As droves of ambitious students embark on another academic year, many will be thinking about the skills they will need to acquire in order to get jobs after graduation. While a postsecondary qualification remains a strong indicator of future earnings, graduates today confront uncertain job prospects. To overcome this challenge, students should explore opportunities that develop marketable skills for the workplace during their postsecondary education.

There are many factors that contribute to the competitive and weak labour market. The increasing number of students obtaining a bachelor’s degree means a large pool of potential job candidates.  At the same time, older workers are taking jobs that in the past went to recent graduates. The newly-convocated are forced to compete with both their peers and other individuals with more experience.  There is also pressure on students to compete for desirable jobs to finance their rising student debts.  These factors lead some critics to wonder whether young people should pursue a post-secondary education at all.

The answer is simple: the alternative is worse. A Statistics Canada research paper titled “The Higher Education/Low Income Paradox: College and University Graduates with Low Earnings, Ontario, 2006,” shows that on average, the employment earnings of post-secondary graduates are higher than those of individuals without post-secondary qualifications.

Still, not all industries have a weak labour market, so students need a positive attitude and an understanding of the changing nature of the market. “It’s important for students and recent graduates to develop a job search strategy that has a career focus and the flexibility to adapt to new situations and opportunities” says Mary Giamos, Coordinator, Strategic Programs and Institutional Engagement at U of T’s Career Centre.

Resilience and tenacity are valuable. “It’s best to teach students not to give up easily. Otherwise, it will diminish their chances of success in being hired,” says Paul Lindblad,  a mentor with the New College Mentorship Program and the Governing Council appointee for Hart House’s finance committee. “And, if there is a student with an attitude to give up easily, it could just as easily affect their career if they were already in a job. The attitude needs to be never to give up, to keep trying, and learn from disappointments.”

There are many ways to gain marketable skills during a post-secondary career, ranging from school assignments to extracurricular and community involvement. Employers are seeking the skills that students develop in the classroom: critical thinking, reasoning, and communication skills. Essays and exams are opportunities to develop critical thinking, reasoning and written-communication skills. Oral communication skills can be developed in class discussions, presentations, and when meeting with TAs and professors.

At the same time,  students can hone their soft skills by engaging in extracurricular activities and involvement in the community. A support network and mentoring groups are just as important as obtaining a degree. U of T’s Career Centre can help with developing these interpersonal skills through various services that include “career option workshops, connecting students with employers through job fairs and networking events; career assessment information found on our website; and working with our coaches and counsellors,” according to Giamos.  She advises students to “begin to develop a network and learn about opportunities that are not being advertised.”

When networking, discuss the type of job you are seeking, what you can do, your strengths, and how your attitude contributes to the company. Your interpersonal skills come in handy when conducting an informational interview — a meeting in which a job seeker asks for career and industry advice rather than employment.

Partnering with a mentor is another way to explore hidden skills and gain insight into the student’s industry of choice. Lindblad says, “a mentor can share their years of experience … [and] provide other information on an industry or career choice that can only come from having actually worked in the industry.”

With its abundant supply of prospective employees, the labour market can appear to favour employers, but getting involved and being committed can give students a competitive advantage.

Click here for the full interview with Paul Lindbald

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