Thursday, July 18, 2019

Degrees of employability: How does an education from Camosun College help in 2019’s job market?

March 20, 2019 by Fred Cameron, contributing writer

Every day I take the number 15 bus to Lansdowne. I cross paths with, literally, hundreds of students. I overhear bits and pieces of conversations and glance at the titles of their textbooks, but my days are just as rushed as theirs are, so I rarely have the opportunity to strike up a conversation. Each and every face I pass has a story of their own, and I can’t help but wonder why they’re here.

I think it’s safe to assume that most Camosun students enrol for career-development reasons. The truth is, as students, we have a relatively short time together and then we move on into the real world to try to make something of ourselves. While it’s both interesting and entertaining to speculate about what will become of my former classmates, I thought it would be interesting to dig a little deeper.

Just how valuable will our certification be as Camosun alumni? Every year, thousands of students come and go, so it isn’t realistic to think I can answer that question for all of my peers. But I thought it would be interesting to talk to a few recent grads and see what it looked like when they approached graduation and took the next steps.

Derek Dalziel graduated from the Mental Health and Addictions (MHA) program after attending Camosun from January until December of 2017. He speaks fondly of his time at Camosun; in terms of the educational component, Dalziel says the MHA program prepared him to step directly into the field.

“I enjoyed the learning and the instructors,” says Dalziel. “I was challenged by some of the material not in terms of difficulty but in terms of my stance on certain points. There were some parts that weren’t exactly indicative of the reality of being a frontline worker, though.”

Dalziel points to worksheets he was given in class as an example of a classroom activity that doesn’t transfer to the workforce.

“In some instances we were given worksheets,” he says. “I think one of them was ‘my steps to success.’ It was suggested that we hold on to it because we might want to do it with somebody in the field. I just don’t think there’s ever been an opportunity in any of my jobs where I would want to whip out a ‘steps to success’ sheet and be like, ‘Okay, and what can we do to get you there?’ In some facets it didn’t accurately represent the reality of my role working with mental-health and substance-use issues, but I think there were some components that were very good.”

This story originally appeared in our March 20, 2019 issue.

The MHA program was definitely very eye-opening in the way that it looked at some of the realities of the field, says Dalziel, adding that it gave a pretty good idea of what students should be expecting when they get into it.

“We had a few people come in from the BC Schizophrenia Society and just talk with us,” says Dalziel. “It was great to hear from people who had lived experience. They were directly impacted by what we were studying, and explaining what did and didn’t work for them. They told us about the experiences they had when life was getting really bad, what support looked like for them, and what ultimately ended up working. I thought that was really cool.”

In order to get a leg up, Dalziel says that he was actively looking for work as he moved toward the completion of the program.

“As we approached the end, I was in my practicum,” says Dalziel. “I spoke with my mentor, as I would call her at the time, at the housing site that I worked in at Tillicum. I asked what the feasibility of getting hired was. She recommended that I submit a resume and cover letter before I even graduate, because she wanted me to work there.”

With no idea what to expect, Dalziel says he was prepared to shop around if necessary.

“I was prepared to apply at Cool Aid, Portland [Housing Society], Pacifica, and VIHA [Island Health], depending on how it went,” he says. “But because she said, ‘Hey, apply right away and I’ll give you my recommendation,’ I applied with VIHA and it worked out.”

Dalziel was initially hired on as a mental health worker.

“I had my interview before I finished my program,” he says. “I got a call from VIHA right around Christmas. They told me that I had the job, and I would start on January 15.”

Dalziel says he began as a casual and picked up whatever shifts he could.

“Once you’re hired on with VIHA you have to build seniority before you get into a regular position,” says Dalziel. “Personally, I thought that was fine. I kind of liked being in a casual role because it allowed me to see a number of different housing sites. I got hired on as a mental health worker, so my opportunities were at residential sites that VIHA operates. It gave me a better appreciation and an understanding of how things operate at different places.”

Dalziel said that he knew he had a passion for addictions work when he was going through school.

“I knew that I wanted to work in a safe injection site,” says Dalziel. “During my final English project, we had to do a business proposal of some sort. I did mine on opening a safe injection site in Victoria. My vision and the Harbour [a supervised consumption site located on Pandora Street] are very different, but that was what I wanted to get into, and I was prepared to move away to Vancouver to follow that path.”

Opportunities are out there, and Dalziel says he has continued to branch out in order to find his way.

