On Nov. 29, 2016, Maclean’s and Concordia University presented a town hall in Montreal that featured a panel discussion on the future of work. Do grades matter? What are soft skills and which ones are important? Maclean’s editor Kim Honey asks these questions and more of panelists Michael Kronish, Nick Farkas, Bonnie Schmidt and Cédric Orvoine. For the rest of our town hall content, click here.
Kim Honey: I’m going to ask our guests to introduce themselves. Go ahead, Cédric.
Cédric Orvoine: Hi. I’m Cédric. I’m the VP of HR and communications at Ubisoft Montreal. I’ve been working at Ubisoft for 13 years.
Bonnie Schmidt: I’m Bonnie Schmidt. I’m president of Let’s Talk Science. It’s a national charitable organization that works with young people and educators across the country getting them engaged in science, technology, engineering, and math. I’ve been with Let’s Talk Science since I started it 25 years ago.
Nick Farkas: My name’s Nick Farkas. I am VP of concerts and events at Evenko in Montreal. We’re the largest event promoter in the province of Quebec. We do shows from Vermont all the way out to Newfoundland, and I’ve been there since the company started.
Michael Kronish: Hi, guys. I’m Michael Kronish, and I work at a company called Vice Media. I run the studio in Canada. We have offices in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.
Kim Honey: As a little icebreaker, I’m going to ask each of you to talk about one of your first jobs. It could be the first one, it could be a memorable one. Michael, do you want to start?
Michael Kronish: Sure. So I was a DJ in high school, and I bought some speakers and some turntables, and I’d get my mom to drive me around town and drop me off at the local high schools, plug everything in, and play for a couple of hours.
Kim Honey: Was it a station wagon?
Michael Kronish: Yes it was a station wagon.
Kim Honey: Did she pick you up too?
Michael Kronish: Yes. I’d get 75 bucks. She’d pick me up at midnight, and put everything back in the car and go back home, and I’d buy some new records.
Kim Honey: Thank you. What about you, Nick?
Nick Farkas: I think I’m going to go with worst jobs ever, because I had a lot of them. When I was a Concordia student, I was a bike messenger for four years, which was actually a really good job that I really enjoyed. I also planted trees, delivered the newspaper, flipped burgers, made ice cream, all the normal jobs. But I had a job where I actually worked in a warehouse for an entire chain of shoe stores. And one of my jobs was to take all the shoes that came in—and believe it or not, shoes come in where there’s only one of each—and I had to get this giant bin of shoes and take two shoes that were either similar or a size off maybe, a nine and a ten, and put them together and put them on the five dollar bin, which was the most depressing job I ever had in my life. Which led me to where I am today.
Bonnie Schmidt: How do I follow that? Throughout high school and university, I worked in a pharmacy, I worked in markets, I worked in a grocery store. But I think the best job I ever had was towards the end of university, and I actually loved it so much I stayed for seven years. I bartended in a small Irish pub in a really bad part of town. But the best part was it was an Irish family that owned it, so they’d bring bands over from Ireland. I now have a heart string every time I hear Irish music.
Kim Honey: Cédric?
Cédric Orvoine: I’m going to go on the positive side and talk about two cool jobs. I’m a big music fan, so one of the things I did to get money was pick up garbage at Lollapalooza back in 1993. This is where I learned to lead a team as well. I was leading the clean-up of the whole site. But when the Beastie Boys went on stage, I told to my team on the walkie-talkie “let’s not work for the show.”
Cédric Orvoine: I don’t know if you have guys who are still doing that, Nick, on your team, but maybe. And the other great job I had is also related to Nick a little bit. So I’m a big hockey fan, and I did the Montreal Canadiens’ first website. I was at the University of Montreal, and I was paid 70 bucks a game to write a resumé of the game back in the nineties. So it was pretty fun.
Kim Honey: Those are all really wonderful stories, considering how successful you are now. It just shows that you have to start somewhere. I’d like you each to explain your decision making, what you decided to take at university and why. So Michael, you’re closest. You get to go first.
