Saskatoon Job Search Strategies Forum Report
October 17, 2008
The forum in Saskatoon was the thirteenth event in a four-year NEADS’ Job Search Strategies Forums Project, addressing practical aspects of successful transition from school to the job market. Delegates represented a number of colleges and universities in the Saskatoon area as well as some schools from other parts of the province and outside of Saskatchewan. Student participants were attending the following post-secondary and secondary institutions: University of Regina, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology, Prairie West Regional College, North West Regional College, First Nations University of Canada, Davidson High School, E.D Feehan, University of Manitoba, Queen's University, and California Northridge University.
Altogether about 65 people took part in the day-long employment session, held at the Radisson Hotel Saskatoon: students, graduates, employers, career counsellors/professionals and representatives from non-governmental organizations. Approximately 10 audience members participated in the workshop through the online webcast.
The NEADS Saskatoon Job Search Strategies Forum included two workshop panels, an exhibit area, and one-on-one resume consultations with career counsellors / HR professionals over the lunch period. The exhibit area featured displays and representatives from: BMO Financial Group, CCRW's Partners for Workplace Inclusion Program, Conexus, Neil Squire Society, Saskatchewan Abilities Council, SaskPower, SaskTel, and SGI - Saskatchewan Government Insurance.
Jennifer Dillon - Job Search Strategies Consultant, NEADS
Tim McIsaac, NEADS, National Board Member (Manitoba)
Jennifer Dillon said NEADS developed the Job Search Strategies project with the support of BMO Capital Markets’ Equity Through Education program. The program was a response to the increasing demand for employment initiatives for students with disabilities. It also helped graduates and post-secondary students with disabilities focus on career transition, offering practical solutions to seeking employment, securing employment, and performing successfully in the workplace. The goal of the workshops is to provide the necessary tools to move from academic success to challenging and rewarding careers. The two-year plan for the project has since been extended, with workshops scheduled across Canada; they began in 2005 and will continue until 2009.
NEADS is an organization for students and run by students, Tim McIsaac, NEADS’ Vice-President Internal said, with a mission to advocate for equal access to education and employment. The next NEADS conference, taking place in Ottawa from November 14–16, 2008, called “Learning Today, Leading Tomorrow” will be an excellent networking opportunity and will host the elections for NEADS’ national board. McIsaac invited participants to consider representing their region on the NEADS board and said the conference will give them an excellent opportunity to learn and grow.
Participants viewed the Equity Through Education Program video, made through support and funding provided by BMO. The video captures several success stories.
Career success relies upon networking and partnership building, Dillon said. “The job market is a challenging place,” and everyone benefits from sharing experiences and perspectives. She said the Forum was designed to offer helpful assistance and a variety of perspectives to encourage success, as well as provide an opportunity to practice. She encouraged participants to be open when receiving feedback, and not to take offence.
Workin’ Your Job Search
Shari Thompson, Career Services Officer, Student Employment and Career Centre, University of Saskatchewan (SECC)
“You have a disability, your resumé does not,” Shari Thompson said. The job search process is predictable and job seekers must focus on following each step until a signed offer is received.
The first step in finding satisfying work is self-knowledge of career goals.
The second is knowledge of the employer: research conducted before a first meeting. Thompson suggested reviewing the company’s website; speaking to others who know the employer; consulting books, reviews, and other company literature; and initiating occupational interviews or meetings within the industry.
Job seekers use a number of tools, one of which is their image. They must retain a professional image in person, at home, and online.
Employment opportunities may emerge from the visible or hidden job markets. Employment centres, online job postings and employment websites, on-campus activities, and career fairs are all good sources of opportunities.
“Networking is the single most effective way to build a relationship, and it will get you to the industry sector you’ve chosen,” Thompson said. By expanding and nurturing networks, job seekers can explore employment options.
She encouraged job seekers to identify and implement job search strategies. The visible job market often includes classified advertisements, internet sites, temporary employment and employment agencies, and job banks. The hidden market is accessible through directories, professional associations, libraries, and the yellow pages. She said being in the right place at the right time—and finding out about a job opportunity before it makes it to a newspaper advertisement or posting—is the key to this market, where 80% of the job opportunities exist. Professional development, such as volunteering, campus involvement, community integration, community service learning, and extracurricular activities, will provide applicants with skills and abilities that employers often seek.
Once applicants have applied for opportunities of interest, following up with prospective employers is essential.
