Kael Cruz spent the past few months "working like crazy," putting the final touches on his portfolio, perfecting his personal website, attending a networking training session, and boosting his social media presence in anticipation of an evening that had the potential to launch his career.
"I've got to sit at that table, so I've got to bring my A-game," explains the creative advertising student at Toronto's Humber College. He was one of 63 up-and-comers in the digital marketing, advertising, Web development and public relations industries chosen to participate in the Next Gen Dinner Series, an annual spring networking event that brings together young hopefuls with hiring managers and executives in the field.
"From the moment I heard about it, I made it my goal that I was going to be ready and I was going to make it here," said Mr. Cruz, sporting a purple shirt and dark blazer accented with a silver pocket square, a bold choice designed to help him stand out at the dinner.
Now in its fourth year, the Next Gen Dinner Series is like a speed-dating event for Canada's communications and digital marketing industry, pairing some of the most promising students in the field with some of its top employers in hopes of finding the right candidates for paid internships and junior positions.
Trina Boos – founder of Ad Lounge, a networking community for advertising and design professionals, and president of Boost Agents, a Toronto-based recruitment agency – started the event to help prepare a generation of students for their transition into the workplace. The program, held in late March in Toronto, aims to ease the recruiting process for employers by helping them find qualified junior employees who will fit into their workplace culture.
"When you hire someone, you want to know that that person is someone that you could go out for dinner with and have a good, intelligent, useful and interesting conversation," said Ms. Boos. "[Recruiting] is incredibly time consuming if cultural fit is a big deal to an organization, so I think that's where the dinner series is incredibly helpful."
In order to help recruiting managers find the perfect candidate, each sponsoring organization outlines what they're looking for in a potential hire. Ms. Boos and a team of volunteers go through more than 300 applications, interviewing the top 100, and filling seven tables with nine students each that best meet those qualifications.
But the winning applicants aren't just thrown into the lion's den to fend for themselves. Instead, they're given the option to attend a three-hour networking training session hosted by Leslie Ehm, the president of Combustion, a Toronto-based training organization that focuses on creative industries.
"When you get a chance to sit down and make an impression over dinner with an agency president or a senior executive from a large organization, that's gold, and I just wanted to make sure these kids are as prepared as they possibly could be," said Ms. Ehm, who volunteers for the event every year. "I ask them to really think about the one thing that makes them special and unique and try to formulate their own personal brand around that thing, to strategically think about how they're going to get themselves noticed."
Ms. Ehm said the three-hour training session includes advice on proper etiquette, communication skills and body language to help the students present themselves with confidence.
"These kids get so inspired and they're so revved up when they leave, it's like I'm shaking up the bottle of pop," she said. "They're not scared any more about the opportunity; they're excited by it."
It's the added boost the students need before approaching some of the biggest names in their industry. This year's sponsoring companies include Sid Lee, a creative services firm, Critical Mass, a digital marketing agency, and Google, among others, all of which arrive looking for students with specific traits.
"We call them 'Nooglers,' and what we look for in a Noogler is someone who is passionate, good for the job, good for Google, and good at lots of different things," said Sophie Chesters, marketing manager for Google Canada.
Ms. Chesters said the dinner also gives hiring managers and executives some insight into what the best and brightest are looking for in a job.
"We definitely learn from them what trends they're excited about, what companies they're excited about, and what they're expecting from the early start of their careers," she said. "We may not be their career choice right now, but we may be in the future, so just having the opportunity to meet and hear from people of all levels is always of interest to us."
The students similarly arrive at the dinner looking for more than just a shot at a job with a highly sought after employer, given that most of the hiring managers are looking to fill just one or two positions.
After a long night of shaking hands and talking shop, Mr. Cruz left the dinner with a new network of peers and executives in the industry he is about to enter, as well as a few coffee dates and phone calls scheduled with potential employers.
"Tom [Koukodimos, Sid Lee's co-creative director] was saying during the dinner that people are always looking for someone that they need at the moment, so just because they don't need someone right now, doesn't mean you're not the one they need tomorrow," Mr. Cruz said. "When that time comes, I'm going to be prepared."