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Five things undergrads can do now to prepare to enter the job market

Peter Caven is managing director, Launched Careers, Toronto.

Next month, students will be heading off to university – some for the first time and others for the last time. There are several things they can do now to prepare for entering the job market.

The employment market will continue to be very challenging. Canadian universities will graduate more than 300,000 students into an environment in which companies are not hiring the way they used to. The competition for the best jobs will be intense.

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The implication for graduates is significant. In its Labour Market Assessment 2015, the Office of the Parliamentary Budget Office reported that 56 per cent of university graduates under the age of 24 were underemployed.

Research by the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers indicates that the skills most valued by employers include:

  • Verbal communications
     
  • Teamwork
     
  • Analytical and problem-solving
     
  • Strong work ethic

And employers' most valued prescreening criteria are:

  • Integrated learning (co-op, internship, service learning)
     
  • Extra-curricular activities (clubs, societies, sports)

Given the desirable skills and criteria listed above, there are several things that current students can do now to get ready to enter the job market.

1. Polish communications skills: Volunteer to give presentations – be the spokesperson for assignment teams. Videos or recordings can reveal bad habits and verbal "ticks" that can be corrected.

Join the debating society. Get involved in a theatrical production. Watch great orators (such as Barack Obama) – observe their pacing and overall delivery. Practice.

2. Build teamwork skills: Join groups and clubs – strive for a leadership position. Get involved in an activity other than pub night.

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Play an organized team sport even if it is at the intramural level.

3. Enhance analytical and problem-solving skills: Seek opportunities to develop analytical and problem-solving skills. Volunteer to take on a tough project. Ask your professors if there is research or another project you can get involved in.

4. Demonstrate a strong work ethic: Work hard to excel academically. Strong academic results are indicators of drive, aspiration, a results focus, organization and planning skills – all of which are valued by employers. Get involved with several activities; this demonstrates an ability to prioritize tasks, and organize and manage time.

5. Seize integrated learning opportunities: Co-op programs, summer jobs and internships provide opportunities to:

  • Learn about a field or industry of interest
     
  • Apply knowledge acquired in the classroom
     
  • Gain valuable work experience
     
  • Decide if this is the right path
     
  • Develop and build skills
     
  • Get a foot in the door at a company
     
  • Gain valuable networking contacts
     
  • Consider co-op programs at school

Start the search for a summer job in the fall – spring will be too late. Set objectives for a summer job. Target organizations that offer summer employment. To find these organizations and great summer jobs you have to network, network, network.

If a relevant summer job can't be found, will something menial do? The answer is "Yes." It is better than doing nothing and there will likely be a way to position it on a resume and in interviews as being beneficial; for example, acquiring a new skill or learning about an industry. A friend worked one summer as a telemarketer – within six years she was the CEO.

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Volunteering with a not-for-profit service organization offers a number of benefits. It shows initiative, an interest in working with and serving others as well as a commitment to community service.

The competition for good jobs when you graduate will be intense – laying the foundation now for entry into the job market will pay huge dividends.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

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