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Breaking the ‘no experience no job’ cycle

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After completing a degree in international relations from the University of Toronto and two internships in China, Joshua Whittingham couldn't find a suitable position in his field. Caught in the "no experience no job cycle," he assembled parts in a manufacturing plant until he came across an ad for the career launch program of the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC).

Following a successful application process, Mr. Whittingham became one of the associates who are part of a new program that gives graduates the tools and skills to find positions in their areas of expertise.

"There are 100 of us from different backgrounds, for instance finance, social sciences or health sciences," Mr. Whittingham explains. "We are gaining key competencies that will be relevant for a number of different roles."

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In designing the program, the RBC team asked people who are successful in the organization what key behaviours, skills and experiences they consider essential for their roles, says Mr. Whittingham. "They asked, 'What is the advice you wish you had received in your twenties?' And this advice is given to us."

Even though the program is highly structured, the experiences of the associates are tailored to fit their individual career goals. The program's three rotations give them skill sets that will be valuable when they seek their next career job, says Zabeen Hirji, RBC's chief human resources officer.

For the first rotation, the focus is on experience in sales and service, as well as practical business and collaboration skills at a retail branch. Subsequently, the associates work for a non-profit organization. "The idea is to encourage them to become engaged citizens who contribute to their communities," Ms. Hirji says. For the final rotation, the interns gain broad-based business experience in areas that are aligned with their career interests, such as finance, marketing, human resources and technology.

At Habanero Consulting Group, internship and co-op programs are also structured very carefully, says vice-president Caterina Sanders. "Our first and foremost objective is to give back to the community and provide these people with a chance to do some meaningful work early in their careers."

It's not about cheap labour, says Ms. Sanders, it's about investing in young professionals and taking the time to provide mentoring and coaching. And although they may lack experience and confidence, students often bring curiosity and resourcefulness that positively contribute to the collaborative environment of the firm.

"We've also had many people who stepped up to be mentors and realized that they have a lot to offer," Ms. Sanders says. "That has been an eye-opening experience and a wonderful side benefit."

The process has turned into a virtuous cycle. "We give [our interns and co-op students] work experience which then unlocks a lot of the hesitation that employers have with new grads," she says. "We also have a good reputation in the industry, so having Habanero on the resume is often where the flip occurs – it's getting those folks to be in high demand," Ms. Sanders explains. But not all interns and co-op students move on, some "choose to roll with [Habanero]," she adds.

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An intern who has continued his involvement with the company is Carleton University student Spencer Perry. He started with a summer internship last year and now works as a part-time contractor. One of the aspects that attracted him was the climate of collaboration. "It doesn't really matter how long you've been here or where you come from," he says. "If you have great ideas, people will listen and that, for an intern, is really the best."

And even though he may not have the same work experience as his colleagues at Habanero, Mr. Perry feels that he fits in. "During the internship program, I got to meet so many people in the company, from the team I was working with in the marketing and communication department to the people my performance manager introduced me to," he says, explaining that performance managers oversee the career development of permanent staff as well as interns and co-op students.

"I really like the people I'm working with and I enjoy my role, that's why I wanted to stick around," Mr. Perry said.

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