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Economics graduate Kishawna Peck got valuable knowledge about the job market was accepted into the Business Council of Canada summit.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Like many of her generation, Kishawna Peck had been frustrated by the classic young-job-seeker's conundrum: How are recent graduates supposed to gain valuable work experience if employers won't hire them unless they have experience – even for entry-level jobs?

Unlike most of her generation, however, Ms. Peck and a select handful of others had the chance last year to talk directly to a roomful of chief executive officers about lost opportunities and the challenging labour market for young Canadians.

Ms. Peck, an economics graduate, and her fellow winners of a contest sponsored by the Talent-Egg job site and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (now called the Business Council of Canada) were part of a summit in April, 2015, on the skills Canada needs from its emerging work force.

Their discussions formed part of the backdrop for a new report, Developing Canada's Future Workforce, released this March by the Business Council of Canada and human resources firm Aon Hewitt.

The young grads did not walk away from last year's summit with job offers – but they did gain insight into what Canada's CEOs are looking for in the new generation of employees.

There is a greater emphasis on so-called soft skills such as collaboration, problem-solving and communication, and a growing recognition in corporate head offices that many of these skills are learned outside the traditional classroom setting, according to the new Business Council-Aon Hewitt report.

While work-related experience gained through co-op placements and internships is highly rated by employers, there is more appreciation for experience gained through volunteer activities and community involvement as well, one of the report's authors, Madeline Avedon, a Toronto-based associate partner of Aon Hewitt, said in an interview.

Ms. Peck, for instance, found in subsequent job interviews that prospective employers were "really interested" in her extracurricular role as manager of a student radio station at York University. She had also been involved, as an instructor and fundraiser, in a not-for-profit venture that taught conflict-resolution skills to Grade 5 students.

On the academic side, a bank executive Ms. Peck met at the summit suggested that more career opportunities might open up if she honed her analytical skills – advice Ms. Peck took to heart. She enrolled in a postgraduate course in business analytics at Toronto's George Brown College, a move that led to an internship at the debit and credit card processing firm Moneris. When Ms. Peck graduated from George Brown College this June, Moneris hired her full time as a product analyst. "It was perfect. Everything lined up," she said in an interview.

McMaster University commerce graduate Dustin Jurkaulionis, 25, learned that "simply having a degree" is not enough to land a job, but that he gained valuable experience in the year he spent working pro bono as a marketing consultant and social media analyst in the not-for-profit sector. In the process, he discovered that he did not just want to advise organizations on marketing and social media strategies.

"I want to help build the apps," said Mr. Jurkaulionis, who is now working as a Hamilton-based freelance consultant and enrolled in software engineering at McMaster. As for the summit, he said, "hearing that some companies are willing to hire on potential and to give less-experienced workers a chance was uplifting."

McGill University industrial relations graduate Dave D'Oyen, 24, recently left a job as a human resources co-ordinator to pursue the possibility of a career in public policy development. He already has extensive volunteer experience – as a member of the board of directors of the Black Health Alliance, a member of Metro Toronto's Police and Community Engagement Review Advisory Committee and newly appointed member of a Children's Aid Society of Toronto advisory committee to look at why black children are overrepresented in the foster care system.

"While grades and educational credentials are certainly important to recruiters, companies are increasingly focused on finding people who can work in teams, solve complex problems and show a willingness to learn" – all essential attributes for future leaders and managers, the Business Council and Aon Hewitt wrote in their report.

Given the pace of change, employees are constantly having to upgrade their hard skills. But Canadian employers report that it's the leadership and management positions that are the most difficult to fill, Aon Hewitt's Ms. Avedon said.

"Employers acknowledge that we can't just buy leadership talent … we have to build it. . … If we can get entry-level candidates with these soft skills that are much harder to train people on, we know that they will be able to learn on the job," Ms. Avedon said.