Saturday, July 21, 2012

Work Experience, Co-Op Programs, and Your Future Career

"A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."
-Steve Jobs

I was at my local bank recently when I noticed a high school student working closely with a Financial Service Representative. The student was wearing a High School Work Experience tag that was very similar to one I wore 16 years ago.

Later that evening, during a conversation with some family members, the topic of paying for university came up; they weren't sure if they had saved enough money for their children's university education. When I asked my family members if their children had looked into Co-Op Education or work experience programs in universities or colleges, I received a blank stare, followed by an argument about how it is nearly impossible for their child to complete post-secondary education while obtaining work experience. They insisted that it just couldn't be done!

The costs and methods of saving for post-secondary education is a very popular topic, especially considering the recent economic climate in North America. When financial planning is discussed in the media, RRSP's and RESP's are generally the two main topics. Financial Planning experts typically detail how much parents should be saving in RESP's (typically what a detached house close to a golf course in Nevada or Arizona costs now) or they could find themselves in dire financial consequences. It's not surprising that the majority of parents probably feel they haven't saved enough money in RESP's. In many cases, parents who thought they had saved meticulously are shocked to find out just how expensive post-secondary education can be; beyond tuition, there are considerable expenses for a decent education.

Some students fortunately qualify for scholarships or student loans, but these often are not enough to cover the full expenses for post-secondary education. It is very common to hear about recently graduated students saddled with $25,000 to $30,000 in student loan debt - some students in medical and engineering courses can be indebted further still. Reality hits hard when (and if) they graduate, facing a job market with a dearth of decent paying, family supporting-jobs in their chosen field. While sometimes the positions and vacancies for jobs do not exist, many job seekers quickly realize that their lack of work experience is a detriment to them finding gainful employment. From a financial standpoint, graduating with debt while not being able to find a family-supporting job usually means that other purchases, such as a car, wedding, condominium or first home, RRSP/TFSA contributions, or charity donations will have to wait for a long time.

Several "experts" have stated that provincial and federal governments should increase funding to lower tuition fees, which will in turn make post-secondary education more affordable and accessible for students. I believe this debate is currently ongoing in Quebec. Recently, the province of British Columbia unveiled a plan to ease interest and principle payments for student loans, and in some cases, forgiving loan payments. These initiatives may lessen the financial burden of a higher education, but fail to solve the problem that post-secondary graduates with limited-to-no work experience face in a competitive job market.

Many parents and current high school and university students are not aware of work experience programs or Co-operative Education. High school work experience programs provide students with valuable work experience in the public and private sector, and often count as credits toward graduation. Typical placements are unpaid and include one or two week placements at hospitals, banks, law offices, government offices, or even at large companies. Co-Op programs in post-secondary institutions provide students with the opportunity to earn money and gain work experience while studying. Work terms are typically four, eight, or 12 months in duration.

Co-Op programs are an extremely effective way for a student to explore their career preference early, so they can decide if it's the right choice for them. For example, if a high school student wants to be a police officer, but intrinsically doesn't like conflict or dealing with difficult people, it hardly makes sense for them to log hundreds of community service hours while spending a small fortune to take university level criminology courses to become a police officer. A Co-Op program would help that student gain experience in the policing field before the hours and money was wasted.

As a taxpayer, I feel that if our provincial and federal governments really wanted to help students and parents ease the burdens and costs of post-secondary education, they should increase the number of paid Co-Op work-terms for students in university, college, and even high school. First and second year students who gain work experience in areas such as Accounting or Information Technology through government Co-Op programs would have valuable experience once they graduate for finding employment in the private sector. Since Co-Op terms have regimented start and end dates, there would be no ongoing commitment from the government. Although there is a limited supply of information on this topic, it seems that providing students with a means to earn money while they are obtaining a higher education would be more cost effective then handing out a loan to a teenager who has yet to master money management, especially students who come from low-income families.

In the mid-nineties, the B.C. unemployment rate was very high; there were literally lines of over-qualified candidates attempting to be hired for seasonal minimum wage job openings. During this time, I was in high school, and unsuccessfully tried for over a year to find part-time retail work. It was at this time I decided to change my approach and enrol in the work experience program at my high school. My work terms were one-to-two weeks at Rona and Walmart. During this time, I learned a lot about myself, especially my strengths and weaknesses. I realized that I had great people skills and was a good at sales. This was a surprise to me, as I always considered myself to be an introvert. I used these sales and marketing skills to sell power tools to weekend handymen, usually while their wives were looking like they wished I'd lose the keys to the powerdrill cabinet! Walmart hired me part-time shortly after my term ended. The strategy worked and I had a part-time job!

After learning more about Sam Walton, Walmart's founder, I developed an interest in business. I figured any man who could create a billion dollar global business that transformed the retail market, all while driving around in a pick up truck, was somebody I could take inspiration from.

After completing my first year of the Business Administration program in university, I decided once again to apply for the Co-Op program. Having learned early that education alone wouldn't open doors for me, I decided I needed work experience that was relevant to my education. Since I was from what could be called a low income household, I also thought some added income would be helpful. I was fortunate that my first work term was with the Province of British Columbia in the Ministry of Skills, Development and Labour.

