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Changing to meet growing needs

The Globe and Mail, Oct. 13, 2004

Now, more than ever, university students need to establish a plan as early as their freshman year to get the academic and life skills they'll need to launch a career, counsellors and employers advise.

But according to the University Report Card, many students are less than satisfied with the help being offered to them. While students give high marks to the overall quality of their university's ability to prepare them for a career, the grades their school's career counselling and placement services earn are less than stellar.

Officials of university counselling centres respond that students should take a closer look at what is offered, because the centres are changing to meet the growing needs of students as well as shifting expectations of employers.

In addition to academic credentials, employers now want to see work experience and interest in the community and the world, explains Jan Basso, director of Co-operative Education and Career Service at Wilfred Laurier University.

"The degree itself will not get a student a career any more," Ms. Basso says. "We focus more these days on helping students identify the particular skills they have that will make them valuable to an employer and how they can make an impact within the organization."

But many students don't take advantage of the services the university offers until they start looking for a part-time or summer job. And that may be too late, Ms. Basso warns.

"It really is critical is to get them thinking during their first year of studies," she says, adding that many universities have started outreach programs to make sure high-school counsellors, students and parents are aware of the services available.

Indeed, she says, most career centres now advise students to do volunteer work and extracurricular activities to gain skills and show community involvement.

That's a good start, notes Thomas d'Aquino, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives in Ottawa, which includes managers of 150 large companies.

Mr. d'Aquino says universities do an admirable job of teaching academic skills but, in many cases, don't prepare students to work in an increasingly global world, where public policy and social issues are important to success.

"Education is just one milepost along the way," Mr. d'Aquino says. "Employers now consider it a disadvantage if a person is only an expert in a specialty and is not well informed about what is going on politically and economically."

To get all the necessary academic courses and experience requires career planning that students all too often put off until it's too late, says Wendy Coffin, director of Career and Placement Services, at the University of Alberta.

If possible, she says, students should make a choice by the end of their first year after they have tested some possibilities because by the end of second year there may not be enough time to take all the courses needed for some careers, Ms. Coffin says. However, "it always depends on a student being ready to think about a career. Some are keen in the first year, but too many others graduate and come back and ask: 'Where were you when I had to make a decision?'-"

The university encourages students to get work experience related to their career goal either during the academic year or in summer, Ms. Coffin says. It also organizes workshops and counselling in career paths from graduates who have established themselves in the field.

To help make the process of getting advice and finding jobs easier, Alberta and other universities are turning to technology.

The Internet is helping to solve one of the biggest challenges for the counselling services: the limited staff available for in-person counselling. For example, York University in Toronto, with 50,000 students and only 12 people in its career centre, has added on-line counselling to its website.

The Career Cyberguide,, uses streaming video workshops on topics ranging from academic choices to résumé preparation and interview skills. Each segment has a video presentation accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation that can be downloaded along with enrichment and background materials.

Open less than a year, the site has already won two major awards from education associations. While it originally was part of a password-protected site for access only by students, its advice on résumés, and interviewing proved so useful in any job search that the site has been opened to the general public, says Donna Robbins, director of York University's Career Centre.

A recently added link on the University of Alberta's main Web page has also made it easier for students to find jobs and potential careers they may not have known existed.

There are only about 100 companies in Canada large enough to need more than a dozen students each year. But there are thousands of small employers who look to career centres for help in hiring —they provide a career description and ask the centre post it, Ms. Coffin explains.

The students are obviously using the on-line service, because it receives 1,000 hits a day, she adds.

And while an early decision on a career is virtuous, Ms. Coffin says students should stay flexible enough to change direction if they realize they're drawn to an alternative they discover along the way.

"The one piece of advice I always give students is that it is important not to close doors," Ms. Coffin says.

Don't knock it till you've tried it: Survey Many students are giving university career centres a bad rap without even walking through the door, a new study concludes.

"The perception among people who don't use a career centre is that 'If this is a service run by my school, it can't be that great,'" says Graham Donald, president of Brainstorm Consulting in Toronto. "But when they do go through the door, it turns out to be better than they expected."

Brainstorm surveyed university career centres, students and employers this year to find whether what happens on campuses helps students fit into careers after they graduate.

The on-line poll of 20,000 students found that only 20 to 30 per cent of them ever go to their career centre and most of those who do discover it only when they are looking for part-time jobs.

But among students who have used career centres, 66 per cent rated their experience as "good" or "very good." Indeed, even though they had a strong sense of the career they want to pursue and the industry they want to be in, few had much idea of the companies they could work for until they saw a career counsellor, Mr. Donald says.

Meanwhile, the survey found most universities are making large investments in career centres and going beyond job placement to employment-skills development. "There is a realization that rather than go out and find jobs for students, if you teach students to develop their skills for finding work, you are teaching a skill for life," Mr. Donald says.

He says he was surprised to find that more than half of full-time students are working part-time during the school year and 41 per cent of those are working more than 17 hours a week.

This is not always from economic necessity. The study found students are aware they have to have employment experience to land a job and 75 per cent of students were willing to accept a "non-ideal" job as a starting point for their careers.

The findings show a majority of students are willing to take an entry-level job and later jump to a position that better uses their talents, Mr. Donald says. "This has really changed over the past few years. During the dot-com craze in the 1990s, MBA students were being paid ridiculous starting salaries and people expected to move into their chosen career."

Meanwhile, 57 per cent of university students said they are confident they can eventually "find a job they really want." The study also found that 41 per cent of students would like to find a organization where they can stay their whole career.

But only 20 per cent of students said their university's counselling was a major factor in their decision on which career to pursue. Most said parents and professors and friends are more significant influences on their career planning.

"It's interesting they'd turn to a friend with no experience, rather than a career counsellor who is working with dozens of employers and knows what their needs and interests are," Mr. Donald concludes. "You can look at this and say they are leaving their career planning to the least qualified people."

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