Michael Kronish: So in university I did a Bachelor of Arts degree. I focused on philosophy at Concordia. I did some classes in art history, political science. It was a pretty broad liberal arts degree. I definitely did not have a plan when I was in university. Zero plan. But I had interests, and so the interests ended up colliding with some of the things I learned at university. And so I think that just being in the environment and forcing myself to go to school and take classes and to get through them, and to learn things that I didn’t necessarily know I was learning at the time, did somehow, in the end, kind of intersect with what my interests had always been.
Kim Honey: Because the music led to film, did it not?
Michael Kronish: Music led to radio, university radio, which led to meeting like-minded people who were interested in documentaries, which led to documentary films, which ended up leading to a career in media for myself.
Kim Honey: Nick, what about you?
Nick Farkas: I studied at Concordia as well. I went into urban planning, which has served me well in my career as a concert promoter.
Nick Farkas: I’m surprised they asked me to be on this panel, because I probably have the lowest grade point average in the history of this school, but I still managed to graduate, which is what I’m most proud of because I was not a very good student. And I was also a bike messenger and did a bunch of other stuff at the same time, promoting punk rock shows, which is what I was really passionate about at the time. I never thought I’d ever – ever, ever, ever, in a million years – make a living going to see bands. And you know, we did everything, from start to finish.
But what I learned most at Concordia was not giving up. I wasn’t a good student, so it was really hard. I didn’t work very hard at it, but just to get through it was a major, major accomplishment for me, and it took me I think four years. Four years and a course. I had no plan either. I thought cities were interesting, so I went into urban planning. And that was about the length of thought I put into the whole process.
And it’s served me well. My dad told me when I was, like, 15 or 16 years old, if you can find a job that you like to do and wake up every morning and want to go to work, then you’re ahead of 95 percent of the people in the world. And I do that. I wake up every morning and I love my job. I love what I do. It’s a journey to get to that point where you have any kind of success.
Kim Honey: Bonnie?
Bonnie Schmidt: I was with a cohort of young women at high school who were quite into the sciences and maths, and the group all around me actually had pretty strong plans for university. So I had to kind of adapt, and decided I wanted to be a dentist. I don’t know why, there was no reason for it. But I did well in high school. I got to Western University (in London, Ont.), and then I proceeded, with an entrance scholarship, to fail first-year physics and failed first-year calculus. I learned never to schedule a math class as the only thing on a Friday afternoon, because you pretty much never go.
So long story short, by third year I had picked up my ability to actually study and perform well at university. And at that point dentistry no longer wanted me. So it was unfortunate, but probably really fortunate, because I did not do well in the chalk carving anyway. I probably would have hurt more people than I helped. I still didn’t know what to do, but my wonderful master’s thesis supervisor took me under her wing. She said, “you’re lost, you don’t know what you want to do, come and spend a couple of years with me in my lab.” And little did I know what graduate school would do for me at that point, but that’s when I really started to take charge of my life. And I moved the masters into a PhD and began Let’s Talk Science while I was a grad student. So it really, for me, was thinking I was riding the wave and everything was fine, I had a scholarship, and then suddenly it crashed, everything fell out from under me, and I had to regroup then think about things differently.
Kim Honey: Thank you. And Cédric?
Cédric Orvoine: My education background is French literature. I said I was passionate about music. I suck at music.
Nick Farkas: So did I.
Cédric Orvoine: I was passionate about hockey. I sucked at hockey.
Nick Farkas: Same here.
Cédric Orvoine: I liked to read and I liked to write, and so I went into French literature. And when you go into French literature, you don’t write, basically.
Cédric Orvoine: So I’m not good at sports, not good at music, not good at doing poems either. What I learned basically in university is to ask questions. And it’s really something that kind of guided me a lot in my career. And I’m not going to be original, but I’m also a guy that didn’t have a plan, to the point where I had my first child at 20. So that’s where I really understood that I needed to take charge and just ride my own path and write my own career and make my own decisions. And here I am, 20 years later.
