The Onion, known for its satirical articles about politics, entertainment, and breaking news, published an article recently about college senior Kyle Huber looking forward to his post-graduation "demoralizing, and desperate job hunt".
The article hits the nail on the head when it comes to the challenging and dispiriting times most college grads face when job searching after graduation. The fact that it shows the problem of unemployment through a satirical lens leads to a fun read.
College grads are frustrated, and rightly so. No one looks forward to the long road of tireless job searching with little to no reward after spending years in school. Sounds pretty bleak. Does it have to be?
I get that a lot of grads start out their job search by looking at online postings, editing and re-drafting their resumes, and submitting dozens of applications to employers. Yet, I have a feeling most grads quickly realize these methods are faulty and won't get them very far. At that point, they tend to rethink their job search strategy, and get creative. Many grads have taken job searching to new and interesting levels, and continue to do so despite the fact that they are in a pretty bleak economic situation.
For example, I've spoken to servers at restaurants, many of whom are recent university and college graduates, who tell me a successful approach to job searching is waiting on tables. They get to know their clientele, chat with them, find out what they do, and if their interests match the work of their clients, they find out what opportunities are around. Much more appetizing than sitting in front of a computer all day, and why not get paid to job search?
I recently sat down for an interview with the vice-president of a boutique firm providing career counselling and executive coaching services. He said he became vice-president of the company because of an unpaid internship he had completed, as part of his college program, almost ten years before. When he graduated there wasn't a job waiting for him, and he found himself working for other organizations over the years and starting his own business, until he got a call from the president of the company, asking him if he was interested coming on board. Ten years may sound like a long time, but he was busy developing his career and achieving milestones along the way. He was the right fit for the role he now holds because a) he had completed an internship and b) he had developed himself professionally over the years in other work opportunities and business ventures.
The point I'd like to make here is that despite the gruelling and unrewarding aspects of job searching after graduation, life goes on and interesting opportunities still happen. Even for a lot of us graduates who have to work temporary jobs that aren't in our field, or that we are overly qualified for, we can still use creative job searching techniques to find out about opportunities. This may be in the form of networking, volunteering, creating a project that showcases our ideas or talents (a lot of people are using the web to do this) and expanding our opportunities to be social and meet new people.
Grads have a lot of talent, education, and skills to get them to where they want to be. It may take a while though. In the meantime, think of job searching as a full time activity that happens wherever you are. It doesn't have to be a 'sit at the computer and scour online job postings'. It can be more of a 'make each opportunity count by tapping into resources whenever they are noticed' kind of thing. More grads find interesting job opportunities when doing the latter, and it makes life more interesting, and more bearable, in the meantime.
Navigating the job market can be a huge pain, even at the best of times. When you decide to make a career change, or when you begin your transition from school to work, it's likely the most common piece of advice you'll receive is: NETWORK. I was certainly told this, because no amount of online job searching will match the benefits of a solid group of professionals vouching for you when given the chance.
There are countless articles on the internet offering tips for identifying opportunities in networking, and step-by-step approaches to increase your results. These can be useful, and yet they can't lay out a plan of action for each networking opportunity that comes your way. I first realized this when I was attending a symposium for student success initiatives at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. My work placement supervisor thought I might enjoy listening to the guest speakers. It turned out one of them was from the college I was attending. She was part of a cohort of senior staff and advisors to the president, and was sharing stories of students who had successfully transitioned from college to the working world. My mind began to quickly link my interest in student career transition with the kind of work she was doing. In listening to her speak I had that aha! moment, or "this is a person I need in my network!" moment. Kind of like a light bulb turning on and getting brighter as my brain started mapping connections between her and future opportunities.
There are all different kinds of network contacts you will encounter as you go through your career transition. They will each offer unique perspectives, opportunities, feedback, advice, and guidance as you transition. It's totally OK if you don't even know what you are looking for when you first start out. What's important is that you keep an open mind and inquisitive approach to everyone you meet, as you never know who may be a great addition to your team. I didn't have a plan for how I was going to network with this woman. All I had was a moment of insight into how she might have something to offer me in my career transition and development, and what I might be able to offer in return. I relied on that insight and it has taken me far beyond any step-by-step approach to networking. I find that identifying aha! moments is one of the most valuable tools in creating networks, because they initiate genuine conversations about shared interests and ideas. When this kind of connection is made with another person, the networking aspect comes more naturally.
