Monday, 25 March 2013

Kids and careers

I just read an article about a new program in Ontario aimed at helping high school students decide what they want to do after they graduate. The writer references a census done by the Toronto District School Board that shows 73 percent of its grades 9 to 12 students say they are worried about their future. Some of the causes of students’ worries noted in the article are Canada’s high youth unemployment rate (nearly double the national average), the cost of post-secondary education and level of debt college and university students graduate with, and lack of labour market information and supports. It is the latter that the new program aims to address.

What really caught my attention, though, was a poll embedded in the article. The question was ‘Is kindergarten too early to start discussing a child’s career choice?’ I had to rub my eyes and reread the question but yes, that’s what it said. I then clicked on the ‘view results’ button and, not surprisingly, 82% of readers who responded to the pool chose ‘yes, kindergarten is too early to start discussing a child’s career choice’ while 18% responded it was not too early. I count myself among the 82% for a number of reasons not the least of which is that four and five-year olds simply do not have the experience or vocabulary to engage in conversations about careers. That being said, exposing children to a variety of careers can be helpful when it comes to those conversations and making decisions later in life. When I was in elementary school, I remember going on field trips to the police station, the symphony, the firefighters’ hall, among other places. The people who worked at those places talked to us about their background and day-to-day work and sometimes we were even given some hands-on activities, like sliding down the fire pole. Yipee!

I would support exposing children to careers in this and other ways not just so they can learn there is more out there besides teacher and what mom and dad do, but also to breakdown stereotypes about work that are based on gender, class and other factors (e.g. making sure they hear from both female and male firefighters when they visit the fire hall). However, I can’t see how asking very young children to think and talk seriously about their own career can be all that helpful. What probably prompted the writer to include the poll in the article was a comment made by someone who works for the organization that facilitates the new program. Commenting on the cost of the program, which will be about $1,000 per student, she said, “It’s better to pay a little up front and know your child is making the right decisions than pay for four years of university and have your child say I’m in the wrong program.” What this fails to recognize is: (1) when you ask workers if they are doing what they thought they would be doing when they were 18 the vast majority will say ‘no’ and (2), as people grow (e.g. experience new things, develop new knowledge and skills) their career aspirations shift. So it is not surprising that many – not all – university students change programs or otherwise alter their career plans during a time of their life when they are doing a lot of discovery learning. As John Krumboltz and Al Levin, authors Luck is no accident (one of my favourite career planning books) write, asking a young person to make a commitment to an occupation they haven’t even tried out - and expecting them to stick with their decision - is like asking them to choose their future spouse before the first date!

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Summer job search tips

You probably heard that one of the casualties of the 7 March provincial budget was the Summer Temporary Employment Program (STEP). STEP was a wage subsidy program not-for-profit organizations (e.g. charities, community leagues, government departments, universities and colleges) could apply to for funding to hire a student for the summer. All of the summer jobs I held while I was going to university were STEP-funded save one. As a matter of fact, I credit the last summer job I held as playing a significant role in how I ended up working at CAPS. That job was to organize a resource library for staff in the employee relations branch of the social services department. Near the end of the summer I heard that CAPS was looking for a career resources coordinator so I applied. While I was successful in getting an interview - in large part because of the experience I gained throughout the summer - I didn’t get the job. But a couple of weeks later, the director of CAPS called to offer me a different position. That was almost 25 years ago and, of course, I have never left. I often wonder where I would be today if I hadn’t gotten that interview.

So I was disappointed to hear about the cancellation of the STEP program this summer not only because I personally benefited from it but also because of my role as the director of CAPS. I really value programs like STEP that help to create employment for students, and all the staff at CAPS get concerned when we hear news that negatively impacts students’ job prospects. So I thought the least I can do is provide you with some advice on looking for summer work.

First, did you know CAPS works with many employers who post jobs with us, including summer jobs? And if you haven’t heard, we recently launched a new online job bank. You no longer have to be at a computer to access our job postings. You can now search for and view jobs anytime, anywhere from your mobile device. And that’s just one of the new features. I just checked our online job bank and we currently have 50 summer job postings. Something you should be aware of is that a single job posting does not necessarily equal a single job as many postings include multiple vacancies. For example, the job title of one of our current summer job postings is 'Environmental Educator/Natural Interpreter.' It is with the U of A’s Devonian Botanic Garden. They have nine openings.