“After doing a bit of work here and kind of feeling the system out and figuring out how things operate under the VIHA umbrella, I heard whispers that we were going to be opening our own [safe injection site],” says Dalziel. “From there it was a matter of poking at the right people and finding out who was going to be running it, what it was going to look like, and who I needed to talk to to get in on it. I got lucky, and I guess I asked the right people at the right time, and I found out who the permanent coordinator was going to be. I found out early enough and made contact and was able to secure an interview.”

While education and hard work are key, Dalziel admits that some of his success can be attributed to good luck.

“I would say that I was very fortunate and connected with enough people who knew what was going on, and they were able to point me in the right direction; otherwise I may have missed the posting,” says Dalziel. “The window to apply was really limited. I was really adamant in spreading the word to anyone I met that I wanted to work at the safe consumption site when it opens. I think that kept it in the back of people’s mind, so they let me know what was going on.”

Dalziel is currently working at Tillicum Apartments three days a week, in addition to working part time at the Harbour, which led to him meeting Harbour program manager Tim Gorman, who hired him on as a casual harm reduction worker.

“I mean, realistically, working down there on the weekends and wanting to work more, I just started a dialogue with the Lookout coordinator,” says Dalziel. “He said that he had room to hire some casuals. He didn’t really interview me. He said, ‘I know you can do this job because you do this job.’ It was more of a formality.”

Gorman hired Dalziel to work as a harm reduction worker with his organization; Gorman says that Dalziel is a great employee.

“He is casual staff with us, but I would give him more hours if I could,” says Gorman. “He’s knowledgeable and professional. He seems to be the type of person who will be a lifelong learner, and he has a desire to learn more about this subject matter.”

Harm reduction isn’t the right line of work for everyone, says Gorman.

“It’s important to have some sort of education that addresses the complex issues around substance use and the issues around it,” says Gorman, “particularly homelessness, mental health, and trauma. People coming in here without lived experience or without education aren’t going to know how to help in this field. Derek’s got a leg up on people who don’t have that background. It’s crucial, and I see Derek doing good work well into the future because of his education.”

Gorman says that one of the things you pick up at school is how to learn.

“It gives you the tools to know how to get the knowledge you need,” says Gorman, “how to filter through what is and isn’t necessary, and get to the core of the subject matter, best practices, and experts in the field. Derek is aligned to do that. This field and subject matter is changing daily. With the opioid epidemic, some of the conversations around safe supply and some of the therapies out there were unimaginable a decade ago, but they are actually happening now. Ongoing education is crucial, or else you get left behind.”

When looking at a stack of resumes, Gorman says the first thing that catches his attention is experience and education.

“I want some kind of related experience, even if it’s volunteer experience,” says Gorman. “And then I look for some kind of education and lived experience component, and it’s usually a combination of them both. As I said, to do this work, I’m not willing to take huge risks on people who don’t have those core educational and experience pieces. I would never throw someone who’s green into this environment, because I would be setting them up to fail.”

Harbour is one of a couple of dozen sites across the country that are Health Canada exempt sites, says Gorman.

“This is new for all of us,” Gorman says. “We are doing our best to keep up. We are right on the cutting edge, and every little decision we make has ramifications. We often have to go back and adjust to make things work. We consider ourself to be a minimal-barrier essential service. Moving forward, the knowledge-sharing, education, and researching about what best practices are are being developed as we speak, and we’re a part of that. It’s pretty cool. If you’re going to Camosun to study addictions, it’s a great field to get into.”

Everyone’s experience is unique, and even within the same program, results vary. After completing MHA in June of 2018, Emily Welch has decided to change her educational path. She is currently preparing to enter the Community, Family and Child Studies (CFCS) program in September.

Welch—who is also a Nexus contributing writer—says that she struggled to find work after the completion of her program.

“It felt like it took forever,” says Welch. “I tried for about four months, which isn’t all that long, but I was under the impression that it would be very easy to find work. I saw that it was for some of my classmates.”

Welch is curious about why it didn’t seem to be as easy for her as it was for some of her classmates.

“I went to tons of interviews,” says Welch. “I treated my job search like it was a job. I would sit at my computer for three or four hours a night, applying to places. I probably applied for 50 jobs. I went to many interviews and had some phone interviews. It wasn’t as easy as I had hoped.”

If it were up to her, Welch says, she would have found a job in the addictions field.

“I wanted to get into Island Health,” says Welch. “I really tried for places like Cool Aid and others like it that are under VIHA. I also tried places like the Sobering Centre.”

After four months of toil, Welch says she actually received two job offers at the same time.

