On Campus

Graduating into the economic downturn

Despite rising unemployment, the class of 2009 shouldn't lose hope. Yet.

Originally published in The Fulcrum

Despite a rising national unemployment rate and a recent surge in layoffs, the class of 2009 shouldn’t lose hope about their job prospects just yet.

“There will be jobs,” assures Anne Markey, executive director of the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers. “Will they be easy to find? Will they be exactly what graduating students want, or will it be in the location they want? Maybe not, but there will be jobs.”

With 71,000 Canadian jobs cut in November—66,000 in Ontario alone—many upcoming graduates have been left wondering whether or not they can find a place in today’s job market.

Recruitment agencies in Ontario have seen an increase of new applications following massive job cuts in both the manufacturing and the service sectors.

“Absolutely there has been an increase in the number of candidates looking for something else,” says Pierrette Brousseau, owner of the Ottawa franchise of Hunt Personnel, a national permanent and temporary employment agency.

However, she says they get very few applications from recent post-secondary graduates. “A lot of students end up getting jobs in their fields, so they don’t require our services,” she says.

Even before the global financial crisis, which gained forceful momentum in September 2008, companies have consistently hired recent graduates, explains David Rodas-Wright, coordinator of employer relations at the Student Academic Success Service (SASS) career centre at the University of Ottawa.

“There are companies out there, especially some of the big companies, [for whom] it’s not as much money to hire new talent as it is to maintain senior talent,” he says. “So they continue to look for new graduates.”

Hiring young people also serves as a way to refresh and renew the face of a corporation, according to Rodas-Wright.

Companies across the country seem to be confirming that assertion—despite economic difficulties, many have maintained or even increased hiring rates.

“We’re not cutting back at all on hiring,” says Louisa Testa, executive assistant at Ottawa’s Investors Group, a financial planning company. “Actually, we’ve hired more in the last few years than in the past.”

The Public Service Commission, the federal government branch that supervises post-secondary recruitment, has also recently increased hiring of recent graduates.

“The economic situation seems to have affected recruitment in the federal public service in an interesting way: post-secondary recruitment has in fact increased since last year,” says Marilyne Guèvrement, manager of media relations at the Public Service Commission.

In November 2008, Millennium Research Group, Ernst & Young, TD Bank, and BP Canada Energy Co. all assured Globe and Mail readers in an article about job prospects that they would not be scaling back post-secondary recruitment efforts.

On-campus career fairs—the U of O offers nine in the 2008–09 school year—provide effective meeting points for employers and students.

“I got a few replies from companies saying given this current economic situation they [would not be] participating this year,” says Alain Boudreau of the Telfer School of Management Public Relations and Career Services. “But it hasn’t affected too much so far.”

The U of O’s fall public sector career fair was its largest ever.

“We saw an excellent turnout,” says Rodas-Wright.

He also notes that SASS’s fall 2008 engineering and high-tech career fair was increased to a two-day event for the first time, with nearly every spot filled.

Upcoming recruitment fairs may be more affected by the economic downturn than those in the fall, but as Boudreau explains, there is no way to know how each organization will react.

“It really depends on the company,” he says.

Rodas-Wright has noticed that, in general, smaller companies have been most affected.

“We actually just learned that [the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation (OCRI) career fair] has been cancelled for 2009,” he says. The fair features small to medium-sized technology companies, each employing between 100 and 150 people, who told organizers that due to economic difficulties they wouldn’t be hiring in the upcoming year.

Although SASS assures students that corporate registration has remained steady for upcoming U of O career fairs and that companies are not drastically limiting recruitment, they warn that the job search is not a guaranteed walk in the park for students.

“Even without this economic situation, [the market] is competitive. It’s very hard to, right out of university, get that first job if you have no experience,” says SASS career and employment counsellor Marie Mitsou. “I always tell people it’s not just your degree, it’s what you do during your degree that is going to make the difference.”

Mitsou recommends getting experience before graduating by finding degree-related part-time work, volunteering on or off campus, or participating in intern or co-op programs.

Markey suggests getting involved in areas outside of academics before graduation as a means of getting a step-up in the competitive job market.

“If you’re graduating this year, maybe it’s going to be tougher. But what you can do for students that are not graduating this year [is] take advantage of every work opportunity that you can as part of your program,” she says. “Should [students] be concerned? Should they be starting their job search early? Should they be taking advantage of every opportunity to meet an employer on campus? Absolutely.”

Students hoping to take advantage of internship and co-op opportunities during their academic careers may in fact benefit from the economic downturn.

“What often happens in tough economic times is that the number of positions for co-op and intern students increases,” says Markey, explaining that employers always have tasks that need to be accomplished, but during tough economic times are reluctant to commit to hiring permanent employees.

According to the Bank of Canada, the nation’s economy should recover by 2010. In the meantime, graduates shouldn’t panic.

“I think students need to pay close attention to what’s going on,” says Rodas-Wright. “But certainly we wouldn’t recommend that they jump into an employment opportunity just for the sake of having a job.”