During my Co-Op program, I was employed as an Employment Standards Officer, and I went on to complete four work terms (total of 16 months) at the Ministry while still in university. I learned some valuable lessons about work and life from the people who worked there. The biggest lesson I learned was when I received my first paycheque, and saw just how much was deducted in income taxes - it was a bit of a shock. Even though the job paid a decent wage, there just wasn't much left over to repay my credit card bills from last semester. Beer and pizza bills really add up, even if they are on special.

This experience really put in perspective how long it would take to pay off student loans in the $25,000 to $30,000 range. When I returned to school, I began watching my expenses closely. I also realized that I didn't want to continue studying Accounting in university, as I knew that I filling out spreadsheets and crunching numbers all day just wasn't for me.

My other two work terms included a stint in operations management with a mid-size plastics manufacturer, and as a recruiter for a global supply chain and logistics company where I hired several hundred people during my Co-Op work-term. After completing 24 months total of work experience in university, I realized that I wanted to go into Human Resources Management. I noticed there was a shortage of H.R. professionals with union experience, and I had fortunately completed almost all of my terms in unionized settings.

Although I've had some people disagree with me over the years, I entirely think it was worth it to delay my graduation for almost three years in order to gain the work experience that I did. If it wasn't for the work-terms, I wouldn't have been able to pay for my tuition and books. I honestly don't think I would have made it past my second year otherwise. My part-time minimum wage job wasn't going to cover it. Some companies even hired me part-time after my terms were finished and were flexible with my class schedule when I started school full-time again.

My work experience also helped me figure out which electives to take in order to help me in my career. For example, I enrolled in a public speaking course as I realized the importance of presentations and speaking to large groups, often on short notice. I was more engaged in my classes and often asked pointed, insightful questions, something I never did in my original accounting courses. I also had a network of contacts and work references by the time I graduated with a Bachelors in Business Administration. Within a few months of graduating, I was hired in the H.R. Department of an aerospace manufacturing firm. I was surprised to learn the Director of HR knew one of my previous Co-Op supervisors. It definitely helped me land that job, and I have been in H.R. ever since!

In a knowledge-based economy, many industries are growing and the demand for educated, skilled workers is on the rise. Even in a recession, companies are struggling to find candidates with the right skills and work experience. Most of these jobs may not require university degrees, but do require some post-secondary education and work experience.

Businesses are always looking for ways to give back to their communities while dealing with skills shortages. They can benefit greatly from introducing or expanding the number of work experience terms they offer to students, especially to at-risk youth or students from low income families. Some companies have a Tuition Reimbursement Policy that students could qualify for. I know several people who have used these programs to obtain valuable work experience while getting paid, while having some of their courses paid for as well. The majority of these employees tended to stay on with their employers after graduation.

With the rate of change in the world, post-secondary institutions have a challenging task in trying to prepare students for careers that currently do not exist. This is especially true for careers in science and technology. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter were all created less than 12 years ago and are now billion dollar companies. Students who are fortunate enough to get work experience in high tech companies can at least get a general sense of industry trends and where the jobs are, and can plan accordingly.

I know there are people that might say that the goal of universities and post-secondary institutions are not to train students for "corporation" jobs where the only goal is to maximize profits. I agree that students should receive a broad-based education, but would also like to add that many skills are transferrable to other sectors of the economy, and can be used for more than just government and business. Non-profits employ a large number of people in Canada and need highly skilled and experienced individuals to join their organizations as the baby boomers start to retire in large numbers over the next few years. From what I have read, the majority of them don't have formal succession plans, so a lot of knowledge and skills walk out the door when someone decides to retire.

Non-profits rely on donations from several sources to continue operations. In a tough economy there is increasing pressure on non-profits from donors and other stakeholders to be effective and efficient. United Way of the Lower Mainland states on their website that it is "an organization committed to making a measurable difference in our community." It also states that it has one of the lowest net fundraising costs in the country. This tells me that non-profits like the United Way need skilled people to do more with less resources in a rapidly changing external environment. Advanced computer training, knowledge of employment law, marketing, recruiting, fundraising, and experience working with budgets are just some of skills needed in order to manage in a non-profit.

Co-Op programs help students and their parents in identifying early on where the in-demand and lucrative careers are, as well as the skills needed to maintain these careers. It's critical for parents and students to think ahead and develop a career plan so they can identify the gaps and beginning filling them, because it realistically could take many years.

I would encourage other past work experience or Co-Op graduates to come forward and share their stories. I am sure many people would find them educational and useful.

While I was at the bank recently, I told the student wearing the High School Work Experience tag to pay very close attention to what she learning, as it will help her immensely later in her career and life. She smiled and nodded in agreement. As I turned to leave, I could hear her asking the Financial Service Representative why some clients have money in their savings accounts where they receive little interest, but carry large balances on their credit card where the interest rates are so high. I smiled to myself - many adults couldn't even answer that question, but she'll soon be able to. There's still hope for the future after all.

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