Look Before You Learn

Look Before You Learn Hiring Graphic Coop

As a student or recent graduate, chances are you’ve been asked the same question as everyone else has: “what are you going to do with your degree?” It could be the rallying cry of our grandparents’ generation. With baby boomers approaching retirement, we millennials have reason to be excited about our employment prospects. However, even top students increasingly express concern about their career prospects once they exit University. A bachelor’s degree, once considered the most important step toward a fulfilling and lucrative career, is no guarantee of future success or even of getting hired. Even in an environment where unemployment is reliably low and economic growth is strong, candidates compete for entry-level positions. In light of this fierce competition for jobs, it can be crucial to understand how managers evaluate candidates and what we as students can do to bolster our profile to help us kick off our professional lives.

Do Undergraduates Learn Anything Valuable?

The answer to this question may seem fairly obvious. Undergraduates at Canadian universities receive instruction from some of the world’s leading academics. Regardless of your academic concentration, you receive excellent training in your field, and are well-equipped to contribute as a new hire. Unfortunately, employers don’t necessarily think the same way.  In fact, in contemporary economic models, education is viewed through one of two lenses: signalling and productivity improvement.

The theory that education increases a worker’s productivity is the one that seems most intuitive. The assumption is that humans are largely similar in their inherent productivity, but that they can improve their value to employers by going to school and learning new skills. These new skills make them more effective in either a particular job or several. As such, they are more valuable to employers, who in turn pay educated employees more. The increased compensation serves as an incentive for people to pursue an education. Perhaps the strongest argument in favour of this theory surrounds future lawyers, engineers, and doctors. Since a certain level of postsecondary education is required to receive license to practice any of these professions, the productivity of a person with no university education as a lawyer is zero. However, earning a law degree and passing the requisite certification exams render the individual highly valuable as a legal professional.

On the other hand, signalling theory asserts that workers are born with inherent differences in capabilities, and that some people’s relative ease in completing a university education indicates a higher level of skill and productivity. Furthermore, we assume that people who are somewhat less productive will choose not to pursue higher education. As such, under the signalling theory, education does not result in a person being more productive. This theory has some obvious flaws, and is often only used as a simplifying condition in economic modelling. However, there are some examples of university concentrations that lend themselves to signalling theory. For example, most of a painter’s talent is a product of innate ability, and a university education helps them to hone their skills. As such, the education of a painter has a larger signalling component than that of, say, an accountant.

When undergraduates go hunting for jobs, they often assume that their degree will be recognised as evidence of their extensive learning in a certain field. However, as an increasing proportion of Canadians pursue tertiary education, hiring managers are increasingly searching for graduates who have some level of experience in their industry. Moreover, a university degree is required for a growing number of jobs. In other words, recruiters are assigning less value to the education as a way to improve workers’ productivity, and more to its role as a signal of intelligence, character, and other productivity-improving qualities.

The Internship Race

In today’s competitive employment environment, it is ever more important to get hands-on experience while studying as an undergraduate. Landing one of a few super-prestigious positions at Wall Street banks or Silicon Valley tech firms can put a young graduate on the fast track to career success. As a result, top students compete fiercely for this small collection of placements. Rejection rates at companies like Goldman Sachs regularly outpace those of the most selective Ivy League schools.

Even ignoring these highly sought-after internships, the landscape for undergraduates looks bleak. A number of entry-level internship placements are gained through personal connections. It’s not uncommon for a student to begin their undergraduate career at their aunt’s small business or to leverage their parents’ professional acquaintances to start their professional career. This obviously tilts the playing field in favour of undergrads from wealthy professional families, and against first-generation students and children of immigrants. Moreover, the experience gained through these advantages can be coupled with further leveraging personal connections. This deepens the divide between different people’s opportunities.

In light of rising education costs, taking an unpaid position could be an unrealistic option.

Finally, students must be careful to avoid the trap of unpaid internships. When a recruiter looks at a recent graduate’s resume, they seek to understand what kind of value the candidate will bring to their firm. Jobs and internships that are paid – even minimum wage – reveal that the candidate generated real value as an employee. On the other hand, unpaid internships often have the reputation for being less professional in a way. As a result, an undergrad with an offer for an unpaid internship in their target industry must carefully weigh the benefits of that placement against a low-wage job. Moreover, this discussion assumes that the student in question can afford financially to forego a summer’s worth of earnings. In light of rising education costs, taking an unpaid position could be an unrealistic option.

However, students can be heartened that internships in a variety of fields are becoming more fair and more accessible across the board. Many firms now post all of their intern placements online, which makes them open to applications from anyone with access to the web. Therefore, where internships used to be attained through word-of-mouth and cold-calls, interns can now browse the web to see the world of opportunities open to them. Additionally, the Government of Canada is continually cracking down on the practice of offering unpaid internships. Both of these are contributing to ameliorating the challenge of accessing internship opportunities for university students.

Co-Operative Programs

Similar to internships, co-operative education programs (co-ops for short) are a popular way for students to bolster their resumes. Co-ops are arrangements between universities and businesses in which students get the opportunity to work for a firm and earn course credits. The benefits of these arrangements are twofold for students. They have the opportunity to gain valuable experience without having to compromise their focus on schoolwork. It also establishes a program in which the placements are promoted and managed by the university. This helps to integrate classroom learning with real-world applications. Moreover, it also leads to the development of a system in which students are more aware of the opportunities available to them.

Co-op education is gaining popularity in Canada. Schools like Waterloo, Concordia, and the University of Toronto all tout their co-op programs in their marketing efforts. McGill, on the other hand, does not offer co-ops in many of its faculties. Some, like the Faculty of Arts, offer credit for internship experience, but it is a complicated process that involves the student finding their own employment opportunity and seeking approval from the faculty. As such, it’s clear that McGill could take some notes from the successes of its peers. As more Canadian students graduate with co-op experience, graduates of McGill will fall behind the competition when it comes to hands-on work experience.

What McGill Students Can Do Today

In light of the increasingly competitive job market, students often find themselves seeking ways to heighten their profile in the eyes of recruiters. The first step is to understand how firms hire, and how you can make yourself as appealing as possible as a candidate. This means developing a polished, professional resume. It also means reading up on how to stand out in an interview. A candidate can have outstanding experience, but one of the biggest considerations for a recruiter is “what is the candidate like to work with?” This is where confidence, poise, and character can allow a potential hire to distinguish themselves.

As more Canadian students graduate with co-op experience, graduates of McGill will fall behind the competition when it comes to hands-on work experience.

Students can also elevate their candidacy by, as much as possible, obtaining hard evidence of the value that they bring to an employer. These include “hard skills” like computer programming, foreign language skills, and learning how to use standard programs like Microsoft Excel. Students in certain disciplines can also pursue various certifications that serve as evidence of their talents. Common choices are Google and Hubspot, both of which offer free online training and certifications. However, these skills are particular to specific jobs. Events like case competitions, hackathons, and literary competitions also offer students an opportunity to prove their individual talents and distinguish themselves. These activities represent experience in solving realistic problems, and a graduate can refer to this experience when making a case for themselves in job applications.

The moral of the story is that graduates are up against a highly competitive job market. That being said, new industries and careers are appearing at a remarkable rate. Moreover, McGill students benefit from a highly rigorous education, and graduate with a degree that is recognised throughout Canada and internationally. McGill grads can make their resumes jump out of the pile, provided they take certain steps to highlight their experience and apply their education.

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