Students fight for summer jobs

By Jennifer Pagliaro | May 6th, 2010 | 1:16 pm
Macleans OnCampus

With stiff competition for school related work, many students are forced to look elsewhere to pay the bills

At the start of her summer, Rebecca Eves packed up her white pickup truck with all her belongings and drove west from Ottawa, where she's studying restaurant and hotel management at Algonquin College, to Red Lake, Ontario. Every student is looking for the perfect summer job, and for Eves, it means living in a bunkhouse, eating out of a pack and fighting forest fires.

While experts predict the recession is turning around, students continue to think outside the box on how to land their idea of the perfect summer job. Despite the appeal of desk chairs and business suits, some students are donning overalls and aprons and getting their hands dirty, literally.

Eves said she chose to fight fires with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources for the unique experience, even though it has nothing to do with her field of study. "I thrive off that feeling of satisfaction from being sore and dirty from working hard outside all day," she said via text message from her remote base in Red Lake.

With the labour market lacking entry-level summer positions, many students are scrambling to find summer jobs related to their field of study.

Matt Wood, the executive director for the Ontario Association of Youth Employment Centres said the reality is students are searching longer and harder for career-related work. "I think with the recession in particular, but as is always the case, students are realizing that the labour market is more competitive and that they have to put some notches in their belt in career related jobs if they're going to pursue their own vision for what their career is," Wood said.

Wood said the transition between students graduating and landing a full-time job in their field is getting longer. While it doesn't mean some students aren't able to jump into their careers shortly after graduation, in the post-recession world Wood estimates for that making the leap into the career students have been preparing could be as long as 10 years. And, he said, post-recession, once coveted internships are increasingly lower paid or unpaid.

According to Statistics Canada, the unemployment rate of full-time Canadian students between the ages of 15 and 24-years-old ranged from 16.4 per cent in August 2009 to 21.1 per cent in May 2009. That rate increased significantly from the pre-recession data from 2008, which ranged from 11.4 per cent to 17.1 per cent.

With that in mind, Wood said students should expect, not only during the transition, but also during the summers ahead to explore all kinds of job options. "Everyone's trying to get by until everything clicks," he said. "They have to see that 10 year transition as an adventure." For some students, summer means just that - a chance to pack away the pens and notebooks and look for a change of scenery. While many student jobs may not be career-advancing, Wood said these "McJobs" still pay the bills.

The Manitoba Conservation Fire Program also hires seasonal employees to man four to five member attack crews, similar to how Eves will spend her summer. Crews are dropped off by helicopter in a remote region suffering from wild or human-caused fires.

Fire Control Officer Jim Martinuk said students who fight with their crews find the job both "arduous" and "challenging." Crews can expect to be on location for at least three days, he said. But in some cases the job can exceed two weeks. First-time students are provided with extensive fire and safety training before being sent to their first fire, and are required to pass a fitness test and have their First Aid and CPR certification.

Students are perfect candidates for fighting fires because they spend the school year retaining lots of important information in a short period of time. "Usually university students are more apt to pick up on the training, because they're in that environment of learning. They adapt very well to picking up new skills."

Students can also expect to make a decent chunk of cash. The program pays just over $16 per hour, plus several benefits such as weekend premiums, overtime pay and an allowance while on remote location.

Fighting fires isn't the only forest-related work that tends to draw in students every summer. Tree planting across the country has been a popular student option for years. Those looking to get a tan, but avoid the beach, will find outdoor work and a decent income working for established companies such as Brinkman & Associates Reforestation Ltd. "We're actually turning a lot of people away right now," operations manager and coast coordinator Timo Scheiber said. The biggest draw he said simply is: "It's fun."

Scheiber said students can expect to make an average of $150 per day their first summer, at five cents to just over twenty cents per tree planted depending on the area. Staying in a remote location where financial pressures like rent, food and entertainment are non-existent, students can put their money in the bank for upcoming school year.

But beyond financial concerns, Scheiber said students learn valuable life skills on the job that are sure to impress future employers. "From a company perspective, when you're hiring people to work in your organization, what you can't quantify is their character. It's the extras that make the difference," he said

Moving across the country to work in the bush is not the only option for skill-building summer jobs. Often students choose to stay closer to home and work as summer camp counsellors, lifeguards, tutors, landscapers and a whole host of other positions.

OAYEC's Wood said there are also opportunities for students to learn entrepreneurial skills in the summer by running their own businesses. Student Works, which operates in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes, has students form crews of painters, including a student crew chief, who contract and complete their own jobs under the banner of the trusted company name.

These types of jobs force students to develop problem-solving skills and marketing knowledge in a real work environment, while making some money.

Last summer, Matt Scriven, a 19-year-old Carleton University student, created job search site Studentopolis.ca to help students find work. The site currently hosts nearly 70,000 listings. He said while some students are focused on finding a career job, some students are less concerned with finding a job in their field. "I think the main thing for students is to find something fun and interesting, but also to make some money," Scriven said.

Scriven said his site has lots of postings for typical students job opportunities like cooking, and labourer positions.

Students, he said, are often looking for work close to where they'll be staying for the summer, which is why his site features an embedded Google Map for students to find jobs in their area. "Everyone's strategy is a little different," he said. While some aspire to their career dream jobs, some just look to get by for the summer, he said. "There are lots of jobs out there. It's just a matter of what they want."