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The appeal of working for financial institutions slid among the students surveyed.

MICHELLE SIU/The Canadian Press

The priorities of Canadian students entering the job market are changing rapidly, and many of the country's employers are failing to keep up with those changes, a new survey concludes.

Stockholm-based employer brand analyst Universum, which ranks the appeal of working for companies around the world based on the opinions of students entering the work force, recently revealed its findings on the Canadian job market.

Its 2015 Canadian Student Survey – which surveyed 17,246 undergraduate students across 110 colleges and universities throughout the country in late 2014 and early 2015 – shows some stark changes in the career priorities of students over the past 12 months.

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One of the biggest overall trends revealed in the report is that students are more interested in a career that challenges them than a secure and steady paycheque. While work-life balance has remained a top priority for students since 2013, its relative importance to other career factors is slipping dramatically, while interest in travelling for work has seen a sharp increase.

"Last year, future potential earnings and the training and development required in order to help [the job candidate] achieve those earnings were attributes of the jobs that gained in importance," said Jason Kipps, Universum's managing director for Canada. "I think we saw a bit of a shift in terms of the drive for finance replaced more by the nature of the work, how dynamic that work was, and the opportunities to travel internationally to see the implications of that work first hand."

The Universum study found that 32 per cent of business students surveyed between October of 2014 and February of 2015 considered an international career one of their top three priorities, compared with 22 per cent of business students surveyed in 2013.

While the study's results varied by sector and were dependent on the academic pathway of respondents, Mr. Kipps said the overall trend toward more meaningful and challenging work, and greater travel opportunities, is a result of macroeconomic trends.

"When the economy isn't as stable and robust, then the priority isn't so much focused on how dynamic the work is," he said. "When those companies that are more closely associated with stability – with competitive benefits, the things that come along with big companies that are really stable – when the economy is also stable, those companies become less attractive because they're not as associated with innovation and dynamic and exciting opportunities."

Some of the other major changes having an impact on the career decisions of Canada's students include a declining interest in working for major oil and gas companies by business students, and less interest from engineering and IT students in financial institutions. In fact, financial institutions slipped an average of 22 places among all student groups in Universum's Top 100 Ideal Employer rankings since last year. This year retail also lost much of its lustre in the eyes of respondents, which Mr. Kipps attributes to a changing perception of stability within the industry following the failures of major retailers such as Target Canada.

Beyond these macro trends, Mr. Kipps says that employers are generally failing to differentiate themselves from their competitors in the eyes of potential employees.

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"The future leaders of Canada can't tell employers apart," he said. In trying to appeal to potential future employees, almost every company advertises their corporate social responsibility, environmental sustainability and innovation, he said. "Part of that is based on assumptions about what they might think the talent is interested in."

Mr. Kipps said that perceptions about millennials by employers have led many companies to start their pitch in the same way, but he believes elements like corporate social responsibility and sustainability are now "table stakes" – a basic requirement for employers.

Furthermore, while companies continue to dedicate significant time, energy and resources toward recruiting and improving their reputations as employers, many of these efforts use outdated approaches and yield few results, Mr. Kipps said. Specifically, he believes that brands are too hesitant to reach potential hires through social media.

"We're finding that it's probably one of the biggest opportunities for Canada to reach talent of every demographic," he said, adding that many employers are convinced that candidates don't look for career opportunities on social media platforms. While that may be true, Mr. Kipps says that 57 per cent of students follow potential employers on Facebook to gain insights related to the work environment.

"All of the available talent is accessible there; they can be reached there, but very few employers in Canada have figured this out," he said. "They're struggling to get permission to have a social presence through their brand police, who are worried about spray-back on their social platforms. The companies that figure this out sooner rather than later will be hard to catch up to."

Canadian brands can't afford to fear social media any longer, he said, as it is one of the cheapest and most effective ways of reaching the next generation of talent.

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"Often they're already spending the money [on social media marketing], but they're spending it without any analytics behind that," Mr. Kipps said. "We've got lots of evidence that shows that those companies that have strong, compelling, differentiating employer brands get better talent, spend less to get it, have higher retention rates – because everyone wants to work for a hero – have higher stock values, shorter times to hire and spend less on screening people that should never have applied."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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