Rethinking the Start of Careers

By: Matthew Gaiser, Queen’s University

It is the time of year when students start applying for summer positions. Some may have been at it for months, and others may just be starting. The students have a variety of different goals in mind. Some want an elusive research or hospital position to boost their application to medical school. Some are looking for an internship in their field. Some want a prestigious position even if unpaid, believing that it will pay dividends later. Others are just looking for any experience they can find that also pays enough for next year’s tuition. Unfortunately for all of them, the Canadian economy is not going to be in great shape this summer. From the aspiring doctor and the chemical engineer to the person working an unpaid internship in private equity to the student just looking to earn enough money to afford a year of something better than ramen, the summer does not look encouraging; opportunities are slim.

Much of the shortage stems from the current economic position of Canada. Alberta and the territories are suffering from low commodity prices. The Maritimes have been perpetually struggling with ways to boost their economies and while the other provinces are doing above anemically economically, unemployment is still relatively high. In a regular economy, prime summer positions are scarce. In many regions, they are now non-existent. With companies cutting full time positions, they have little need to recruit and thus little need for temporary employees as their full time workers are underutilized.

The lack of summer positions exacerbates a larger problem in the Canadian economy, a lack of entry-level jobs appropriate for university level graduates. While few statistics exist on underemployment, there are numerous anecdotes concerning individuals with bachelors or even masters degrees working in jobs that do not require a high school diploma. The anxiety among the student population demonstrates that these anecdotes are not few and far between, but rather known by everyone.  This anxiety has, in many ways, created a resume arms race, with students attempting to stuff as many activities as possible into their schedule in order to stand out amongst the masses applying for jobs. In a hiring environment, where dozens of online applications are required to get an interview, every additional line on one’s resume could mean 2-3 fewer custom cover letters to write.  When it requires 5-6 interviews to get an offer, hours and hours of work are saved for every additional item on one’s resume.

There are several other contributing factors that make it difficult for graduates to find work, such as a disconnect between what is learned in university and the skills required in the workplace; the lack of available positions is, however, at its core. It used to be that nearly half of Americans worked in agriculture.  Now less than 2% work in this field. During the agricultural era, people worried that there would be no jobs, as machinery replaced human labour and automated the plowing of fields while chemistry boosted agricultural yields. To accompany these technological developments, entrepreneurs developed new products and services for people to purchase, and employed individuals who had previously worked in the fields, in factories. Now, a new set of entrepreneurs are required to innovate and create new products and, in the process, new jobs.

There are a few things that could be done to spur entrepreneurship and innovation in Canada over the summer months.  The Ontario Summer Company program, a program which gives students a $3000 grant to start a business over the summer, is a good start.   Ideally the Canada Summer Jobs Act, a program which pays the wages of students working at non-profit organizations and subsidises those who work in small companies, would be rewritten to allow small businesses and start-up companies to hire people with a higher subsidy rate and exclude municipalities from using the program. Resources need to go towards opportunities which have the potential for exponential economic impact, not city maintenance. The grants should also be attached to students, not to businesses. This attachment would allow students to create their own opportunities while ensuring that they do not lack the finances to take advantage of those opportunities. The current framework also places the smallest entrepreneurial endeavours at a disadvantage.

Universities need to develop more pathways for students to explore small business and entrepreneurial opportunities. 90% of Canadians are employed by small or medium sized enterprises, yet those opportunities are almost non-existent when you examine what the career services department of various universities provides. Universities need to reach out to alumni and make connections in their local communities to build unique relationships with businesses. This will allow each university to create unique summer experiences and thus unique career paths; it will help save students from having to write cover letter after cover letter and resume after resume only to fire them off into an online void and hope that they are noticed somewhere on the other side.

New ways of approaching summer and after graduation employment is necessary to not only avoid a permanent depression in the careers of youth, but to avoid a permanent depression in our economy. While the start of careers may very well be variable, the end of careers is generally fixed, reducing the lifetime earning potential for every year spent under or unemployed. This reduces both overall tax revenue and an individual’s ability to retire at the same standard of living as pervious generations; it strains the tax generation that follows them. On this issue, we cannot afford missteps.  The current way youth are encouraged to start their careers is broken. We need to fix it to ensure they can reach their potential so as a nation, we can secure our economic future.