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Rebecca Dunphy’s ‘aha’ moment meant a switch from costume studies at university to business administration at Nova Scotia Community College.Scott Munn/The Globe and Mail

Rebecca Dunphy's "aha" career moment happened in her third year of costume studies at university in Halifax.

"Everyone around me was arguing about the width that a buttonhole should be," says Ms. Dunphy. "I didn't see the value I was adding to this program so I abruptly left and switched to business administration at Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC). I wasn't sure if business was for me, but I liked their option of a two-year program with the opportunity to go on to university and complete the degree if I liked."

A job fair at NSCC turned out to be the gateway to her current job at Common Good Solutions, where she is passionate about her work as a social enterprise developer helping non-profit managers, small-business owners and co-operatives throughout Nova Scotia.

Ms. Dunphy was able to talk with her future employer at the job fair, as well as take advantage of a résumé-writing workshop at the same event, staffed with career-services professionals ready to critique her résumé on the spot. Before graduating, career services helped her get a five-week work placement with Common Good Solutions, which led to her being hired as a summer student and then full-time.

"I made sure to take advantage of the many events and volunteer opportunities NSCC offered," says Ms. Dunphy. "That's how you get your name out there, as well as finding future employers."

NSCC president Don Bureaux says helping people with career transition and career success begins at the core of who people are. He believes that for too long in Canada, those very questions of who you are, what you want to be and how you are going to get there were questions that college students were not given the opportunity to explore.

"If you could, you went to a university to find yourself, but there was never this sense of going to a college to find what you wanted to do," says Mr. Bureaux.

"So what we've worked hard to do as a system is to bring together those two paradigms of preparing you for career success, but also preparing you for life success, allowing you to truly understand a core of who you are and what you want to be."

From a career-services viewpoint, Mr. Bureaux believes that colleges across Canada are recognizing the need to instill a connection to career as early as possible and then paralleling that with building a strong sense of self. The change is about focusing on the whole person in addition to the pure skills needed in a career.

"Career services should not be ghettoized in a part of a college that has a sign on the door that says career services," says Mr. Bureaux. "It has to be much broader than that and that's where the modern college is moving – in creating a strong sense of self in so many different areas and coming in much earlier."

Darlene O'Neill, senior manager, employment and student entrepreneurial services at Fanshawe College in London, Ont., explains how the college has created an employment pathway from community members through to graduates, catering to every stage.

For example, if someone comes in to their community employment services office looking for retraining or education, they can advise the person; if that person enrolls at Fanshawe and needs a part-time job, their career consultants can help. That student might also be in a co-op education program and attend career workshops or events, such as their student career conference, featuring topics such as personal branding and self-leadership. Nearer to graduation, they are ready to help students transition or re-transition into the employment world.

"Résumés are our biggest business," says Ms. O'Neill. "We're also hosting about 100 employers at our career fair, as well as piloting a virtual career fair this year. Students are always online these days so this will give more options to students, particularly in our area campuses, who might not get to the onsite career fair."

Fanshawe is ranked as the No. 1 most impressive career services model in Canadian colleges, according to a study by the Canadian Education and Research Institute for Counselling this past year on career service models across Canada. The college also boasts an 87-per-cent employment rate for six months after graduation for full-time jobs.

"My philosophy is we're here to serve the students," says Ms. O'Neill. "This year we incorporated a drop-in service so students can come any time on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons and are guaranteed to see a career consultant. Students want to see you when they want to see you."

John Conrad, director, innovation and business engagement at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, has just started his job overseeing career services after a major reorganization at the college. He says part of his mandate is to change how they engage with students and how they can get students to engage with the hiring community of employers.

"What's innovative is that we're trying to focus on providing more opportunities for students to get experience before they leave the building – not just technical experience, but we're emphasizing essential employability skills," Dr. Conrad explains. "It's how you show an employer that you also have those harder interpersonal skills to be successful at work. You can do the accounting, but do it in a way that's adaptable, flexible and responsible, self-directed and as a good team member. That's the direction we're moving in."

Much of what Dr. Conrad is trying to do comes out of his previous experience as associate dean of the school of business at the college.

"We were doing real client-based courses right from first year, formed partnerships with our local entrepreneur network and brought in speakers and alumni, to talk about what it means to be successful in work," says Dr. Conrad. "We did networking sessions and prepared students on how to build good relations, how to ask good questions and how to support someone for success. Now my job is trying to figure out how to scale that to be a college-wide thing. This notion of applied practical learning is something we've always done but we need to be more purposeful and intentional around it.

"The job market is in transition right now. With all of the new technologies that are coming down very quickly, we need to make sure we produce a work force that's much more responsive to change. We've always been focused on getting students jobs. That's the whole purpose the colleges were created for, so it's in our DNA. We just now need to do it holistically."

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