“Both jobs were with non-profits,” says Welch, “Our Place, and Lifetime Networks. I went on two trial runs so I could see which would suit me better.”

It was a tough choice because both jobs paid about the same, says Welch.

“Our Place offered graveyard, three nights a week, 12 hour shifts. From 7 to 7. Some people would find that ideal, because you get a lot of downtime,” says Welch. “I did one shift, and the people were lovely. It was at the emergency night shelter. I saw and learned a lot of things that I won’t forget. In the end, I didn’t take the job because I couldn’t handle the hours.”

Ultimately Welch chose Lifetime Networks, which allows her to work with people with developmental disabilities.

“I have three or four one-on-one clients,” says Welch. “It allows me to work around my school hours. It is an ideal fit. It took a long time, and a lot of interviews, and a lot of frustration, and a lot of crying.”

Welch says she had a wonderful time doing the MHA program.

“There were a lot of great things about it,” says Welch. “They do a wonderful job with the program, but it didn’t prepare me to actually be out in the field. When I started working I was flailing. I had to really do a lot of initiation, and really throw myself out there.”

Welch thinks the certification carries value but says she would have preferred to have done more interview practice in the program. (She adds that MHA students would benefit from more collaborative instruction from the Co-operative Education and Career Services department.)

“I remember it being a short period of one day working on interviews,” Welch says. “I’ve talked about it with other classmates and we all agreed that we would have liked to get the interviews down, because that’s something we all struggled with.”

Dalziel says that he had already interviewed with VIHA before, so the mock interview portion was just an exercise for him, but he agrees that it could have been more comprehensive.

“It was on the very last day of our program,” says Dalziel. “They had a fair number of good questions, but the whole procedure was fairly casual and nonchalant.”

While struggling to find her footing and find a job, Welch says that she made a decision to enter the CFCS program.

“I wanted more options,” says Welch. “I don’t like being idle. I wasn’t in school, and I wasn’t working, and I was doing all of this job hunting, and at that point it felt like I was never going to get a job, so I enrolled in school again. I still think it was a good idea, because it will take me farther in the long run. I may end up wanting to go to UVic.”

Welch says the CFCS program is a better long-term fit for her because she would like to work with youth.

“I find teenagers really fascinating, and I would enjoy working with them,” says Welch. “There are also a lot more options if you have this program under your belt. Apparently, you can work in schools, and the [government] ministry, and all sorts of places.”

2018 Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) graduate Gina Nelson says that the demand for employees is so great that everyone she knows who graduated found work in the field. CDA is an intense one-year program, says Nelson.

“You do six classes per semester.” says Nelson. “We usually started at 8, but you have to be in the lab for 7:30, and the days typically ended around 4. The classes were extremely challenging. They said we have Fridays off, but we pretty much used them to get caught up from the week.”

Students in the program are immersed in dentistry, says Nelson, but she adds that there is a lot of information attached to that.

“It was all dentistry, but there was some anatomy and biology, there was nutrition, there was pharmacology, and then we touched on the professionalism aspect of it and discussed the business,” says Nelson. “We did some work on resume building, which was really great. We had speakers come in, and we did presentations for different schools. We went to elementary schools and talked about the benefits of clean teeth and fluoride treatment.”

Then there was lab work, where students learned dental skills and techniques, says Nelson.

“We were taught pretty much any skills you need as a dental assistant, and then we had to practice it,” says Nelson. “With each skill you would be tested one-on-one with an instructor. You would be graded as satisfactory, improvement needed, or unsatisfactory. If you got an unsatisfactory—and we all did at some point—you had to redo the clinical assessment. You think you know a skill, and then you do it with an instructor watching every move—sometimes you make a mistake that you typically wouldn’t make.”

Nelson’s plans changed early in her program because her husband was offered a great position at Smile Dentistry in Kamloops.

“It just so happened that a friend who was in the program with me was moving to Kamloops, too,” says Nelson. “She mentioned that the dentist she was going to work for was looking for a CDA, so I applied and I got the job. I was hired before I even finished school.”

Nelson says that she was able to bring a lot of what she learned into the workplace, but each dentist is different, so she says she had to be able to adapt.

“The materials that some dentists use are completely different than what is used by others, but having a basic knowledge was really helpful. My program gave me a really good base, as well as knowledge that let me know what I should expect in the dental field.”

Nelson says she absolutely loves her job.