Kim Honey: Thanks so much. Well, Bonnie, we have something in common. I failed first-year calculus and first-year physics as well. So (looks out at audience), we are your shining examples.
Michael Kronish: I believe I got zero. It may have been a Friday afternoon class as well.
Kim Honey: That’s impressive.
Michael Kronish: It was a big goose egg.
Kim Honey: Zero. The death doughnut. I would like to start off with a discussion about grades, because I’ve noticed on applications I get for internships that students are putting their GPA on it, and I’m curious to know what you think. And I’m going to start with Cédric because Cédric did mention grades in his (video) clip.
Cédric Orvoine: I should not have.
Kim Honey: So what do you think? Do grades matter? And does it matter whether you get a B or a C in biology, or a zero in calculus?
Cédric Orvoine: For Ubisoft, it can matter when we take interns. It doesn’t matter necessarily to me or to the company, but we’re really trying to build a relationship between our employee and the intern who will be shadowing them. And some of our employees, specifically in the computer science field, they really want to see the grades. After that, when we’re interviewing or hiring, say, intermediate or more senior people, we never talk about grades. Never, never.
Kim Honey: What does a high grade point average tell you?
Cédric Orvoine: It’s a good question, and I was thinking about it. To me, it’s more an indicator of how you involved yourself in your own learning. And that’s something that we’re interested in. So we want to hire people that invest themselves in their own development. That’s really, really important. We don’t want to be hiring people who are always looking at the company or the employer and saying, “What can you do for me?,” but “how do I take charge of my own career and my own development?” And this is how I read grades.
Kim Honey: So my follow-up question is at what point do you not put your GPA on? What’s the cut-off?
Cédric Orvoine: I don’t know. I mean, I’m interested in seeing a bad GPA. And I want to ask questions. I want to know why. So it might reveal something interesting from that candidate.
Kim Honey: Does anyone else want to comment? Bonnie?
Bonnie Schmidt: I would. I actually am frustrated by our society’s obsession with grades and the fact that (students) will actually make decisions based on a mark. We see this happening all the time in the science and math areas. We’ve got young people who are disengaging after Grade 10 and Grade 11. They’re not finishing with prerequisites they might need to go on. And often the most cited answer is, “I’m not going to do well enough.” Or, “math or science is going to pull my grade point average down.”
And so I think we really do have to think a bit differently about how we assign marks and who’s assigning marks, and how we can move to an environment in which we’re demonstrating outcomes and not necessarily just writing a good test. I think it’s a big issue, a big shift.
Kim Honey: I have heard that worry about dragging the GPA down, especially universities want such high grades for certain fields. That is a concern for students, and I think one of the things that gets dropped is the subject you’re not great in. So a 50 in math – you’re still learning something.
Bonnie Schmidt: I think if you’re awake you’re always learning something. Right?
I do struggle with the grades, and some of the work that Let’s Talk Science is doing right now is trying to hold conversations in the country about how can we think differently about this. Our Canada 2067 project really is about how to think differently about what high school students are doing and how we move into post-secondary paths to be ready for an economy that’s just really different from the world that I graduated from.
Nick Farkas: I think grades don’t have that much of a bearing on what I do for a living. So if I’m looking at a CV, and somebody put their GPA on there—which I don’t often see—then it just shows to me a level of seriousness, that you applied yourself enough to do well. Which means that, in any job situation, you’ll probably apply yourself to do well again. But at the same time, I look at a million other factors in determining, if you had bad grades, why you had bad grades. I come from that world. So I know that there are other factors, and that’s not the most important thing for me.
Kim Honey: We hear a lot about hard skills and soft skills, and I’m interested in the hard skills. Bonnie, I’ll go to you first because a lot of them seem to be in science and tech. We have coding, we have data analytics — a lot of very technical skills. What is it that these students need to help them get that job?
