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We used to think that once we left the classroom, we worked at our job. And once we worked, we stopped learning. But we’re now in a time when learning and work both start when we’re students and never ends.

In the past, practical experience took the form of co-op programs tied to certain college or university programs. But now there is a broad spectrum of options under the umbrella of work-integrated learning (WIL), a model of experiential education that integrates academics and practical experience.

Want a career or a better opportunity? The good news is you can build your way into your dream job by working on the three main streams of WIL: career conversations, job shadowing or stretch projects and work placements. The level of risk and commitment varies from one approach to the next, so there’s really no excuse not to get started – whether you’re a student, a recent graduate or a mid-career professional looking for a change.

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Career conversations

Career conversations are an incredibly important tool to garner information about different careers, industries or roles within an organization. They’re also the lowest risk (coffee, anyone?) and an ideal place to start, because the time commitment is minimal. You don’t need to spend three months interning at a telecommunications company to realize it’s not a good fit – you can spend 20 minutes speaking with someone who does that job and get a pretty clear picture of what their day-to-day entails. Career conversations are also a great form of learning for both the person seeking advice and the professionals they speak to. When you describe your work and your industry to the next generation of job seekers and field their questions, you often get a fresh perspective on your own work situation.

A leading voice in work integrated learning is Cara Krezek, president of CEWIL, Canada’s leading voice on all aspects of work integrated learning, “While students are engaged in their experiences, having a career conversation with industry professionals, building their networks and meeting new people, continues to be one of the best ways to develop your career path. “

Job shadowing and stretch projects

As you begin to identify areas you’d like to work in through coffee chats and career conversations, a next step is to find someone to job shadow. Think of it as a version of “bring your kid to work day”. This step requires a bit more of a time investment than a conversation, but less than a traditional co-op. You don’t need to spend a week or even a full day with someone to get a sense of what his or her day is like. It can be as little as two hours, since you can learn a lot about someone’s role at a company by attending a meeting or watching them interact with colleagues. Another way to approach this level is through a stretch project, where you can spend a few hours a week (or month) working with a company on some sort of joint venture. It’s enough to give you an inside look at what a potential industry or career path involves, without taking a job you’re unsure of and quitting, creating a blemish on your resume. Stretch projects are also ideal for mature or international students, mid-career professionals or anyone looking for a change but unable – or unwilling – to give up a full-time job in order to explore other options.

Work placements

The idea of work placements, internships or co-ops is of course still an option, and a useful way to gain job experience and make connections. But these placements will often come out of the work you put into career conversations and job shadowing. And unlike the co-ops of the past, which were a structured and required component of a particular program, these are ones you can get yourself, whether or not you’re in school, by the sheer power of networking. If you’ve already graduated but feel like you need to improve your resume, this is a chance to continue to build on your experience. If you’re in a program that includes some kind of work placement, having a hand in where you end up by actively networking your way into a co-op could mean you end up in a placement that’s better suited to your interests and career needs.

Everyone wants to land the perfect full-time job, but people often forget there are certain steps they need to take to get there. In a study last year, 50 per cent of students listed “planning for a career after graduation” as one of the top three sources of stress, behind exams and finances. Students should remember that you rarely land your dream job right out of school. But for the next generation of job seekers, what will make or break their career success is whether they work through these building blocks of career growth and learn to play the game of work-integrated learning.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

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