Job seekers must also prepare and practice presentations and interview skills. The University of Saskatchewan Interview Guide (http://students.usask.ca/support/employment/tools/interview/) is full of strategies and advice on the interview process, Thompson said. The SECC also offers a mock interview program, as well as an online resumé builder (http://students.usask.ca/support/employment/tools/resume/), which enables job seekers to prepare for interviews and obtain feedback.
Creating a list of applied-for opportunities is advisable, including notes on when to follow up, who to contact, and the preferred means of contact.
Thompson recommended evaluating offers based on the nature of the work and working conditions; whether accommodations for disability are in place; the location of the job; the opportunity for advancement; the employer’s culture and reputation; and the salary and benefits. It is important to receive the offer in writing. She advised job seekers to always conduct themselves in an ethical and professional manner.
Above all, she said, keep up the search until a final offer is in place.
What You Need to Know About Disclosure and Job Accommodation
Jenny Plotzki, Employment Coordinator, Partners for Workplace Inclusion Program (PWIP), Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work (CCRW)
Brian Campbell, Employment Specialist, Partners for Workplace Inclusion Program (PWIP), Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work (CCRW)
PWIP is a Saskatoon employment service for people with disabilities, Jenny Plotzki said. Recent graduates can access the program for job search support and advice on transitioning into the workforce. “Telling prospective employers about your disability may be the biggest uncertainty in your work search,” she said. Making the decision to tell is a very personal choice, one that is both complex and dependent on the individual’s situation.
A disability’s degree of visibility is a factor in the decision regarding whether to disclose it, as well as whether it could impact job performance. Invisible disabilities are many and varied, but can include chronic conditions such as migraines, fibromyalgia, psychiatric conditions, chemical sensitivity, and brain injury.
Disclosure may help or hurt a job seeker’s chance of getting or keeping work; from an employer’s point of view, a lack of disclosure means a lack of accommodation. “You can never un-disclose,” Plotzki said, “but you can always disclose at a later time.”
Human rights legislation governs the way employers approach disabilities. Saskatchewan employers may not inquire about the nature of a disability, invisible or otherwise, in an interview or on the job. Employers must state clearly all job requirements in a job description or advertisement, to allow potential applicants to make an informed decision about their ability to perform the requirements successfully.
Interviewees who choose to disclose their disability during the interview should do so when invited to talk about themselves, Plotzki said. She advised talking about the disability briefly, clearly, concisely, and without being defensive, and describing job strategies or coping mechanisms to reinforce the proactive steps already taken in managing the disability. Applicants should be prepared to explain any resumé gaps resulting from the disability, but remain positive, returning the focus of the conversation to the skills and experience they would bring to the position if hired.
Applicants should discuss disabilities that may pose a safety risk to themselves or others with the employer once an offer has been made, so that steps can be taken to avoid risk. Applicants could also discuss invisible disabilities once a job offer has been received. Plotzki said if applicants choose not to disclose an invisible disability, they should get a letter from a medical professional stating it will not affect job performance and they are fit to work. The letter should be kept on file in the event that questions arise at a later time.
Applicants may find it necessary to disclose a disability on the job, she said, perhaps because there is a need for accommodations, or because time off is required for medical reasons.
Learning to manage a disability produces valuable skills and abilities; applicants should emphasize these to potential employers.
Brian Campbell said applicants should present disabilities positively, and not as a weakness, offering solutions rather than focusing on the disability itself. Changing workplaces may mean a changing need for accommodations: “many businesses and organizations are exploring alternative working relationships and accommodations to meet the needs of all of their workers,” he said.
Workplace accommodations take many forms, such as making facilities more accessible; modifying work schedules; restructuring the work; acquiring or modifying equipment, software, or devices; providing support services or qualified assistants; changing work locations; and retraining or reassigning employees. Workers may need to provide the necessary equipment themselves; be open, honest, and clear about their needs; know the costs involved; know which funding sources are available; and be aware of other solutions that may enhance their effectiveness in the workplace.
The majority of job accommodations for persons with disabilities can be made with minimal financial investment, Campbell said. He said applicants should know the facts when presenting their case; sharing solutions is more beneficial than sharing challenges. He said that from full-time or part-time work to volunteering or self-employment opportunities, the right work situation is out there waiting to be found.
Strategies for Success: A Practical Perspective on the Transition from School to Work
Carol Hogarth, Senior Project Management, BMO Financial Group
Career resiliency—developing the means to manage change—is an important aspect of career success, Carol Hogarth said. She encouraged the participants to lead their own careers, cultivate their inner resources, learn continually, build and sustain relationships through networking, understand themselves as a commodity, nurture their own well-being, and create a support network. All these components are important to the development of a sound career plan.