Second, be proactive in your work search. Don’t rely on job postings or other job advertisements. If there is an organization you are interested in working with for the summer, contact them directly. Let them know the type of work you are interested in and what you have to offer. Also make sure friends, family – everyone you know – are aware you are looking for a summer job. In other words, network, network, network! The more eyes and ears you have open for you, the more likely you’ll hear about opportunities, whether they are advertised or not.

And my last bit of advice is to make sure you are prepared to apply and interview for opportunities that present themselves. While I don’t want to make this blog post one big advertisement for CAPS, I do want you to be aware that we have a number of services and resources on resume writing and job interviews. For example, you can book an appointment with one of our career advisors to have your resume critiqued and to practice your interview skills. We also offer a free lunchtime seminar on looking for summer work coming up on Monday, 25 March from 12:05 to 12:55 p.m. in the CCIS Career Centre. Dont' miss it!

Monday, 11 March 2013

Shortage of jobs or shortage of workers?

It’s hard to know what to believe these days with all the mixed messages you see and hear. On the one hand, there are warnings of a skills shortage. For example, a recent survey by Randstad Canada found the following: “According to survey respondents, two thirds (66%) of Canadian employers have trouble finding the right people for specific jobs. And even more (58%) believe Canadian employers are experiencing problems finding highly qualified people. Additionally, 55 per cent of Canadian employers say they expect a shortage of highly qualified employees within the next three years. While more than half of Canadian respondents also say they expect to see a shortage of staff in specific jobs.”

On the other hand, post-secondary students are being told that a university education no longer guarantees a good job and comfortable existence (did it ever?) and to expect to be underemployed in a never ending circle of temporary positions. For example, the headline of an article in a recent issue of MacLean’s Magazine read: “The new underclass: Why an entire generation of ambitious, smart and well-educated Canadians have no future.” (italics mine) At the end of January the CBC aired a documentary called ‘Generation Jobless’ which also focused on the plight of new university graduates struggling to find work and toiling in jobs that don’t require a degree.

So what gives? Many employers are saying they cannot find the highly skilled workers they need, yet a number of university graduates are struggling to find work where they can utilize the knowledge and skills they gained through their education. According to the experts, the problem is a mismatch between the skills employers are looking for and the skills many of those looking for work have to offer. I can see this to a certain extent when talking about specific technical skills, but again there are conflicting messages. For example, the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers (CACEE) conducted a survey of 450 Canadian employers who said that the core skills they value most include “communication, analytical ability and a strong work ethic,” as well as teamwork and problem-solving skills. Aren’t these just the skills that many university students develop?

So what is a current university student to think or, more importantly, do? One piece of advice I’ve come across is to tailor your education to labour market demands; for example, find out what occupations or professions are growing and in demand and pursue a degree relevant to those areas. I would caution any student about using this approach because predicting where demand will be in the labour market in five or even one year can be a bit like forecasting the weather! As a matter of fact, the MacLean’s article referred to above begins with an example of a university graduate who did just that. She got a degree in applied linguistics with the goal of teaching English as a second language: “She chose a vocation that, by unanimous opinion, represented a path to steady employment – teaching English as a second language to the thousands of immigrants pouring into B.C.” By the time she graduated in 2008 with “the gold standard of ESL qualifications,” government funding for language transition programs had been significantly reduced and “the entry level position she imagined would launch her career never materialized.”

So what do I advise? Two things for today. First, regardless of what you are studying, becoming involved in activities outside of the classroom and even off campus is key to learning about - sometimes even creating – work opportunities, making important connections and building your skills base. (If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll recognize this is a theme that I and guest bloggers come back to again and again.) Second, be critical about what you see and hear regarding what the labour market holds for today’s graduates. Some of it can be quite alarmist. An article on the University Affairs website about the CBC documentary referred to above makes some excellent points about how statistics and labour market forecasts can be used to paint a particular picture. For example, the 15% youth unemployment rate referred to in the documentary includes all Canadians 15 to 24 years old. However, the unemployment rate for 25 to 29 year olds, which includes more individuals who have completed a degree, is just under six percent. Wouldn’t that be a better group to compare university graduates with?

I’ll end this post by saying I in no way want to leave the impression that finding a good job after you complete your degree will be easy. How soon you find work, the opportunities that will be available, where you’ll end up, etc., etc. depend upon so many factors, a number of which you have little or no influence upon. But I think you gain a lot of getting a university of education and the value of your degree should not be measure only by the jobs you work in over the course of your career.