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The not-so-great Canadian summer job search

Zohra Surani wanders around a classroom-like space at the Youth Employment Services Job Camp in downtown Toronto that looks as if it hasn't caught up with the digital age.

A poster featuring clip art of a distressed man at a phone reads, "Please make sure that you sign in at reception before viewing the job postings" in goofy Comic Sans font.

One wall is covered with dozens of sheets of paper listing jobs: Restaurant host. Camp counsellor. Tour guide. Few pay more than minimum wage, which in Ontario is $10.25 an hour.

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Ms. Surani, a petite 21-year-old, is two years into her nursing degree at Hamilton's McMaster University and has been looking for work for the past month. Maybe, she muses, she can take one of the dishwashing jobs. "I already wash dishes at home. Might as well get paid for it," she deadpans.

Despite the sparse offerings, Ms. Surani is at least up and out, looking proactively. Naturally, the generation that lives on Facebook and can text at warp speed prefers to look for jobs online. Problem is, it's one of the least likely places to find work.

Dominica Whittaker, a placement officer at Youth Employment Services (YES), says hunting online for jobs or posting one's résumé on a classifieds site is the least effective job-search strategy. "There's a [lower]success rate because everyone's doing it," she says.

Not only is the online job market highly competitive, she says many employers don't post openings on the web, opting for more traditional methods (internal postings, responding to cold calls). Classified ads are a minefield, filled with pyramid schemes or other scams drafted to take advantage of desperate students.

Students face unique challenges: Most want full-time hours, but only for a few months, before they return to school. Many are working toward degrees, which they hope will gain them high-paying jobs, but they don't qualify for positions in their fields of study yet.

For job-placement officers, the first lesson they're teaching Gen Y is to hunt for jobs the way their parents did. And they have to do it soon: It's mid-June already and unemployed students are feeling the heat. Last summer, the full-time employment rate for students was just 51.8 per cent, according to Statistics Canada. Placement officers at YES say there simply aren't enough jobs to meet student demand.

Jonah Chevrier, a 19-year-old University of Toronto health sciences student, has become equally disheartened. His old employer - a clothing store - won't hire him because they know he'll quit at the end of the summer, he says.

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He'd hoped for a gig in his field after some of his peers nabbed research jobs at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. But those opportunities are few. Most of the summer jobs YES advertises are at summer camps, in general labour or hospitality.

When Ms. Surani began her job hunt, the first thing she did was turn on her computer. Her main resource: the Government of Canada's Job Bank. She's fired off dozens of résumés in response to ads, but never quickly enough. "I saw an ad yesterday and called today and they said the job's gone," she says.

Minimum-wage jobs attract hundreds of applications, which means even the most qualified candidate can be buried under a stack of résumés that never get a second glance.

Even when Ms. Surani ventured beyond the government job boards, she didn't go far - she replied to some listings on popular classifieds site Kijiji. She did get a job, but she was never asked to sign a contract and was put to work completing office tasks. At the end of her second day, she was told this was part of five days of unpaid training. She soon realized it was a scam. "They just get free labour out of you for five days and fire you. It's like a revolving door."

There are ways to get hooked up with a top-level summer gig if you're willing to pay for it.

Launched in 2010, the Great Gig Student Jobs is a Toronto-based service that matches students with career-oriented summer placements. But with an initial application fee of $300 and then a $1,400 fee for successful job placement, it's a luxury only affordable to those who don't have to worry about student debt.

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What the more democratic YES offers hasn't changed much since the non-profit agency launched in 1968: résumé writing workshops, one-on-one interview training and tips on how to make an in-person cold call at a preferred employer (which includes coming up with a 30-second "personal commercial").

While they may seem dated, the "old-school methods" work, Ms. Whittaker says.

Melinda Cuffy, a gregarious 22-year-old psychology student at Toronto's Ryerson University, put out about 20 online applications that resulted in one job offer - for a position loading plants on skids at various Home Depot locations. Hardly the people-oriented communications job she wanted.

But beggars can't be choosers online, which is the job-hunting method she is most comfortable with. "You don't have to get up, get ready and leave. Or try to ask for this person and who knows, the person might not be in. Call again. It's just less work to press send," she says.

With less than three months of summer to go, Ms. Cuffy is breaking out of her comfort zone. At the suggestion of a career-placement officer she visited last week, she's finessed her résumé, shaving off dated references to high school and a decade-old public speaking competition win. And she's gearing herself to follow up with prospective employers by phone, to make her e-application rise above the dozens or even hundreds of others for the same job.

"Yes, you see a lot of job offers, but this is just a mustard seed compared to the amount of people who are applying for them. You hope that you'll stand out," she says.

Editor's note: The Great Gig Student Jobs' successful job placement fee is $1,400. This version of this article has been corrected.

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