Do I also find it fascinating to examine how Indian writing in English has changed since Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children? Absolutely. I also enjoy puzzling through “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” by reading it aloud, tracing the politics of gender in mountaineering novels, and deconstructing Satan’s rhetoric in Paradise Lost. I have done all of these things while pursuing my degree, and since that’s what people see me doing, it’s easy to understand why they think my degree isn’t relevant to the “real world.”

Just skimming the surface, it doesn’t look like much. The only sensible application seems to be teaching English to others, or perhaps being one of those crackpot writers with more sense for art than story.

But, √† la Rafiki in The Lion King I bid you: Look harder. As much as I enjoy listening to The Canterbury Tales on my iPod, what I like most about my degree is the type of thinking I get to do. In lectures, I’m challenged to process information in real-time, identify key points, and record them. In readings, I’m challenged to analyze texts, and in papers I’m challenged to articulate information and present strong, plausible arguments. Maybe they’re over-used buzzwords, but I enjoy critical thinking, problem-solving and articulating my findings.

I get to do all of those things in my degree, and often. I’m not saying those skills are unique to an English degree, nor are they the only skills an English degree can help you hone. But I’m doing what I enjoy, and improving those same skills that make me happy. Our most valuable commodity is our time, and I’ve devoted mine to things that I enjoy. What I enjoy happen to be marketable skills, and if you break down what you enjoy, I bet yours are too.

What do you enjoy? Those, I think, are the skills that will take you to interesting, verdant and rewarding places throughout your career.