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Changing career trajectories and a changing labour market

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The pandemic has brought on lots of unforeseen changes, but for university students, one of the biggest impacts has been the pandemic’s influence on their career paths and the job market in general.

There’s no doubt that two years of online schooling and sporadic hybrid classes brought on reflection about what students actually wanted to pursue after school, impacted what opportunities were available to start building their careers, and spurred on innovative ideas about ways to use a degree.

“Before the pandemic, I was dead set on becoming a lawyer,” says Emily Wojdak, a MacEwan University student. “I was dedicated to becoming a criminal prosecutor. After the pandemic started, and after the first month of my classes, switched to a criminologist career path, and switched my major to sociology.”

This realization hasn’t been uncommon, says Carolyn Kent, a career and development specialist at MacEwan. “I’m seeing students and alumni coming back to school (since the pandemic), looking at other options or ways to maybe add something on to their education,” notes Kent. “So, they’re thinking a little bit more about the range of possibilities.”

“And… I’ve had some students who have gotten to the end of their degree and really shifted. (They decide) that’s not what they want to do, and (start) seeking ways to look at… how they can use their skills or skill clusters in different ways,” Kent adds. “So, it’s not like any education is a waste, but it’s looking at how can (they) leverage this education in a different path or a different direction.”

Kent is seeing more students go on to graduate school, either to create more opportunities for themselves, or because they missed the in-person university experience during their time at MacEwan. Students looking to pursue passion projects as a career are also becoming more common.

“I’ve been in the field for quite a long time, and I’ve seen more questions like that than I’ve ever seen before — around passion and doing something that matters, making a contribution, feeling like what they’re doing is making a difference, that there’s purpose,” says Kent.

“I think it’s having a sense of purpose and (knowing) that their values are in sync with what they’re pursuing (that is important),” she adds.

In the workforce, this revaluation of what’s important in a job and a career has led to a phenomenon called the “Great Resignation.” People have left their high-pressure jobs, or jobs that simply didn’t satisfy them anymore, in pursuit of a career path that brought them a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Others, especially frontline workers, felt the stress of the pandemic, struggled with burnout, and chose to leave their positions for the sake of their mental health.

“There are a lot of people who just decided to reflect on their core values and what’s important to them and decided this was a good time to shift… what they’ve been doing and then do something that’s more in line with what’s important to them,” says Kent, “whether it’s balance in life or health or being in a team setting. There (were also) more people that were potentially nearing retirement and just (decided) that (the pandemic) was a good time to leave.”

Questions that might have stayed in the back of someone’s mind their entire career, like “Am I really pursuing something I want to be doing? What’s important to me now?” suddenly came to the forefront during the pandemic.

The Great Resignation, in combination with baby boomers retiring, has created a tight labour market across Canada, where jobs are plentiful but there are few workers able or willing to fill them. In early 2022, there were just under 900,000 vacancies across the country, with about 88,000 of those in Alberta, according to Statistics Canada. The job vacancy rate sat at about 5.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2022.

The unemployment-to-job-vacancy ratio is also at a record low in Canada, as seen in a Statistics Canada report, despite an abundance of unfilled positions. Employers are having trouble filling vacancies, particularly in construction, manufacturing, and accommodation and food services positions.

In June 2022, an RBC study outlined that businesses, nation-wide, posted 70 per cent more job openings, compared to pre-pandemic numbers.

While this doesn’t necessarily mean more job opportunities are becoming accessible for students, it does mean that employers are adapting their expectations to fill positions, which could be beneficial for students.

“One of the things that I’ve found is that employers are much more likely to look at soft skills rather than very specific job-related skills,” says Kent. “So, things like communication skills, adaptability, attitudes towards learning, positivity, (and) creativity. So, I think that’s a great opportunity for students.”

Kent adds that employers are willing to forgo the almost standard requirement that future employees have “at least five years of experience” in their field, in exchange for employees with competent soft skills. Sometimes, job postings will also say that other skills will also be considered, in lieu of years of experience.

“There’s a lot of potential for students (and) new graduates to think about how they can highlight their potential and those (soft) skills as opposed to thinking they have to have directly related experience all the time,” says Kent.

As employee values continue to shift in the wake of the pandemic, Kent anticipates that there will be a period of growing pains.

“A significant issue and challenge (that employers face) as we move forward, is… understanding that people are looking for more than just… the money,” says Kent. “(That) having (their) skills being utilized and valued (is just as important).”

Despite challenges ahead, the pandemic has shed light on career trajectories and new possibilities for many students.

“When there’s change and chaos, like we’ve experienced (with the pandemic), there are also a lot of different kinds of opportunities (created). So it’s learning how to see them,” says Kent. “Change does bring about a lot of opportunity.”

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