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Glow Gardens in Langley, B.C., which puts on spectacular Christmas light shows across Canada and the U.S., hires new graduates in entry level jobs so they can gain foundational skills to help them in their career.Dylaina Gollub Photography

If you get hired by Daryl Driegen and do well, you’ll get a glowing review – but that’s not the only advantage of taking an entry level job with his organization.

“We have about 25 employees on each of our sites at any given time, and 80 to 90 per cent of our employees are students at entry level,” says Mr. Driegen, director of operations at Glow Gardens in Langley, B.C., which puts on dazzling Christmas light shows in cities across Canada and the United States.

The real advantages of starting at the bottom come from the soft skills experience and ideas that can be picked up in the workplace, Mr. Driegen says.

“I don’t even know how many of young people we hire even stay in the entertainment field, but they gain the experience that comes from working as a team with a supervisor,” he explains.

“They gain the foundations and the skills for things like scheduling and managing technology. They get exposed to the different tools of the workplace and learn that there’s something bigger than themselves at stake. These are building-block skills.”

Getting a first job at a small business can help entry-level workers gain knowledge and experience they might not be able to get at a larger organization, says Melanie Richardson, coordinator for cooperative education at Centennial College in Toronto.

“As the small company grows, you can quickly become the most senior or the most knowledgeable person on staff. Sometimes the pay rates aren’t as competitive as at a larger business, but the growth and breadth of the work you do at a smaller business can be more fulsome,” she says.

There are advantages and disadvantages to starting your career at either a small business or large corporation, says Moren Levesque, CPA Ontario chair in international entrepreneurship and co-director of entrepreneurial studies at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto.

“It depends on whether you can tap into a network of key people who can help you get going in your career or your own enterprise,” she says.

The drawbacks to starting with either a smaller or a larger organization are the same, she adds:

“Your talent is going to benefit somebody else.”

“Larger businesses can be more hierarchical,” agrees Ms. Richardson. “On the other hand, you can be mentored by someone at a larger organization who is fully invested in a specialized area, so you can learn a lot,” she adds.

It can be daunting for people just entering the workforce to know where to start. One program that Prof. Levesque has found helpful is Venture for Canada – a not-for-profit organization that connects recent graduates with entrepreneurs and startups.

“The graduates who enter the program say that what they like is that they get to develop skills in a number of areas, not just one. You get to wear a lot of hats,” Prof. Levesque says.

Twice a year, York’s Schulich school also runs a startup night, where entrepreneurs tell students their stories and students make presentations about their own prospective startup businesses and compete for prizes, including funding.

Universities and colleges can also connect employers with young workers seeking internships. Federal and provincial laws require that interns receive some pay, except in a few specific circumstances. York University’s policy is that an unpaid internship is allowable only if the job is related directly to course work. “Otherwise, it has to be a paid internship,” Prof. Levesque says.

Glow Gardens recruits entry level workers by going directly to universities and colleges, and even high schools, Mr. Driegen says. Schools themselves also help a lot. Humber College in Toronto, for example, runs a job portal called Career Connect, and its Longo Faculty of Business has a team that connects students, new grads and employers.

“We also offer many services, such as free job postings on our job portal and direct access to students through our own work-integrated learning team,” says Antionette DiMarco, work-integrated learning centre manager in the Longo Faculty of Business at Humber College.

“This enables employers to come on campus and participate in recruitment events, job fairs, networking, guest speakers and industry panel events,” she says. Schools also connect students with funding programs.

Small businesses benefit from the energy and hard work that entry level employers bring to the workplace, Mr. Driegen says. Those new, young employees need good management though, he adds.

“You have to overcommunicate. You have to be clear, so your staff members know what’s expected.”