Creating a career plan is an interactive and collaborative process that begins with self-exploration and goal-setting. Collaboration with professionals and advisors helps define career goals and aspirations.
Self-assessment requires job seekers to consider their skills, interests, and personality and determine the unique qualities they bring to an employer. This process is part of creating a personal brand, or “the collection of perceptions and impression about you that are held by those around you.”
Hogarth advised participants to reflect on their own stage in life, where they wish to be in five years, what their goals are, and how they can reach them. Researching goals through experiential learning and job shadowing, mentoring opportunities, volunteer work, and co-ops and internships is an important part of determining which objectives should be part of the career plan.
Once goals are determined, creating an action plan to achieve them is necessary. Each step in the plan should be specific, simple, measurable, attainable, results-oriented, and bound by time.
Hogarth said any experience or skill a job seeker can leverage, as well as any they hope to develop, belongs in the career plan. Developing and committing to career goals leads directly to the destination job by outlining the necessary steps to build networks and develop skills.
To achieve the success they deserve, job seekers should know their goals, the business culture to which these will ultimately lead, and how to get there.
A participant asked for a definition of a short list. Thompson said this is the listing an employer creates to determine which candidates will be interviewed or moved further along in the hiring process. A resumé is often the tool used to determine whether applicants meet the position’s qualifications, Dillon said; the cover letter is often used to determine whether a candidate is of interest.
Another participant asked whether the presentations would be available after the workshop. Dillon said presentations would be available electronically on a CD and that a report covering the content of the presentations would also be available at http://www.neads.ca.
A Participant discussed resources for developing cover letters, resumés, and other job search documentation. Thompson recommended starting with the distributed SECC guides. Hard copies of the documents are available at the SECC office and online, she said.
“Isn’t having a job the best way to determine what you want?” a participant asked. “Is there a timeline as to how long one stays in a job in order for it to be useful on a resumé?” Campbell recommended employees stay with a job as long as they are happy with it, as a number of short-term positions, held for less than one year, listed on a resumé can raise a red flag with prospective employers. Contract work, casual, and part-time jobs are still valuable; it is the length of time spent with the organization that defines length of employment, not the daily hours worked. Ensuring job overlap—by finding a job before leaving one—leads to a smooth transition and prevents resumé gaps.
A participant asked about Saskatoon employers’ record regarding disabled employees who are deaf. Hogarth said BMO Financial Group has a number of deaf employees working in front-line sales roles, as well as in areas such as internet technology and telephone banking in offices across the country. Difficulties in attaining employment can be addressed through follow-up that determines where problems exist, Dillon said.
A participant said age can become a disability, and asked that consideration be given to providing job-seeking support, skill building, and job placement for seniors.
A participant asked how to find a mentor. Plotzki said there is usually a community-based support organization dedicated to providing mentoring support. She recommended connecting with the disabilities services office at a university, or taking advantage of career centres. Mentoring opportunities can also be discussed with the appropriate professional organization.
Thompson reviewed SECC’s mock interview process, but said it is available only to the student body. Online support is available to the community in general, she said.
Campbell said because individuals often suffer from more than one disability, determining the necessary accommodations to enable success is important, as is discussing them, as well as solutions, with an employer. Dual diagnosis can be discussed in the same way as singular diagnosis: ensure the employer is aware of the issue and what support is necessary to ensure the applicant’s success. BMO Financial Group works with experts to determine which accommodations are needed, and a centralized pool of funding is dedicated to providing them. Dillon encouraged the participants to present their special needs and disabilities in a positive way during an interview.
“Government funding exists for those who want help in securing employment,” a participant said, and asked whether these programs are specific to government jobs. PWIP (http://www.ccrw.org/en/programs/program_detail.asp?Program_ID=5) is funded through Service Canada and provides personalized support to job seekers with disabilities, Plotzki said. Targeted wage subsidies serve as incentives for employers to hire persons with disabilities. Another participant said the Public Service Commission funds job coaches and supports education, and services exist to cover training costs.
Disabled workers often use specialized software, which can be costly and may not be accessible for all employers. While government programs do exist, there is a gap in available technology and employers may not want to take on the responsibility of dealing with these specialized needs. Dillon said job seekers may not want to work for an employer that is unwilling to provide the necessary accommodations. BMO Financial Group accommodates workers with a disability by ensuring that employees who need adaptive technology on the job have access to it, Hogarth said. The BMO Adaptive Technology Team works with vendors to remain current on the technology in use, and ensures its implementation within the workplace.
