Universities and Colleges Tell All: What’s Really Going to Land You a Job (Pt. 2)

This is part 2 in the SLN Investigates: What’s Going to Land You a Job series. Read part 1 here.

Understatement of our generation: the job market is competitive.

In fact, the unemployment rate unexpectedly increased to 7.2% this January, the highest it has been since 2013. More than ever before, grads are eagerly looking for ways to stand out by supplementing their degree or diploma with additional education to give them a competitive edge.

We wanted to investigate further by asking post-secondary schools what they were seeing in terms of trends among recent grads in their job hunts, including the biggest roadblocks they’re facing. Lacking work experience, being ill-prepared and having an inability to articulate their skills to employers are the chief problems grads are having, according to counsellors at post-secondary institutions.

According to Statistics Canada, a survey in 2010 unearthed that 48% of university grads and 35% of college grads pursued additional education upon graduation.

Over the last couple of months, I chatted with various professionals from top-tier schools like the University of British Columbia, Sheridan College, York University, Nova Scotia Community College and the University of Toronto. Turns out, there were some major themes that career centres at these schools were seeing in terms of roadblocks for new grads.

The schools noted that there were definitely students that felt prepared and excited to enter the workforce upon graduation, but there were also students that wanted to seek out additional education to continue their studies. For some, they needed more qualifications; others wanted a competitive edge.

Judith Mackinnon, Career Counsellor at Sheridan College, explained that they were seeing a lot of university students taking post-graduate programs with hands on components like co-ops or field placements. Alternatively, she noted they were also seeing about 30% of Sheridan students planning to continue on from college to get degrees.

“It is important for students to be engaged in lifelong learning.”

Despite the fact that some grads are seeking out additional education, many of the career centres agreed that they hadn’t noticed employers gravitating towards young professionals with a university versus college education in particular (with the exception of the occupations where a degree is necessary like accounting, medicine, law, etc.).

Allison Mander-Wionzek, Arts Internship Program Coordinator at the University of British Columbia, explained that individual employers have specific needs, and students need to research expectations of the career path they are drawn towards. This can help them better understand what education is best for them, in some cases what they already have may be enough, and in other cases this may mean pursuing additional qualifications.

Employers are essentially looking for the best candidates with the combination of skills, education and experience for their positions, but stats show that employment weighs slightly in favour of university grads with a 74.4% employment rate versus 69.9% employment rate for college grads.

“Stats show that employment weighs slightly in favour of university grads with a 74.4% employment rate versus 69.9% employment rate for college grads.”

“I’d advise students trying to decide between college and university to work through their career planning and see what patterns of career areas emerge,” Felicity Morgan, Director of the University of Toronto Mississauga Career Centre explained. “From there, students can see the educational paths that are most common and make their initial decision, knowing that they will probably require different forms of learning throughout their career (i.e. this is not the last educational decision in their career).”

From what we learned before—young professionals and recent grads felt that it wasn’t necessarily their education that set them apart to employers, it was their experience and commitment to their industries before they graduated. Post-secondary institutions seem to feel similar about this among students, and emphasized the phrase: “never stop learning.”

“It is important for students to be engaged in lifelong learning,” Heather Kelly, Senior Director of Student Success at the University of Toronto explains. “For some students that might be further education, but for others it may be volunteering, travelling abroad or even starting their own business.”

The schools I spoke with noted some roadblocks that most grads seem to be faced with upon graduation and how to overcome them to put them ahead of the game. Here were some common trends:

Falling Short: Missing Experience

Career counsellors are seeing students panicked about graduating because they feel they are lacking experience or skills to land them a job. Employers want to know that grads are responsible and reliable, and that they can hold down a job—whether that job is related to the field of work or not. “Paid employment on a resume is ideal, however, volunteer work experience is very useful in providing evidence to employers,” Judith MacKinnon emphasized. From personal experience, my volunteer work is actually what has started more conversations and piqued interest in employers more than the jobs I’ve held both as a student and a young professional with real world experience.

But what do you do to help build your experience? Felicity Morgan suggested to look for the next step in building your experience to the level you need. “It is competitive in the labour market, so gaining as much as you can will help strengthen your position.” Volunteering, building a network, and getting involved on campus were all suggestions to help build your resume, gain experience, and make yourself stand out in your job hunt.

Lack of Preparation

By lack of preparation, this doesn’t mean updating your resume and rehearsing interview questions, although those topics are important. Students that are the most successful in their job hunts are the ones who laid down the groundwork while still in school. Dianne Twombley of York University explained that a student who is engaged on campus while at school would face fewer roadblocks than those who waited until graduation to start thinking about what they want to do and how they want to pursue it. Dianne suggested the following for students to feel better prepared upon graduation:

● Make connections with professors, students, and potential employers both on and off campus
● Research career opportunities and organizations you might want to pursue
● Take an interest in the field you hope to enter, make it known to employers
● Become involved in extracurricular activities, and when possible, those that are associated with the field of interest

Heather Kelly, Senior Director of Student Success at the University of Toronto, suggested that students not only get involved with co-curricular activities, but also build key employability skills through internships, practicum, and co-op opportunities before graduation. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), in a recent report, found that both college and university students who participated in work-integrated learning like co-op placements or internships, strongly agreed that their experience had been valuable, influenced their career goals and helped clarify their career interests.

Inability to Connect and Articulate

University and college equip students to enter the workplace, but students need to be able to better articulate and demonstrate their abilities in job interviews. For example, University of Michigan surveyed more than 800 employers and found that the people hiring students for jobs believed that recent grads were equipped with the workplace competencies they needed, but were not able to articulate and demonstrate their abilities in job interviews. It’s important that students and new grads learn to translate their learning for potential employers.

“Recent grads are equipped with workplace competencies, but are not able to articulate their abilities in job interviews.”

It can be difficult to pull together a resume that really highlights what you’re capable of. Career centres on campus can help identify and articulate the skills and accomplishments you achieved throughout school and effectively sum it up on your resume. Career centres can also help with how you can address the lack of experience in interviews with potential employers, arming you with confidence when you are interviewing.

“Students think the diploma or degree they attain will open doors rather than looking at how to sell themselves with the skills and knowledge they developed, failing to create strong job hunting skills and networks while still in school,” Clarence deSchiffart, Coordinator of Career and Essential Skills Service at Nova Scotia Community College explained.

After discussing post-secondary education and student job hunts with post-secondary institutions themselves, I learned that it wasn’t necessarily the degree, certificate or diploma that was going to set grads apart, being successful involves doing research and making sure that education compliments the field you want to pursue. On top of that, taking time to gain experience, preparing yourself for the real world, and making use of the on-campus resources available to you to better understand and articulate your skills and experience, will all help you be successful with your job hunt.

In the final part of this three-part series, we talk to the ultimate source to answer all our job hunt questions—the employers themselves. The final article will take a look at what employers are really looking for, and what they suggest new grads do to get themselves ahead.

Illustration by SLN’s Satesh Mistry.

Lauren Marinigh

Lauren Marinigh

Lauren is a Sheridan College graduate now working in social media marketing... yes, she gets paid to Tweet. When she's not living in the social media realm, she's off traveling the world and writing about it on her travel blog.