STRUGGLING TO THE TOP

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By Drew Halfnight

Ryerson’s undergraduate class of 2007 is used to feeling the squeeze. When they applied for post-secondary school four years ago, they were part of the double cohort — the largest wave of university applicants in Ontario history, produced when the province axed Grade 13.

Now as they graduate, they’re facing more challenges.

“There’s no question. This will be the largest graduating class in Ryerson history,” says Keith Alnwick, registrar of academic advising.

With the 18-24 year-olds packing classrooms in Ontario, will these students face yet another squeeze in the entry-level job market?

The short answer is yes, they will. Already, students are postponing entry to the workforce by enrolling in graduate programs in unprecedented numbers.

Next year, the University of Toronto, University of Western Ontario, York University and Ryerson University will add a total of 40 new master’s and doctoral programs to accommodate the surge.

The media has caught on to the university reaction too. “Graduate schools brace for bulge” was the headline of a recent article in the Toronto Star that was backed up with statistics and political background.

But the grad school phenomenon is secondary. What’s behind it, and what’s keeping more kids in school longer is an increasingly competitive, credentials-based job market.

How this already cutthroat market will brace for the bulge, and how the bulge will fare in it, is pretty much unknown.

So what has Ryerson done to help out, besides making room for more grad students?

“We’ve tried to hold more job and career fairs, to have more employer presence on campus,” said Ian Ingles, employment services coordinator at Ryerson’s Career Centre.

The Centre added two new job fairs to its schedule of events this year, including the school’s largest-ever career fair in the fall and the Grab-A-Grad Job Fair last week. It was designed specifically for graduating students.

Overall, Ingles was optimistic about job prospects for the double cohort. “I think the job market looks quite good,” he said. “It seems to be a good time to be graduating.”

He said employers have never been more aggressive about seeking Ryerson students than they are today.

“They want to start the recruitment process right after Labour Day to get a crack at that year’s graduating students,” he said.

At the Grab-A-Grad Job Fair last Thursday, many students came dressed in business suits carrying folders and clipboards.

By the end of the event, some employers had a stack of 30 or more resumes and cover letters on their desks.

One employer, Peter Tovell, said he was amazed that students had come with pre-written cover letters, fully prepared to discuss his company, Cohos Evamy, a national architecture and engineering firm.

Tovell said that despite the double cohort bulge, a parallel construction boom has created a lot of jobs in his field. “It’s been good for the people coming through that surge period,” he said.

But some employers at the fair told a different story.

Kimberley Bowers of Absolute Recruitment complained that despite the surplus of graduates, it’s getting harder and harder to find candidates who really know what they want.

She said she sees a veritable sea of candidates, but few that are experienced and qualified.

Jennifer Strano of Veritude, another recruitment company, said that in her eight years as a recruiter, she’s observed the rise of Generation Y, which she describes as “a lot of younger people who expect us to sell to them.”

She says these new graduates are fickle, picky and suffer from the “grass-is-greener syndrome,” meaning that they hop from job to job often.

However, she adds that it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Even Tovell agreed. “Now they want to know, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

He remarked that even as the market remains competitive, students are getting choosier about where and under what conditions they’ll work.

Fourth-year Information Technology Management student Prat Ragavan thinks grads from his program are supposed to be one of the most sought-after students at Ryerson. But weeks before graduation, he says companies have not expressed much interest. “I feel we’re ready for the market,” he says, “but I just don’t know if the market’s ready for us.”

Ragavan said he and his classmates occupy an awkward middle ground between data-entry work, which most refuse to do, and management, which is often given to Master’s students. He’s been doing unrelated work during his summers in order to pay for school.

Fourth-year aerospace engineering student Inder Semi is in similar straits. When he graduates from his highly competitive program, he will likely still be unemployed.

“They always say that when you come out of an engineering degree, there will be a job for you,” he said, “but I’m not experiencing that.”

Semi said that only one in ten companies have offered him an interview. He did find work with chemical engineering giant Schlumberger, but it fell outside his field of expertise and study, so he turned it down.

After a “major crisis” relating to the job hunt last semester, Semi resolved to be patient, predicting that he would get a job within the months following graduation. In the very same breath, he says he’s considering changing fields to business since he feels he has a knack for it.

Meanwhile, intern recruitment company Career Edge is marketing its internship placement service as a way for this year’s graduates to “beat out their double cohort doppelganger.”

Kimberley Wakefield is the director of marketing and communications at Career Edge. She says the company was created in 1996 in response to the perceived underemployment of recent graduates.

The company has since expanded its services to help disabled and foreign-trained professionals find work in business.

Career Edge has been attending more career fairs in preparation for the double cohort.

Wakefield says it is an auspicious situation for employers, though she thinks the new grads won’t come to Career Edge until they’ve struggled a bit over the summer.

Although its internships pay, the money isn’t that great — a 12-month internship at Career Edge pays $22,000.

The rise of the unpaid internship is another sign of the prospective workforce that recent overeducated grads can expect.

By the trends, it seems that students are resorting increasingly to grad school, unpaid internships and retail or service jobs to bridge the financial and professional gap between an undergraduate degree and a solid entry-level job.

“You’ve got to treat that process of finding work like a full-time job itself,” said Ingles. “It takes a lot more than, you know, perusing websites.”

Ingles said it comes down to how badly people want jobs. He recommended that double-cohorters attend workshops, seek advice on their resumes and cover letters, and research employers in their field. “There are opportunities out there,” he said.

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