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Entry level position, minimum 2 years experience.

It’s an increasingly common theme in the job market for recent college and university graduates, and given the size of the pool that companies have to pick from for potential employees, it’s not likely to change any time soon. With an estimated 1.7 million students enrolled in University programs across Canada from 2014-2015, the value of the university degree has diminished drastically. Even for fields such as engineering, which are geared towards preparing students for particular industries or job markets, simply obtaining a degree is no longer the stable employment guarantee that is was for previous generations.

In order to stand out to employers, a high average and a shiny new degree are no longer enough, and for many programs has the comparable value to a high school diploma, simply due to the sheer volume of Canadians that now possess one. According to a 2011 statistic, nearly 12 million Canadians aged 25-64 possess a bachelor’s degree. The reduced value of the degree is even more apparent when looking at the statistics on young Canadian employment. There is currently a 12% unemployment rate amongst Canadians aged 15-24, with at least one quarter of employed youth underemployed, meaning they are working jobs for which a bachelor's degree is not required.

One of the best ways that a student can set themselves apart from the crowd in today’s competitive market is by gaining experience prior to graduation. This doesn’t mean working an unpaid internship as the designated coffee runner or paper filer. This means getting valuable, hands-on experience in a particular field that will provide you with marketable skills upon graduation. For some people, this may involve working in a finance, engineering, or the HR department at a company, or perhaps working under a professor as a research assistant to gain valuable hands on lab experience.

Co-op, as well as other experiential learning programs, are growing in popularity across Canada, with as many as 55% of students taking advantage of such programs. Therefore, employers have a large pool of eager students to draw from, and students that simply submit their resume and wait for a reply, are likely to go unnoticed in the stacks of resumes on the desks of employers. Those who successfully secure meaningful employment as a student are those who take the initiative to contact professors, researchers or employers directly, and in person whenever possible. In many cases this means going beyond your school job boards to contacting potential employers. This also means that the application process doesn’t end after resumes and cover letters have been submitted. Regularly following up with employers over the phone or in person, when appropriate, can be a good way to demonstrate your drive and passion, and improve the likelihood that they will remember your name when your application reaches them.

Speaking from experience for engineering and technology fields, the skills I learned in co-op were not those that I could have obtained in a classroom setting, and have been an indispensable asset for me when applying to graduate schools. I learned vital skills across a wide variety of backgrounds, from 3D printing technology and medical device design, to wind turbine technology. Whether you are entering the job market straight out of school, or pursuing further education, gaining co-op experience while in school can not only assist you in your future career, but is also a great way to pay for the many expenses that come with a post secondary education.

In the end, those that don’t have any applicable real world skills are a much greater risk of being ignored in the resume pile, as they have no prior experience or proof of handling a job. Those graduates that have worked in skilled environments instill in employers a sense of confidence that the student in question not only knows the material from their courses, but can also function in a professional setting. While in undergrad, remember to apply early for summer positions, attend job fairs hosted by your school, and build out your network to obtain applicable co-op positions and solid mentorship. Your resume will be full, and your capabilities will be much further ahead than that of your peers'.

Posted by Erik Lloyd

Erik Lloyd is a Cybernetics Researcher for the University of Waterloo, currently developing a bionic arm prosthesis for EMG and EEG research applications. He will be entering his Master's program in Systems Design Engineering this coming May 2017. He plans to build prosthetics that are connected to the human brain to allow for full function and feeling. He would like to test the implant technology on himself one day, much to his mother's and sister's protests.

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