Since switching from biology to business studies four years ago, fifth-year University of Prince Edward Island student Dalton Lecky has taken full advantage of opportunities to explore potential careers before he graduates next spring.
In third year, he spent six months on a study exchange at Hochschule Furtwangen University in southern Germany. This year, through UPEI, he secured two successive co-op education placements with a large employer – the federal government – working for Canada Revenue Agency and later the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.
Last month, through a non-profit organization that works with business schools and others, Mr. Lecky landed a four-month internship with Groundhog, a Halifax-based fintech startup. The company is developing technology for individuals and businesses to make and accept preauthorized, recurring payments with cryptocurrencies as an alternative to traditional credit cards and bank accounts.
Although still uncertain about his future career, Mr. Lecky is thrilled about his current work placement. “The world of entrepreneurship and startups is really interesting and I think this [internship] is a great way to get involved and exposed to it,” he says. “It is very exciting.”
His stint with Groundhog was arranged through Venture for Canada, a not-for-profit founded in 2013 to recruit, train and partly subsidize recent graduates to work for two years at startups typically cash-strapped but hungry for young talent.
Since 2013, with $4.4-million in funding from the federal government (and additional sums from Ontario, Nova Scotia and private sources), VFC has recruited almost 250 “fellows” from diverse academic disciplines to work at startups in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. This fall, the non-profit expanded its reach, adding the Atlantic Internship Program for about 40 undergraduates in business and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to spend four months working for startups in the region.
“There are significantly more challenges that small and medium-sized enterprises face, such as recruiting, onboarding and developing talent, compared to large organizations,” VFC founder and chief executive Scott Stirrett says. “If small and medium-sized enterprises are going to grow to become big companies, then they need access to the talent to grow.”
His assessment is shared by Alex McCallum, chief operating officer of QRA Corp., a Halifax-based software company founded five years ago to assist those building complex machines, such as autonomous cars, to identify faults in the early stages of a design process. His firm has recruited co-op students from Venture for Canada and directly from universities.
“It is extra work but if you hire the right co-op student, you can get them working on something that is actually valuable,” Mr. McCallum says. Through a co-op placement, he adds, employers can assess the strengths and weaknesses of a potential future employee. “You can see this is the real person.”
Although Venture for Canada expects to have a national presence in time, its initial focus on Atlantic Canada is no accident.
Mr. Stirrett, an Acadian whose family roots in Nova Scotia date back 400 years, says: “You see a massive outflow of young people, in particular from rural regions. So how do you retain young people?’"
Answering that question is a top concern for career services officials at the Sobey School of Business at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, which has worked closely with VFC over the past year.
“When you look at rural Nova Scotia, the fabric of that economy is built on small and medium-sized enterprises,” says Karn Nichols, manager of career services for graduate programs at Sobey. Through her office, she introduces graduating students and small-scale employers to each other.
Last month, for the second year in a row, her office organized a regional event for 39 Sobey business students to head out from Halifax to meet employers, large and small, on Nova Scotia’s South Shore.
She describes VFC’s new internship program as “a really tremendous tool to get employers engaged in hiring, or contemplating hiring, our students.” Her school is part of a provincewide effort to convince local and international students to stay and work after graduation. VFC’s new program, she adds, “dovetails so nicely with what we are trying to do.”
For Mr. Lecky, a Charlottetown native, participation in VFC’s internship program opened his eyes to the potential for a career in Atlantic Canada.
Last July, he won a spot at a weekend-long “hackathon” sponsored by VFC and held in Halifax. Student teams were given the same challenge: How to market VFC’s internship program. Throughout the weekend, the students received coaching and other support from the non-profit and industry mentors from startup companies, giving students and potential employers a chance to size each other up before formal interviews for internships were held after the weekend event.
Mr. Lecky landed Groundhog as his first choice and currently provides support for social-media content planning and other tasks. “Working with a really small team is very nice,” he says. “There is a collaborative vibe.”
Although he had no plans to leave the region, he says the internship experience has “definitely made me realize there was a lot going on [in Atlantic Canada]. It is a great place to live and work.”