An aha! moment is valuable because it generates a new perspective on your career interests and development. It allows you to link your thoughts and ideas others, and provide you with clarity or insight about your career pathway. However, I value aha! moments because of the way they make me feel. As a newcomer into an industry or profession, you may feel like you are reaching out to others for assistance without giving much in return. This may be true, as you are just building your connections and experience while those you meet have been working at it for years. An Aha! moment will help you realize that you too have something to offer, whether it be a fresh perspective, an interesting question, or a profound appreciation for another's work. Especially if it comes across as genuine. Remember, you will be remembered as much for your enthusiasm and interest as for what you say.
Document your aha! moments and review them on a regular basis. You will find that when you witness the growing list of connections you are making, both in meeting new people and in sharing ideas, your motivation to change direction on your career journey will be strengthened. Aha! moments aren't always easy to come by, but when we do clue in to them, they strengthen our resolve in making a career change, and transitioning from one kind of learning to another. They help us to believe in ourselves and our valuable contributions to the profession we are seeking to join.
Last week CBC news published an article on unpaid internships in Canada, reporting on the growing number of professionals in companies and organizations working for free.
This dilemma was made notorious when the Vancouver Fairmont Waterfront Hotel published an ad seeking a busboy intern. The ad, in part, read: "As a Busperson, you will take pride in the integral role you play in supporting your Food and Beverage Colleagues and "setting the stage" for a truly memorable meal."
As a server working part-time in a restaurant, I rely on the men and women who help clear tables, transport dirty dishes, and run endless plates of food. They don't make nearly as much money as a server, but the incentive is there: if they work hard enough and prove themselves as a busperson, they will be promoted to serving. In the meantime, they are paid for the hard work they do. I for one, can't imagine doing that kind of work for free.
It seems what used to be considered entry level work, with the opportunity to move up the corporate ladder, is now being advertised as unpaid internships, cloaked under the guise of valuable experience. Despite trending stories of the horrors of unpaid internships, the facts remain the same. Jobs are limited, and experience is necessary for graduates who want to fill the shoes of those who came before them.
As I hear more and more of my friends talk about the pros and cons of unpaid internships, I can't help but wonder how the experience itself affects their emotional way of being. Setting aside for a moment the work load, which, in and of itself can be hard to handle, the actual prospect of working for free, with no guarantee of employment or even valuable experiences, is hard to digest. In thinking about this, I thought I'd give my own two cents about how to stay grounded when transitioning into an unpaid internship.
Transitioning into unpaid internships.
The transition to becoming an unpaid intern isn’t easy. There is little to no income, there is no certainty of a job, there is sometimes no set deadline for starting and ending, and there may be limited feedback and recognition by coworkers and supervisors. In dealing with these changes, interns can feel overwhelmed, anxious, frustrated, underappreciated, depressed, confused...the list goes on. On the flip side, graduates who intern may feel they are serving a purpose by developing themselves professionally and making network contacts, putting their skills and knowledge to use in a workplace setting, and learning about the good, bad, and ugly of the industry they are breaking into.
How to deal?
One of the real concerns about interning that is less pronounced by media is how interns are dealing with the transition process. Most often, the story goes something like this: a top undergraduate student who also completed a master’s degree at a prestigious university in a well respected program finds that she is only getting interviews for unpaid internships in her field. When hired on, she becomes the coffee runner for office employees, or is given menial administrative duties to fill her day. She decides to leave and continue to look for work, only to receive interviews for similar positions to the one she just left.
Talk about a lot of changes going on: Graduating university, applying for jobs, not getting interviews, applying for internships, accepting an unpaid position, quitting that position, applying for jobs...as the cycle continues, so does the transition process, the psychological adjustment to all of these changes day in and day out. It can be exhausting, and it wears us down. So, how do we deal?
Don’t let an internship be your only focus.
Trust me, I get that internships aren’t easy. Long hours go into completing projects and assignments and the workday may not end at 5pm. Especially if an intern is looking to make a name for herself, the more hours put in, the better. However, the internship shouldn't be the only focus. We are dynamic beings with varied interests and abilities. Although we may choose to put most hours of our day into an internship, it has to be balanced with other activities, hobbies, and projects that we find interesting, and more importantly, that we feel excited and confident about. Remember that old saying "don't put all your eggs in one basket?" It definitely applies here. When we think about the number of internships that fall flat in offering full or even part-time employment, it's only necessary that we protect ourselves by also investigating other avenues for career development. No experience is wasted, but if we can find ways to apply the experience we are getting in an unpaid internship into other kinds of professional development, we may find more doors open once the internship is over.