Many job seekers will face discrimination throughout their search for employment, but Dillon and Campbell said it is important to keep trying. Networking is key, and getting to know employers before applying for a position may assist in overcoming stereotypes and prejudice.
Several participants acknowledged the supportive employment services available in Saskatchewan, many of which exist outside the typical employment counselling circle. Sometimes job seekers need to educate potential employers on their specific needs, which means building a productive business partnership is important. Through advocacy and public education, the Canadian Association for Supportive Employment works toward full inclusion in the workplace.
Ergonomic workstations, designed to alleviate physical strain, are becoming the norm in work environments, for all employees.
A participant said creating a business plan is complicated, and asked about support to help a disabled person through this process. Dillon said future workshops may be dedicated to this topic; the panelists recommended seeking advice from the North and South Saskatchewan Independent Living Centres and the Network for Women Entrepreneurs. Many online resources are also available for writing a business plan and starting a business.
Preparing for Interviews
Margaret Clark, Human Resources Consultant, Conexus Credit Union
“The interview is a time to discuss your skills, knowledge, and experience,” Margaret Clark said. “You are taking the opportunity to convince the employer that you can do the job.”
Preparing for a job interview means researching the position and employer, thinking of questions the interviewer might ask, rehearsing, preparing notes, and letting references know about the interview.
Clark said she is impressed when applicants come to the interview with questions—her impression is that people with notes “seem more comfortable and confident.”
In the interview, the employer will review the applicant’s resumé. Applicants should also expect questions about their goals, reasons for applying for the job, work habits, education, previous employment, and salary expectations.
Interview questions generally fall into three categories. Behavioural events interviews require applicants to give examples, such as a time when they had to deal with a difficult customer. In a situational interview, the applicant is asked to describe what he or she would do under certain circumstances. Clark described the traditional interview as a “freewheeling conversation,” in which employers are required to keep their questions related to the job.
Interviewees should arrive on time, listen attentively, speak clearly, and keep answers brief. They should not appear defensive, complain about others, use slang, or chew gum.
Clark said applicants should leave the interview with an understanding of the most important duties of that position. Some employers provide information about the job before or during the interview, but if they do not, applicants should request it.
Not all questions are appropriate for all interviews. “You can feel out the situation to find out when it’s appropriate to ask.”
After the interview, applicants should consider whether they would accept the job, should it be offered. The employer is trying to make sure the applicant is a good fit for the company, Clark said, and in turn, applicants must be sure the company is a good fit for them. Applicants should then follow up, sending a thank-you note even if the employer does not offer the job.
Dressing appropriately for an interview is key. Clark suggested visiting the workplace to observe how employees dress, or asking whether there is a dress code. An applicant’s outfit should be neat, clean, and tidy. Image extends beyond dress: “if you have an email address at Yahoo or MSN, something like ‘crazy little biker chick,’ it gives an impression. Sign up for that second free Hotmail account with a professional-sounding name.”
Working from Within
Darwin Bender, Power Contract Administrator, SaskPower
Darwin Bender said SaskPower attracted him nearly 25 years ago due to its affirmative action plan, recruiting department responsible for affirmative action, and budget for seven staff.
“Today, I am a power contracts administrator in the transmission service department for the transmission and distribution business unit,” he said. “My experience with job accommodation has been positive. Although I don’t require assistive devices at this time to complete my tasks, SaskPower is open to acquiring what may be needed.”
Some employers may think it costly to hire someone with a disability, he said, so he shares ways in which they can save money. “For example, I don’t require an office chair; I bring my own,” he said, gesturing to his wheelchair.
Before starting a new job, he said he requests a tour of the new work location before the starting date, to see whether changes may be needed to accommodate him. “I find that educating employees and departments about disabilities works best over coffee and conversation while at work.”
Bender said he finds employees with “physical and visible” disabilities tend to experience more barriers in the workplace than those with “invisible” disabilities, because of people’s assumptions. He urged participants not to become discouraged. “Sometimes only you and those who work closely with you will value you for what you have to offer in employment.”
Team-building exercises that occur outside the workplace can be barriers when they are planned without taking into account the needs of all employees. “Golfing, for example, is one that doesn’t always include you as part of the team.”
