Like many university students, Cole Evans hasn’t yet settled on a career choice. But he has a great deal to offer prospective employers when he graduates next year with his bachelor’s degree in political science, with a minor in history. That’s because Evans is serving as president of the Alma Mater Society, which represents 57,000 students in its dealings with the University of British Columbia administration. He’s also a member of the university’s senate and previously chaired the AMS’s human-resources committee.
“I have no idea what I am going to do when I graduate,” Evans told the Straight by phone. “My family background is in marketing and advertising, and I definitely have a big interest in that. But I’m also interested in a lot of business-administration things.”
He hopes to attend graduate school, possibly to obtain a law degree or a master’s in business administration. He’s also aware that there are some programs available that offer both of these credentials. But he also acknowledged that a lot can change between now and when he obtains his bachelor’s degree.
Evans is far from unique in not knowing where his future career may lead him. Deanne Esdale is a career educator at Simon Fraser University and she deals with students from their first year until a year after they graduate.
In a phone interview with the Straight, she said that uncertainty about one’s future is normal at this age.
“It’s okay not to know,” Esdale emphasized. “But there are definitely things that you can do to take action so that you are ready for opportunity.”
She said that those considering career options should try to avoid becoming too isolated. Although that’s not always easy to do in a pandemic, it’s still important to make connections with others.
One way is through an “informational interview”, sometimes called a “coffee chat” or “field research”. This involves contacting someone with an organization and asking if you can spend time asking some questions about how the company functions, and about the person's career story. That way, a young person can learn if it might be a good fit for them, and get some advice about the next steps.
“You do that research so that when the next opportunity comes up, you have better insights into what to include in your application, and have a potential reference there, as well,” Esdale said.
It’s quite common for people to take personality tests, which are widely available online, to learn more about their aptitudes for certain careers.
Esdale, however, cautioned that the world has changed a great deal during the past 25 years. While these personality tests can be fun and can yield a “real light-bulb moment”, they can also be simplistic.
“We change, the world is changing, and there’s new jobs on the market all the time,” Esdale said.
Norman Liu, the 30-year-old co-owner of Grand Chinese Yaletown Restaurant, is an example of someone who has undergone a surprising career change. He came to Canada in 2013 from the northern Chinese city of Changchun as an international student studying business at Simon Fraser University.
After graduating, he worked for luxury brands like Tiffany’s, Rolex, and Monte Cristo.
Liu is also a competitive bodybuilder, and he eventually decided that he wanted to be his own boss. So in September 2019, he opened his restaurant in partnership with chef Jian-Feng Wu.
“I lost a lot of money during COVID-19 when it started, in March, April, and May,” Liu told the Straight by phone. Things picked up in the summer, and he’s now breaking even. He’s also looking forward to the Dine Out Vancouver Festival, which begins on Friday (February 5).
“I never did restaurants before,” he said. “It’s my first business.”
Back at UBC, Evans said that career services is a huge part of a student’s postsecondary experience.
“You have a lot of students nowadays who are attending school in various degree programs who don’t necessarily have an idea of what career they want to pursue after they graduate,” he noted. “We’ve seen a huge rise in the importance of experience-based skills when organizations are looking to recruit—as opposed to just having a degree now.
“So we’ve made it really clear to the university in our advocacy that career services is absolutely a priority,” Evans continued. “We’ve heard also from the VP students office at UBC that they are going to make career services a priority in the coming years.”
Another challenge facing young people today is the pace of technological change. Artificial intelligence has the potential to wipe out entire occupations, just as the Internet did in the past to other job categories. Esdale said that everything from accounting to the legal field is already being affected by this trend.
“You can do your own divorce now online,” she pointed out. “Having an awareness for what the future may hold is helpful.”
In addition, she said that it’s even more important to develop the so-called soft skills that can help people evolve in a changing employment environment. That means enhancing interpersonal, motivational, intuitive, and communications abilities.
“All of those kinds of skills are so valuable to develop and are needed across all industries,” Esdale said.
There’s another concern with AI that was inconceivable 10 or 20 years ago. And that’s application-tracking systems where bots screen résumés. In some cases, bots are even conducting interviews with large companies in the United States. It’s possible for someone to enhance their résumé for the bots by running it through the Jobscan.co website.
“If you keep applying for jobs and it’s not happening right now, put your energy into something you can control,” Esdale recommended.
That can include cleaning up your online identity, building out your LinkedIn profile, and making connections in the community that can potentially yield results in the future.
“Find ways to feel that you have a sense of purpose every day,” she declared.
It’s good advice even for those not seeking a new career, particularly in this period that’s being influenced so dramatically by COVID-19. There’s nothing like feeling useful to ward off pandemic-induced despair.