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Sometimes the diploma or degree just isn't enough

by Julia Skikavich

In an increasingly competitive job market, it is becoming apparent to students that having a post-secondary education sometimes isn't enough to break into their chosen career.

"The big piece of advice I'd give other students is don't just get good grades in school, do the internships while you're there," says Dara Hakimzadeh, a recent graduate of Carleton University's masters of journalism program.

Hakimzadeh has been doing an unpaid internship with a non-profit charity organization for four months. Though it is allowing him to put his journalism skills to use and he plans on staying with them for up to half a year, he says what he really wants is to be in a position where he is paid for his skills.

However, in today's saturated job market, he says he sometimes finds it hard to get noticed. He hopes the experience he gains with this internship will help him gain the attention of prospective employers.

Scott Fennell, employer relations manager at York University, agrees that having an internship on a résumé is helpful in getting a job. "There is definite value in having actual experience that is very similar to your chosen career path," he says.

He adds that beyond having concrete experience on a résumé, internships also allow students to take a "test run" at a career and gives them a chance to start building networks.

Loyalist College student Jordan Scarlett has had the opportunity to take a test run at radio broadcasting while doing an internship in Nunavut. He is now completing a post-diploma in media marketing and sales, and is preparing to go on his second internship.

"I found [the internship] to be almost more valuable then the education itself," he says. His first internship allowed him to learn skills, such as announcing, that he would not have had much opportunity to get otherwise, he says. He is looking forward to his next internship and adds, "Employers don't just want the piece of paper, they want to know you have skills."

Hakimzadeh has encountered the demand for transferable skills first-hand. While completing his undergraduate degree at Wilfred Laurier University, he attended a job fair where he says a prospective employer suggested he consider going to college to get a diploma and the hands-on experience that often comes with it.

"When I was an undergrad, I had this vision of ‘I'm in a good program, I'll get a job'," says Hakimzadeh. "But, I think that the closer to the end of your education you get, you start to realize that sometimes education isn't as valued as it once was."

Graduate year recruitment officer at Carleton University Lorraine Anderson says employers aren't just looking at the student's degree but for skills related to the degree. "Internships are a wonderful opportunity to get involved in a career path. It allows the students to gain a lot of skills that employers are looking for: communication skills, interpersonal skills, team work and leadership."

Fennell suggest students looking at careers with reputations as being challenging to break into seriously consider doing an internship. He points to international development, journalism, computer science and engineering as examples.

Though Hakimzadeh says he doesn't have any negative feelings towards his unpaid internship, he sometimes does get frustrated with the entire situation. "I'm lucky, I'm able to live at home - not all parents would be as nice about that."

Anderson agrees unpaid internships can be a challenge for students. "A lot of students, when they graduate from university, have debts they need to pay back in terms of student loans. When you get into unpaid internships, this could be a challenge for the student, but nonetheless they are gaining valuable experience."

Fennell agrees and says students taking on unpaid internships need to remember they are getting something out of it. "They are getting a chance to apply their lessons in the real world. Staying with an unpaid internship is a personal choice, and some may be able to stay with them longer than others. But I'd say when you actually start to feel you are no longer getting anything out of it, it's time to make a choice and maybe move on."

Anderson reminds students that though unpaid internships are common, numerous paid internships also exist.

Career services at most universities and colleges should be able to provide students with a variety of internship options, both paid and unpaid, with numerous organizations and businesses nationally and internationally. Be sure to visit them for more information.

Fennell points to Career Edge as an example of a paid internship program and says that it was a program he used to find his first job.

"Go to the career fair, go to your career services, go on the Internet, use the resources that are available to you," he says.

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