Bonnie Schmidt: It’s a really difficult answer to come up with right now because it’s hard to forecast what jobs are going to need which technical skills and will be available upon graduation. So I think it’s more important to be thinking about gathering a broad toolbox of critical-thinking skills, of design skills, of basic math skills. I think it’s more important to be comfortable working within a digital environment than thinking that everybody has to leave with coding. You need to have basic math skills for sure. Pretty much every job needs it. You also need to have great communication skills. And I actually think that communication skills are a hard skill in today’s environment — and working well within teams. If you know you want to be an airplane engineer, then it becomes very easy to figure out which hard, technical skills you need. But by the end of high school, and even early in the undergrad years, I think it’s still awfully early to be really drilling into such a focus.
Kim Honey: I want to go to Michael on this one because he runs a news media operation – as a journalist, you need to operate equipment now more than you used to. So what hard skills do you think students need?
Michael Kronish: There are a few different paths that you can go down. Ideally you can do everything. You can operate cameras, you understand audio technology, you can write, you can field produce, you can research, you can fact check, you can vet, you can cast. Those are a lot of skills that are super interesting to a media company like Vice, which is trying to do a lot of different things across all platforms all the time. But there are certainly people that we’ll hire who will be specialized and probably will have some formal training in cinematography or editing or have gone to grad school to be a writer or J-school if they’re in the journalism side of the business.
I think versatility is really, really important in media today, and I can’t see that slowing down. I think there truly is an opening in new media where people can come in with skill sets that never used to be valued, because they would be so siloed. Today what we’re trying to do is collapse the silos and make people comfortable moving from department to department, or merging departments and being able to work across all platforms.
Kim Honey: One quick question I’d like to ask you about training – on-the-job training, because we’ve had a lot of stories in the magazine about businesses offloading that to universities and schools. I know in my newsroom there’s not really time to train somebody new. It’s like you need somebody who can go from the get-go. Do you have any training on the job?
Michael Kronish: I think it’s really important. We do hire a lot of young people. We know our audience, and they’re Millennials. So we don’t discriminate in terms of who we hire, but certainly we’re always looking for people who can speak directly to our audience and not be speaking down to them or up to them and pandering to them. With that comes sometimes a lack of experience in the workforce. And so it will continue to be a priority for us, particularly on the journalism side, but across all the different streams of the business, to make sure that we always are thinking about mentorships, mentoring people with less experience, and to give them opportunities.
Kim Honey: I’d also like to ask Nick and Cédric this. What kind of hard skills do your companies require? Cédric?
Cédric Orvoine: It’s a tough question to answer in that at Ubisoft in Montreal we have 300 different specialties. We have roughly a thousand computer scientists, so engineers basically. And within that community, it’s all divided by specialty. So we have physics specialists; we have a 3D specialist; we have animation specialists. So on one hand I agree with you, Michael, when you talk about we need to have people who are versatile, but at the same time, the technology is evolving so fast that what we see is people are getting more and more specialized in their fields. And that’s a bit dangerous, I feel.
We’re looking for a lot of different of hard skills, and it really depends, because we’re doing very complicated projects and with a lot of different people. I run the training department— we call it the development department—where we have 20 people doing internal development and training full time. And the most popular training that we have are soft skills training. Because Bonnie talked about communication, and I never thought of it being a hard skill, but I kind of agree with you on that. And when we work on huge project with 300 people, and some people are overseas, communications and soft skills are becoming a huge part of project management.
Kim Honey: We do want to move to soft skills, but quickly, Nick, can you talk to the kind of jobs that you have at Evenko, what kind of skills people need for those positions?
Nick Farkas: Our marketing jobs are generally filled by marketing people. What I do—booking—is a bit different, because there is no real skill for learning what bands to put on stage or how things are going to sell. Our accountants have accounting degrees. I think we’re a pretty standard company when it comes to that kind of thing.
Kim Honey: Booking bands is what people might be interested in.
Nick Farkas: It’s a very specialized field, because there’s not a lot of people doing it. I got into it purely by luck because I enjoyed music and I was trying to find some kind of (creative) outlet as I was not a good musician. So I was trying to do something in the music industry. As far as hard skills, you have to be able to count. You need to know if your show’s making money or losing money. That’s super important. Especially if you’re doing it with your own money, which is how most people start out. Really you start out doing some kind of menial job, and then you find a way.