Positive change in the workplace comes from building networks, becoming established, and getting to know the systems and culture of the workplace, Bender said.
Jennifer L. Richardson, Student, University of Regina
Jennifer Richardson, who is a student at the University of Regina and works part-time with the Canadian Cancer Society, said she was diagnosed with dyslexia only when she was a student at university and a French-speaking professor noticed she was “having more difficulty with the English language than he was.” The diagnosis was a relief, she said, because for the first time in her life, “everything made sense. I was able to understand why I was having difficulties in school in every subject.”
Richardson said her dyslexia poses several challenges. Reading takes longer for her than it does for others. Word recognition and pronunciation are difficult, along with comprehension of both written and spoken language. She experiences problems with sequencing, memory, auditory cues, letter and number recognition, and thought organization. She writes slowly, with frequent spelling errors. She has difficulty finding words, mixes them up, and has difficulty verbalizing her thoughts and ideas.
Support is important in school and in the workplace. She said her decision to disclose her disability was an important part of her strategy to learn more about her disability and identify her strengths and weaknesses. She developed a personal learning style that, although exhausting, helps her to understand better. For example, she said, she writes out words to learn them, rewrites policies to understand them, and talks to a variety of people to comprehend them. By taking classes part time, she has extra time to learn, without pressure.
“Organization is also very important to me,” she said. “A quiet workplace is essential, because I can’t work with any distractions.”
Richardson said her colleagues treated her disability with respect, showing support and being attentive to changes needed in the workplace.
“I felt very comfortable and accepted in that workplace. It’s important to have an understanding of the disability. Everyone is affected differently and requires different accommodations.”
Richardson said taking a variety of university classes helped her determine her area of interest and develop her career goals. She recommended exploring career options, identifying values, skills and strengths, and learning about prospective employers.
She shared a quote from American newspaper columnist, businessman, politician, and radio talk-show host Herman Cain: “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”
NEADS Web-based Employment Resources
Tim McIsaac, Manitoba Representative and Vice-President Internal, National Educational Association of Disabled Students
McIsaac said NEADS began in 1986 as a consumer-based cross-disability organization. In addition to the Job Search Strategies Forums, it has conducted research in areas of interest to its constituents —for example, recently we have partnered with Imperial Oil Foundation which is funding a project to identify possible barriers for persons with disabilities who want to pursue education and subsequent work in science and technology fields.
NEADS includes information on financial aid and specialized funding, such as scholarships, on its website, www.neads.ca, and provides a NEADS listserv, NEADS-L. The NEADS Equity Through Education Student Awards program consists of six $3,000 awards, in three categories: for post-graduate, undergraduate, and college students. The next application deadline is December 17, 2008, with successful applicants announced in April or May. NEADS’ employment-related previous publications include Employment Connections and Access to Success, both available on the NEADS website and from the national office in Ottawa.
The free NEADS Online Work System (NOWS), launched in 2003, allows students to post cover letters and resumés, including different versions of each that can be used for specific employers or types of employers. Students can research and apply for employment opportunities online. Although the system is for students with disabilities, job seekers are under no obligation to disclose either their disabilities or the extent of them.
McIsaac said more than 1,600 students and graduates with disabilities are registered, along with 104 employers representing 25 industries from every province and territory. There are more than 250 students and graduates from the Prairie Provinces.
NOWS registrants from the prairie provinces are seeking employment mainly in government, administrative services, office help, social services, non-profit, customer service, and health care sectors, he said, with employers such as BMO Financial Group, Canada Revenue Agency, CTV, GE Canada, London Drugs, and SED Systems to name a few.
A participant said like Jennifer Richardson, his learning disability went undiagnosed for years and asked why the school system does not address possible learning difficulties. Richardson said the system may lack both sufficient funding to test and diagnose students and the necessary resources and training to assess students who are having difficulty.
Another participant asked about “education leave.” Dillon said a leave of absence is sometimes available for this purpose, and Clark said it means that the employee’s job will be held until the leave has ended.
The participant asked whether accommodations can be made for people with psychological disabilities, and Dillon said certainly, “It really is worthwhile to invest the time to determine what types of accommodations you need in order to do the jobs that you’re pursuing, so when it comes time to ask for those accommodations, you’ll know what to ask for”. Accommodations might include having more time to complete tasks, doing tasks in a different order, organizing tasks differently, or job sharing some tasks with another employee, she said.