“Usually people start out in general dentistry before they get into specialty,” says Nelson. “I actually did very well in school, and because of my high grades I was able to get this job. It was a huge learning curve with all of the different materials, surgeries, and procedures. It was a lot to learn, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface, but I definitely feel like the program equipped me for that. I plan to be there for quite a while.”

For more than 10 years Camosun student employment facilitator Irene Wallace has offered what she refers to as “career coaching.”

“I was hired to directly lead and form the student employment side of things,” says Wallace. “It was kind of an independent role, which comes around to the services I put in place for students. I’m not a counsellor; I take a different approach.”

Wallace says that students need to know what it is they want to do before they can even try to do it.

“My job as a coach is to suggest things to try, and offer encouragement,” she says. “In order to advance, students need to step out and explore. I understand that they’re students, and academics is key, but this is where people often make a mistake. Spending time exploring and thinking about our career and life path is just as important as what we learn in the classroom.”

The Co-operative Education and Career Services department offers a wide range of services, says Wallace.

“We offer the normal pieces—resume and cover-letter development—as well as networking strategies, job finding, and informational interview strategies,” says Wallace. “One of the things that I do, which may be a little different than the others in the department, is on the personal development side, is help students to identify barriers, asking questions like, ‘Is fear getting in the way?’ and, ‘Are you really aware of who you really are and what matters to you?’”

For years, institutions have guided people into career paths, says Wallace, but she says that those institutions are realizing that careers are no longer linear.

“One of the philosophies I use is called ‘challenge researching,’” she says. “It’s a different approach to see what you care about and what you want to be involved with, and then looking at that to see what careers fit that mould, and then that can help to determine what to study. There are some fields where there is little doubt about it, but most programs don’t necessarily correlate to your professional direction.”

One of the biggest challenges is getting students to start planning their career path early on, says Wallace.

“A lot of students think they only need to worry about their career in their last semester, but that’s too late,” says Wallace. “We should be engaging together, right from their first semester, within a month of being on campus.”

Wallace says that she is expecting continuing economic growth in BC, which will lead to more job growth.

“The BC forecast for 2018 to 2028 is indicating that there will be 903,000 new job opportunities, but 77 percent will require post-secondary education,” says Wallace. “Not necessarily completing a degree, but education is becoming the expectation.”

Coming out of high school, a lot of students are deciding that they don’t want to work for anyone besides themselves, says Wallace.

“Entrepreneurialism is becoming a topic of more interest,” says Wallace. “That means that more students are choosing not to pursue a degree, which is risky because what happens down the road if they decide they need to go to work? A lot of people are doing that, and we have a lot of older people coming to Camosun as a result.”

In an ever-changing world, jobs disappear as technology expands, says Wallace.

“As an employee you have to know that you may not be there for a lengthy time,” she says. “Typically, four years is what we’re seeing for people staying with one employer. It doesn’t mean they’re illoyal. Situations have changed, and more people are being hired part time or on contract work. It’s a change of environment.”

On the other side of the department, Wallace says that the co-op facilitators engage directly with the faculty.

“Employers are looking for employees who can hit the ground running,” says Wallace. “Co-op certainly has gained huge clout, and you just can’t argue against the value of it. But what if you’re not in a co-op stream, and you don’t have those opportunities? We try to help those students with other strategies, such as volunteering. The essence of applied learning is that employers are looking for people who can land with experience right away.”

In her experience with institutions, Wallace says she has always seen a separation between career education and counselling.

“Counselling was in place years back, when institutions started to realize that they needed to have a service for students to look for employment,” says Wallace. “We work with counselling, but maybe not as closely as we could. There are also academic advisors. One of the things that I would really like to see is those three services working together a little bit more, but it’s not happening here yet.”

Institutions are slow-moving ships, says Wallace, adding that Camosun needs to be light on its feet to keep up with the trends.

“As an example, cybersecurity currently has 300,000 open positions in the United States,” says Wallace. “In Canada, 8,000 cyber experts will be hired in the next two years. By 2021, the global shortage in the area will be exceeding 3,000,000. Are we doing enough? What programs do we offer that allow people to study for that expertise?”

Career paths are often as unique as the people who walk them. It’s a desire for success that brought most of us to Camosun in the first place; I think Dalziel summed it up perfectly when he says that he’s 100-percent certain that his education got him where he is today.

“My education is what helps me get my foot in the door wherever I go,” says Dalziel. “I think my education opens doors, and then it is on me to showcase my ability. Even if I’m overstepping by saying that it’s 100-percent education, I don’t think I would be as competent or as confident in my ability to do this job without the education.”

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