You know, it’s working in a club and then becoming the buyer at that club. The best description I ever heard was in 1993, I think it was, at South by Southwest in Austin. I was watching a panel like this and some kid got up and asked a question. He said I want to be a concert promoter, but there’s big promoters in my town and I can’t get anyone to sell me a show.
And the advice from a very smart promoter was to find that one thing other promoters weren’t doing well, book that, carve out your own niche, and then pry it open and become really good at one thing and then expand into other things. And that’s how I started with punk rock, metal, and you know, now Celine Dion and other things that are a little different.
Kim Honey: Disney on Ice, wasn’t it?
Nick Farkas: Disney on Ice. Baseball. UFC. We do it all. So it’s from that skill set. I mean, it goes more to soft skills.
Kim Honey: So moving on to soft skills, there is lots of talk about this. In a recent survey of 90 companies in Canada, 70 percent of them rated teamwork as the number one soft skill they wanted in a hire, and then communication skills. Michael, what soft skills are most important to you and how do students get them?
Michael Kronish: We have a company that has offices in 35 countries. We’re constantly working with colleagues all around the world. And we have a lot of people who work full-time for us, but we also work with a lot of freelancers on a project-by-project basis. And so it’s a massive challenge, learning how to create systems where the communication can improve the quality of the work and the work environment.
I do think that temperament goes a long way. So who you are and what you bring to the table, your innate personality, does go a long way into becoming a good member of our team.
Kim Honey: I hear attitude brought up over and over and over again by business leaders. Nick, can you talk about what employers mean when they talk about attitude? If you’re a pessimist, can you change into an optimist? How does that work?
Nick Farkas: I think you definitely can modify your attitude to a certain extent. Teamwork is super important, and it’s a skill that you learn. And not having an ego, not expecting things to move too quickly. You have to do the time, you have to do the work, you have to understand it. I’ve always come from a world where I started doing everything myself, from marketing to promoting. So the teams that we’ve built, we try to have multidisciplinary angles to everything that they do.
But even more important in my line of work is passion. If you look at entertainment, it can be a glamorous job. I mean, I sit behind a desk most of the time, I go to meetings. You know, it’s not that glamorous. I don’t even get to book that many shows anymore. It’s about passion.
You need to work your butt off in order to get noticed, and that is part of attitude. If you’re looking for a nine-to-five job, entertainment’s not the place to go. If you’re looking for something that you can float through, it won’t happen. Because you’re part of a team, and if you let the rest of your team down, it just won’t work.
For Osheaga, I think we have 4,000 people working on the day of the show. Every one of those jobs is important, even garbage pick up. If we don’t have good people cleaning up the site, then people are going to be all over social media within three seconds going, “the site sucks, it’s dirty, there are cups everywhere.” In this world of instant feedback, we have to be aware of these things, and you have to have people who don’t have egos, who are willing to work as a team.
I go back to ego thing, but I find most business decisions that are made based on how you feel about yourself or what your contribution is, is definitely almost a hundred percent going to be a bad decision.
Kim Honey: Bonnie, let’s talk about communication. I’ve talked to professors who have told me that some of their students actually go through university never talking in class, never speaking out in public, maybe never having a conversation with the professor. Can you comment on communication and what that means to you and how students can help, how they can get that skill?
Bonnie Schmidt: It’s really important. You need to practice, but it’s around being succinct. I’m not even speaking all that clearly right now as I’m thinking, but not umming all the time. So it can be as simple as speaking English or French without lots of pauses, without lots of ums, getting to your point fairly quickly. Putting a microphone in somebody’s hand and saying, “speak for 30 seconds,” is extraordinarily difficult. As an employer, I want people to be able to voice their opinions. I want them to come with ideas. I want them to be able to tell me clearly and succinctly. I think getting up in front of an audience – the speakers earlier were fantastic — it’s hard. And so if you don’t have time in a safe environment to get up and do it, find it. Volunteer, get out and work with other groups that you have opportunities to practice talking.
