When Christina Di Rosa graduated from McMaster University last December, she applied for dozens of internships but, in the end, opted to return to her summer job at a local golf course as a way to make some money.
"A lot of my friends right now are just working office jobs, whatever they can get their hands on," said Ms. Di Rosa, 22.
"The most important thing right now for students is to get money – we're not going to get hired anywhere without a postgraduate degree, so we have to save up [for that]."
While the English literature grad was busy during university – taking part in job-shadowing programs and volunteering with school teachers – she wonders whether any of that experience will be relevant now that she's decided to return to school to pursue a different path, perhaps in public relations.
But experts say students unable to land summer jobs in their chosen fields shouldn't assume it will hurt their career goals, as there is more value in menial summers jobs than millennials think.
Sharon Irwin-Foulon, executive director of career management and corporate recruiting at the Ivey Business School at Western University, says any kind of experience can help boost your résumé if you have a well-thought-out narrative that leads employers to understand the skills and experience gained.
"I had a student a couple of years ago who chose to do the College Pro painting route because he wanted to force himself to be accountable for raising his own money and, more than that, he wanted to test his own ability to sell, because he didn't think he was good at it," she said.
"Just on that alone, that he had an awareness he wasn't good at it and that he was pushing himself – we loved him for that."
Accenture, a global management consulting firm, recruits students from university campuses and says what it values most in candidates is how well-rounded they are.
While grades matter, the firm looks at additional experience, whether it's a part-time job, a summer job, an internship or volunteer work.
"We don't necessarily place a preference on one over the other; what we look at is the overall package," said Nicholas Greschner, a human resources director with Accenture in Montreal.
"It's not about where the work was performed or the employer, it's more about what they did. It could be completely in a different field. It's all about what you did with that experience."
In addition to paid work, that experience can also come from activities on campus throughout the school year or other extracurricular activities.
"What we hear from employers is that they're looking for people with the skills and ability to do the work, and that can come from different places," said Cathy Keates, director of Queen's career services.
"In general, employers hire someone who can make a really strong case that they have what they need, and that evidence for your case can come from different types of experiences."
The ability to communicate effectively, work in a team and problem solve will always be valuable skills, she said, but initiative can be what really makes a candidate stand out.
And if there is no paid work on the horizon, the best thing students can do to show they are motivated go-getters is to volunteer.
"Obviously, everyone would like to have a summer job, but sometimes you try for a few jobs and it just doesn't pan out," Mr. Greschner said.
"It happens, it's okay. But do something about it. It's better to do volunteer work for four weeks than to have nothing on your calendar."
Students who spent the summer volunteering can also make a case for being goal-focused and engaged, since they can use that experience to point to the fact that they chose to spend their free time volunteering with an organization they believed in instead of sitting in their parents' basement, Ms. Irwin-Foulon said.
"It's not necessarily the credentials," she said.
"I think sometimes that's where kids get caught up as opposed to the skill set and attitude."