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Often it’s a tough situation for students who can’t get a job without experience but need a job to get that experience.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Students and recent graduates often find themselves a Catch-22 scenario – requiring work experience in order to get a job, but unable to acquire that experience without first landing one.

And after the Ontario government cracked down on unpaid internships earlier this year, and other organizations faced criticism over the practice, students now have even fewer opportunities to prove their abilities to potential employers, especially if their particular area of career interest isn't directly related to their educational studies.

"If only a small percentage of students are enrolled in degree programs that incorporate work experience [such as co-op programs], and laws forbidding unpaid internships for everyone else are being enforced, how are students who don't study [subjects] where their degree is relevant to a job title show an employer that they have what it takes?" asked Lauren Friese, founder of TalentEgg, an online resource and job board for students and recent graduates.

This obstacle inspired Ms. Friese to create Talent Egg Challenges, which seeks to provide practical work experience to students while giving employers an opportunity to discover potential candidates' true skills.

This is how it works: Employers provide a real-world problem the organization faces, and call on students and recent graduates to submit proposals to solve the dilemma. Each employer provides awards to top submissions, ranging from employment opportunities to cash prizes.

Though only a few of the hopefuls will take home a prize, every applicant is given a personalized report assessing his or her submission in comparison to other competitors. The reports are broken up into categories in order to help students learn which areas they excel in, and where they need to improve, and can help demonstrate those skillsets to potential employers as they look for work.

"They then have something quantifiable and real that they can put on their résumé or LinkedIn profile to say, 'look, I participated in this challenge, and guess what? In the analysis section I came in the top 10 per cent," said Ms. Friese. "When an employer is then assessing them they can look beyond where they went to school and what they studied."

Above all else, said Ms. Friese, the program is designed to help students and recent graduates discover the type of work they actually enjoy doing, which can be especially beneficial for those who haven't had an opportunity to work in a professional environment.

"Without having some sort of relevant experience in the workplace, it's really hard to know what it is you bring to the table," said Ms. Friese.

The inaugural challenge this year was posed by Canadian courier giant Purolator, who gave competitors 30 days to propose strategies to leverage social media in order to expand the company's business and brand identity. Applications were judged on three criteria – creativity, feasibility, and submission structure. Second and third place applicants were awarded $1,000, with the top submission receiving $3,000 along with paid summer employment.

"When I heard about the opportunity for Talent Egg Challenges I was very interested in the possibilities of getting new ideas from students," said Erik Ragotte, manager of strategy and innovation at Purolator. "I knew they would think of something out of the box, and even if it's not something that you can immediately implement, it just gets your thinking going in a different direction, and gives us an opportunity to come up with new ideas and innovations."

More than 600 applicants submitted proposals to Purolator's challenge, and after a lengthy selection process the top three were called in for interviews, with the grand prize eventually awarded to Queen's University bachelor of commerce student Tusaani Kumaravadivel.

"You can tell that she really had a great understanding of the business, and I found by reading her submission it was much easier to see her level of talent, rather than looking at a one-page résumé," added Mr. Ragotte.

Ms. Kumaravadivel was surprised when she received the phone call from Mr. Ragotte, knowing that she was competing against older students and graduates.

"I was more looking for an opportunity to get noticed by recruiters or by Puralator as an organization," said Ms. Kumaravadivel, adding that her career path following graduation is still "up in the air," though she has an interest in strategy and management. "TalentEgg gives you feedback even if you don't win, and I think that's a really useful way of helping you grow."

With the first competition completed TalentEgg moved on to new challenges posed by Metro News Canada, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Toronto, Travel Cuts, and the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board. It's also planning challenges with Procter & Gamble, RBC, and Queen's University.

"As more and more companies participate in Challenges and more students start to as well I think we're going to help pave the way for a new way of assessing young people and what they can bring to the workplace," said Ms. Friese. "We can solve some of the problems employers have in finding the right people for entry-level opportunities and help students make better, more informed decisions about what they want to do."

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