I would like to just say, from an attitude perspective, what’s really important to me are two attributes we often don’t talk about, and they are taking initiative and showing resiliency. If you’re not willing to step up and try something new or bring a solution to a challenge or point out something that you think others haven’t seen before, that’s not good enough for me. And if you’re not resilient and willing to fail and know that it’s not going to be the end of the world, I’m also not as interested. For me, that’s part of attitude as well.
Kim Honey: We have heard a lot about resiliency and making resilient kids lately. That idea that if you fail, you just go home with your tail between your legs and don’t try again. So Cédric, you’re nodding your head. What do you have to say about resiliency?
Cédric Orvoine: I think it’s really, really important. Making games is very difficult. There’s that whole image of (video game design as) “oh, you play all day. Oh, it must be fun.” Yes, it’s fun, but it’s a lot of hard work, and you have to be resilient. Some people work on a map in a game, and in the end the map is going to be cut. It’s not going to be in the game. You need to be able to recover from that and jump on your next project and continue. It’s really part of successful people.
Nick Farkas: Just going back to attitude, and innovation — is that soft skill or is that a hard skill at this point?
Kim Honey: Well, they’re trying to teach it. They’re trying to teach creativity too. I think that’s a soft skill.
Nick Farkas: Because you want people to be innovative, you want people to figure out better ways to do things. Just because we’ve been doing things the same way for 20 years does not mean that we should keep doing it that way. And I think we really try to encourage that in our people as much as possible.
Kim Honey: Well, innovation is a massive buzzword. Entrepreneurship, innovation — everybody’s trying to find the magic formula to think outside the box. So I think it’s being able to admit when you’re wrong, and also not being afraid to voice what you’re thinking. So do you run into that with young people?
Michael Kronish: I think we have to face that every day, every month, every year. Digital media changes very quickly. Linear television is changing incredibly quickly. And so as a company we certainly look for people who can roll with that as well. I mean, what we did last week may not necessarily work next year. And we’re constantly looking for people that can help us, show us the way.
Kim Honey: I want to go to the panel with my last question, which is what advice do you have for parents who are sitting out here tonight with their children, worrying about their future. Michael?
Michael Kronish: I can only speak for myself. For someone who did go to university, I do think it was a very valuable time. I don’t think I really understood what it meant at the time, but I do think that it’s worth encouraging your kids to go to university and do something with their time there. The extracurricular things that you will find over and above the professors and students you will meet, you cannot calculate where that will bring you, but it will bring you somewhere much better than if you abandoned ship.
Kim Honey: We didn’t get to the extracurriculars, but Nick, what do you think? What would you say to parents?
Nick Farkas: I would say encourage your kids to keep working hard, but don’t put too much pressure on them. I mean it. Most people (on stage) didn’t have a clue what they were going to do when they started. So having a plan at 21 or 22 years old … If you’re going to be a doctor, you should have a plan. If you’re going to be an urban planner, not as much.
So don’t sweat the small things.
Bonnie Schmidt: I’d say be an active listener. I think it’s really important for parents to hear what their kids are saying and help to navigate the path with them. There are many, many, many opportunities for employment over your life. It really is an adventure. And helping them to understand their own skill set. So for me, it is around listening. And I’ve learned as a parent. My daughter just started university this year. Some of the best advice I can say is show no facial reaction whatsoever.
Just listen, do not react, and they will keep talking. And that talking and that dialogue is the most important thing that you can do.
Cédric Orvoine: I’ll take the advice.
To be honest, I don’t have a lot of advice. I think we live in a world where there’s room for a lot of opportunities. I’m fairly optimistic towards the future of Montreal, towards the future of Quebec. I think there are a lot of things that are being created out of the traditional workplace. So there are a lot of opportunities to either create your own company, join new projects. There are a lot of possibilities, a lot of opportunities.
Kim Honey: I’d like to thank our panel for their time and their insight. Thanks so much.
This transcript has been edited and condensed.