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Internships, co-ops more crucial than ever

Karine Sabourin, a fourth-year commerce student at the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business, chose a co-op program and has already parlayed her co-op experience into a full-time position as an associate consultant with Endgame Business Strategy in Winnipeg.

JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

As many university graduates will tell you, the struggle to find employment after leaving school is as challenging as ever.

To make matters worse, the economic downturn of 2008 has meant that a lot of millennials are unable to find meaningful work, according to TalentEgg founder Lauren Friese. She founded the Canadian job website and career resource that same year after experiencing her own struggles in transitioning from school to the world of work.

Ms. Friese says that gaining proof of work skills is now crucial for successfully landing gainful employment upon leaving postsecondary education, particularly as there are more and more people graduating who look almost identical on paper.

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"Finding some way to get that evidence, usually in the form of some kind of meaningful or relevant work experience, is the most powerful way to stand out when you graduate," she says.

One of the more popular ways to do so is through university co-operative education programs, where students alternate semesters of study with semesters of work in a professional environment.

Karine Sabourin, a fourth-year commerce student at the University of Manitoba's Asper School of Business, is a big proponent of the benefits of co-op programs, and says she'd be way behind in chasing her career goals if she hadn't enrolled in one.

"It really is a no-brainer for me," the 21-year-old from St. Jean Baptiste, Man., says.

Ms. Sabourin has already parlayed her co-op experience into a full-time position as an associate consultant with Endgame Business Strategy in Winnipeg.

Her career at Endgame actually started as the third of the three work terms of her co-op program, following on from experiences with Royal Bank of Canada and TD Securities in Toronto.

"I learned from each job placement what I liked and didn't like, and tried to find something more suitable each time," she says.

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Though Ms. Sabourin can consider herself fortunate that she found something directly in line with what she was looking for, not everyone is so lucky. But the overwhelming message, from career advisers and others, is that all experience is worthwhile, whether it's the dream co-op placement or a part-time job in retail that helps to pay the rent. Effective communication skills are important in almost every line of work, and they can often be honed just as well in a survival job as they can in a professional placement.

The networking opportunities that present themselves are often just as vital.

"I think the connections are the most valuable part," says Colleen Bangs, manager of career services at the University of Calgary.

Which university is right for you?

She advises students to start building a network of people they meet on internships – whom they could potentially contact in the future for career advice.

After two work terms in the University of Regina co-op program, Claudine Costa can certainly relate to not getting the precise career experience she was hoping for. As an engineering student at the school, Ms. Costa wants to eventually become an electronics engineer, but so far the work terms have been in information technology, first at Group Medical Services in Saskatchewan, and then at the grain handling company Viterra.

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Though she describes both as "really good experiences," she says there aren't too many management software or electronics co-op positions available. Ms. Costa, who admits she's something of an introvert, says she has learned other skills, though.

Ms. Costa, who originally hails from the Philippines, says that she's learned a lot about professional conduct from her work placements, from what to wear in the workplace to the levels of confidence that can be gained only from hands-on experience.

"I'm a little bit sad about not being able to get engineering experience at the moment but I think because of the experiences that I've got so far in my work terms I can easily enter a workplace and be able to adapt really well and fit in," she adds.

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