Just a few weeks into his co-op placement at Kinaxis Inc., an Ottawa-based firm that develops supply-chain management software, Liam Lafrance already sees his supervisors as career mentors.
This school semester the 17-year-old is spending weekday afternoons working on graphic design tasks alongside marketing staff who make him feel a part of the team.
Currently a high-school senior at A.Y. Jackson Secondary School in Kanata, an Ottawa suburb, Mr. Lafrance has taken computer technology courses since Grade 9 and plans to major in graphic and media design next fall in college.
He believes his job experience at Kinaxis not only will look good on his résumé, but will also help to open up job opportunities after he finishes his education. He got the position through his school's co-op teacher who takes the student's interests into consideration and contacts different companies to see whether they're interested in having a student. (This co-op counts as a high-school credit; Kinaxis will pay him a stipend at its conclusion.)
"This co-op is a good way to explore what I want to do as a career," Mr. Lafrance says. "I have an idea of what I might like to do, but it's never a for-sure thing. I'm also getting some experience of what it's like being in a workplace. I'm lucky to have such a great start."
With the growth of Canada's high-tech economy, many companies are increasingly targeting younger students for their outreach programs, hoping to get them interested in technology at the high-school level before they make critical curriculum choices. The companies fill a gap by providing helpful advice on career opportunities in tech, often beyond what school guidance counsellors may provide.
"We're trying to get them young because we're not seeing enough grads come out of computer science," says Megan Paterson, vice-president of human resources at Kinaxis. "I don't think the high schools are keeping up with what the options are in technology. We're struggling to get enough co-op students.
"That's also the reason behind the high-school hackathon we're having this April as well as having some of our tech managers talk to high-school classes. It's a long-term play, but important. The bigger goal is to promote tech in general and to get more kids into computer science programs in university."
While computer programming skills are key, Ms. Paterson says strong math skills are becoming even more important in the age of artificial intelligence. On the softer side, she values the natural curiosity displayed by the 60 to 70 (mostly university) students they bring in every year.
"The kids who are engaged and show initiative stand out from their peers," she says. "That will help them succeed in tech."
But Sean Lyons, a professor in the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph, would like to see less career specialization at such an early age.
Alongside Linda Schweitzer, the interim dean at Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa, Dr. Lyons has been studying how young people make decisions about their careers and who guides them. He's also been working with the Ontario School Guidance Association on a study to find out what they're seeing.
"Kids in high school are getting pushed earlier and earlier to make major decisions about their careers that they're probably not prepared to make," Dr. Lyons says. "They're incredibly anxious about the gravity of these choices and how this will affect their lives. We're also noticing a great pressure for universities to specialize students from Day 1. There are fewer programs where you can start out general and specialize later. We need to encourage more exploration."
After interviewing high-school and university students about how they chose postsecondary programs, he found it mainly depended on what courses they excelled at during high school. The biggest stumbling block is in maths and sciences.
"People's identity gets shaped fundamentally by how well they performed in Grade 11 math," Dr. Lyons says. "That's the filter right there that really defines how students make their first crucial career identity decision. That's where people decide what they're capable of, even if that's not the case.
"If people decide by Grade 10 or 11 that they're not good at math or science, then they can't imagine themselves succeeding at a level where they could have a STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathmatics] career, even though it involves so much more."
When it comes to making career choices, Dr. Lyons sees co-op programs as being useful in both high school and university because people can get a tangible feeling for whether this is something they might want to do. He also encourages his own students to seek informal mentoring with somebody who's in a profession in which they're interested, to find what their life is actually like rather than intellectualizing.
"You can think about what it might be like to work 80 hours a week, but you're not going to know what that feels like until you actually do it," Dr. Lyon says. "But to hear somebody's story and see the toll it's taken on them, and have them explain it is the next best thing. You can learn through somebody else's experiences. Those stories and connections are vital."
Mentorship is a strong component of YouthNetwork, SaskTel's long-running youth outreach program. In partnership with local high schools, the Regina-based Saskatchewan telecommunications company connects employees with students through regular e-mail communication as well as face-to-face meetings. Students also have the opportunity to job-shadow a mentor, tour SaskTel's facilities and participate in group activities.
Lyndsey Pankratz, SaskTel's full-time YouthNetwork director, says the firm focuses on high school because that's when people begin to think about their future and start setting their career path. The company also offers work placements, summer jobs, postsecondary scholarships, presentations in the classroom and holds an annual IT bootcamp.
As many of the jobs at SaskTel involve technology, Ms. Pankratz says they always encourage students to keep studying math and science in high school to better prepare them for postsecondary education.
"By catering our program to high-school students, we're educating them on potential career opportunities they might not know otherwise exist," Ms. Pankratz says. "In a job shadow or work placement, they can really see first-hand the skills that are needed. Also, having that connection with our youth helps us recruit the next generation of SaskTel employees. The schools are the gateway to the students."