Graduate Employment Issues Gaining Experience

As a millennial I have grown up hearing the phrase “in the real world” from parents, teachers, professors, friends, peers, and employers. The subjectivity of this nebulous phrase has always perplexed me, although I had never felt the breadth of its reach until a couple years ago. I found myself sitting across the table from an HR rep and a VP waiting in anticipation after responding to one of a multitude of interview questions: “so you have no real work experience?”…ouch.

At that point in time I had 2 years of experience as a research assistant, 5 years working in a professional office environment, an honours undergrad degree, multiple national presentations and one project completed with a police service, and all of my experiences were related to the position. Before that interview I thought I was doing alright in terms of work experience, for growing up in a time when most of my peers were struggling with the conundrum of acquiring 3+ years of work experience for an entry level position.

Although, my lack of work experience did not prevent me from receiving a job offer, I was left looking over my resume and reflecting on which aspects I would be able to improve. As fate would have it, I received an email from my department on behalf of a new student group called Community Health Information and Research Partnerships (CHIRP) for a volunteer research position.

CHIRP is a graduate student-led, faculty-supported initiative that seeks to address health and social equity barriers in Winnipeg. CHIRP’s goal is to facilitate partnerships between the University of Manitoba and local non-profit and community-based organizations (CBOs). U of M graduate students, undergraduate students, faculty, and alumni are provided with the opportunity to utilize their academic education, build networks with local CBOs/representatives, and gain valuable work experience.

Conversely, CBOs are able to complete projects that they would otherwise not have the opportunity to complete to aid in the development of their organization.  CHIRP has worked with various organizations, including Spence Neighbourhood Association, Canadian Mental Health Association, Community Financial Services, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Winnipeg, and New Directions. Projects for these organizations include literature reviews, data analysis, program evaluations, and knowledge translation products.

Volunteers for CHIRP organize, design, implement, and complete all aspects of a research project with the assistance of U of M faculty members. Beyond providing practical work experience, CHIRP provides students the opportunity to form direct relationships with potential employers as well as be a part of interdisciplinary teams leading to friendships and student research partnerships. For instance, each of the two projects that I have worked on have involved qualitative and quantitative research methods as well as writing reports and working in a team setting. Becoming a project lead provides the opportunity to develop leadership skills, as well as organize, design, implement, and complete a community-based research project.

“Having a degree only gets you so far in terms of starting your career,” said Jillian Patterson, a current CHIRP volunteer. “It’s the extracurricular work and volunteer experiences that really make someone stand out when competing for jobs. CHIRP is great because it provides an opportunity to get really unique and valuable ‘work’ experience. I don’t know of any other volunteer opportunities that involve developing research skills that are directly relatable to the jobs that are out there.”

Since joining CHIRP in Sept. 2015, I have completed one project and begun work on a second that will hopefully lead to a third as a principal investigator. My first project with CHIRP was conducting an evaluation on the implementation of the Spence Neighbourhood Association (SNA) five-year Community Plan. I selected this project since I am really interested in evaluation projects and wanted to gain some experience.

After signing a project agreement that contained all of the project’s timelines, expectations, and goals, I began to work as a member of a three-person team consisting of graduate students from various departments from the U of M. Collectively the three of us organized, designed, implemented, and completed an evaluation of how SNA implemented its five-year community plan with recommendations to inform SNA’s next five-year plan.

Specifically, the team that I was a member of created logic models, analyzed qualitative data, and wrote a final report with recommendations for SNA program development. My favourite part of this project was working with a community group and being able to see what they do and how they do it in the ‘real world.’ Additionally, the feeling of using all of your knowledge from years spent in university reading journals and books and writing papers that felt pointless at times is intoxicating.

Reflecting on my experience with CHIRP, and my occupational experience as a whole, has made me believe that the ‘real world’ critique is a veiled point that is utilized amongst libertarian ideologies to justify the unwillingness of corporations and governments to invest money into training their own employees – i.e. the 3+ year work experience conundrum of the millennials.

In 2014, an estimated 300,000 workers in Canada were considered unpaid interns working for small to large companies and various levels of government. These positions do not all include the stereotypical horror stories of working 50+ hours a week for no pay, no directly relatable work experience, and threats of losing a reference if a particular efficiency levels is not maintained.

For those of you that are not aware of this state of affairs and had to read that section of the article a second time, unpaid internships in Canada do exist and are on the rise. A recent article published by CBC indicates that the new Liberal government is dragging its feet when it comes to reversing damaging policies that support unpaid internships under the previous Conservative government.

Unpaid internships are justified if they benefit the intern and are not created in replacement of a paid position. Essentially, unpaid internships are supposed to provide directly relatable work experience to interns that will better prepare them for a permanent full-time position in the Canadian work force or with the department or business that they are interning with.

However, some would argue that the national youth (15 to 24) unemployment currently sitting at 13.6 per cent, student fees being on the rise, and ever-increasing costs of living clearly indicate that unpaid internships serve no benefit to anyone besides the organization or government departments.

Alternatively, student-led volunteer organizations are able to offer benefits to students and local non-profits by establishing a symbiotic partnerships. The student gets practical work experience that is connected to an academic institution that allows for integrated course/credit programs, while the organization gets help completing projects they would not be able to afford otherwise.

As Shivoan Balakumar, co-founder of CHIRP, notes, “Students have a lot less time these days, but still have a ton of passion for their community. We wanted to create something that would allow students to volunteer their time to organizations they care about, while still supporting their ongoing career development. We want to develop partnerships that are win-win for everyone involved.”

Overall students are increasingly facing difficulties securing employment. Part two of this article will illustrate how the University of Manitoba Career Services is helping graduate students secure employment upon graduation as well as the problems graduate students face and how the career service department helps students address these challenges.

However, please email me at editor@gradzette.com or go to the Gradzette Facebook page or Twitter account to provide your commentary about challenges you have faced obtaining relatable work experience or preferably your success stories!

If you are interested in joining CHIRP you can find them on the University of Manitoba Community Health Sciences department website under “Community Engagement.” You can also find them on Community Links and Facebook.

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