Leverage your internship experience: create a learning contract.
When I was completing my diploma in career counselling, I was required to do two work placements. This was my first experience doing an unpaid internship, and I was weary about working for free for a total of 18 weeks. When I reflect back on my internships, I realize the major catalyst in shaping my positive experience was the learning contract me and my temporary employers agreed to. This contract was a requirement of the college, as I was to gain specific learning experiences that complemented the theoretical knowledge I received in the classroom.
Learning contracts are great for two reasons. In drafting a contract you take time to brainstorm and write down your learning expectations for the unpaid internship. If you don't know what you expect to learn, you have to find out. This means doing some research on the company or organization you want to intern for. Find out what kind of learning can be achieved, and think carefully about whether this is the kind of learning you are looking for. Secondly, you have a document to present to your future employer or supervisor outlining your expectations. It not only opens up grounds for discussion about the value of your time at a company or organization, it also demonstrates that you mean business. It may be the deciding factor, for the employer, in whether you are expected to make coffee runs all day. If it's not in an agreed upon learning contract, it shouldn't be a major part of the learning experience. Both you and an employer are accountable to this contract, and the contract may be your best resource if you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or unhappy with the work you are being assigned.
Share your experience with others.
As an unpaid intern, your experiences are valuable to others who may be considering the same route to finding fruitful employment and professional development. Your experiences are also valuable because they are your own. Sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly about being an unpaid intern is an opportunity for you to express how you are feeling, how the process is affecting you, and how you are finding ways to deal with the stress and uncertainty. A support network of others facing the same challenges can be a resource to you, especially if you feel uncertain of your decision to complete one. Of course, it's not always negative. Often, internships provide positive experiences and those must be shared too. Feeling a sense of accomplishment for what you are doing, whether or not it's paid work, is fantastic. Sharing your successes and challenges may take shape in a weekly get-together with other interns. It may be a phone call to your mom, dad, or best friend. It may be journalling at night. No matter how you express what you are feeling, it is important to have an outlet to do so during this process.
In navigating your career development, an unpaid internship may be a great opportunity to get involved in the industry you foresee yourself working in. Be mindful of how the transition into unpaid work is affecting you, and shape your experience so that it is most worthwhile to you.
Everyone has "a list".
It's composed of the markers we, often under the influence of others, set for ourselves in order to achieve a content and fulfilling life.
It sucks when those markers aren't met, especially when we aren't even sure we want to reach them.
I first watched Drew Dudley's TEDx talk after attending his opening keynote at York University's Mental Health Conference for Peer Leaders in Toronto. As the Founder and Chief Catalyst of Nuance Leadership Inc., Drew is a genius at helping us recognize our own role in taking leadership of our goals in our everyday lives.
His message is simple: If your list doesn't make sense, it is never too late to change it. What matters most is that your life goals and achievements are your own. Certain markers that we, or someone else has set may no longer hold interest and value to us. They become a sort of burden, as if we have to achieve them just because they are there. The problem is, there is no real prize for achieving markers that don't hold meaning to us anymore.
"As a matter of fact, I think we have an obligation to ourselves to keep making changes in our life until it is a life that we want and a life that we deserve, but that list is so powerful."
What happens when we decide to shake up and re-evaluate the markers we've set for ourselves?
Our "list" starts to change. We start to wonder, what would it be like to create new markers that energize us and make us excited about achievement?
Taking the lead on your career transition means setting new markers that are your own, and that come from a place of personal inspiration and motivation. No matter how big or small the changes you make to your "list", you are creating a career pathway that is more in tune with your wants and needs. There may still be surprises around the bend, but at least you can realize that no markers are set in stone, and no "list" is eternal. Things change, and so do we.
"I don't think we can lead other people until we can lead ourselves. And I think the start of leading ourselves is being able to ask ourselves honestly, in what part of my life, in my job, my health, my relationships, in what part of my life am I settling? And then say, I will not do it for one more day."