Another participant asked whether NEADS is an advocacy group. “It’s a good question, but a delicate one,” McIsaac said. “We don’t do individual advocacy. We do what most people call ‘class advocacy.’” McIsaac said NEADS looks at, for example, policies at a university or government and tries to educate those organizations on how their policies affect students with disabilities. NEADS also tries to work with other segments of the community, rather than against them. “You won’t see us parading down the street with a police escort, carrying banners, protesting,” McIsaac said, adding that rather, NEADS writes letters and engages in consultation. “We try our best to arrive at solutions to issues that we identify in ways that cooperate with other organizations.”
Dillon said she and another board member had worked with the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers to create a best practices guide for employers and career centres at post-secondary institutions to promote equal opportunity hiring practices.
A participant asked how NOWS is structured. Dillon said employers post job opportunities and application deadlines, then check back when the deadline has passed. They may also check resumés in the general resumé pool.
Clark said employers may keep resumés for up to six months, typically for jobs that elicit a large volume of applications or for positions with high turnover.
A participant asked Bender why he had created the diversity committee at SaskPower, whether he got the support he needed at his job, and whether he likes the word “disability.”
Bender said when he began with SaskPower, it had a joint union-management diversity committee in addition to three affinity groups. There were networks for visible minorities, Aboriginal employees, and women’s resources. The Network of Employees for Disabilities (NED) did not exist at that time; SaskPower had tried previously to form an affinity group for employees with disabilities, but had been unsuccessful. The company encouraged Bender to try and, with the help of other employees, he was successful in establishing NED.
Bender said he does not object to the word “disability” in the correct context. “It’s one of the things we struggle most with in society. ‘Persons with disability’ seems too long. Everyone’s trying to shorten it. I don’t have a suggestion,” he said. “It’s important to get to know one another as a people. Building relationships, meeting other people—that’s where you can build empathy rather than sympathy.”
Another participant described the difficulty in dictating complex content using Dragon Naturally Speaking. “You don’t talk the way you dictate,” he said. “It’s easy to dictate a personal letter, but harder to dictate an academic paper.” He asked whether others have the same degree of difficulty composing in their minds and then dictating their ideas.
Richardson said she found that a combination of Dragon Naturally Speaking and WYNN software worked well for her: she scans books into her computer, then cuts and pastes portions of text into her document if she finds that Dragon Naturally Speaking will not do what she needs it to do. “By cutting and pasting, then working with WYNN so that you’re not plagiarizing, you are able to get your point across,” she said.
Bender asked Clark whether Conexus uses behavioural interviews. She said the company does predominantly use behavioural type interviews, based on competencies. These include factors related to the job, such as team work, customer service, listening, understanding, and responding. The competencies are specific to the job profiles.
A participant asked for confirmation of the web address for a site about self-employment for persons with disabilities: www.griffinhammis.com .
Dillon said she would share a personal experience of some difficult interview questions. “I was caught off guard once by the question, ‘If there’s something that you hate at your job, what would that be?’ That’s a really tough question to answer, because you don’t necessarily know what the job entails at that point and you don’t want to say anything that the job will entail.”
Clark said framing the answer well is important. For example, an employee at a call centre might say they find dealing with customers over the phone challenging because of the lack of body language, instead of saying, “I really hate dealing with people over the phone because they’re more obnoxious because they don’t see you face to face.”
A participant asked how to get a university degree without completing high school. Richardson suggested reviewing the university’s application process, perhaps by calling to ask about admissions. Clark said universities provide information about their minimum admission requirements, such as GED or grade 12.
A participant asked how to find time for volunteer experience within the academic schedule, and Dillon said this subject will be addressed at the NEADS National Conference. She acknowledged that it is difficult to balance a disability and a full course load with volunteer experience. It is a matter of determining what works best for you, whether it is part-time studies with volunteering or volunteering over the summer. She suggested speaking with career counsellors and support workers to get ideas.
“We all know that when we have disabilities, it takes us longer,” McIsaac said. “It takes us longer to do stuff, and it takes us longer to get where we want to go. Whether you focus on your studies now, get that done, and then go focus on your volunteer experience, or whether you scale back your studies a bit so that you have more time, you’re probably looking at a little bit longer road than you would if you didn’t have a disability. At the same time, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have those goals.”
Another participant said it is easy to forget that volunteering is actually volunteer experience. Volunteering helps create balance, Richardson said, but some employers criticize volunteer experience. Clark said when she sees volunteer experience in combination with grades, she sees a person who is able to manage both their priorities and their time.
A participant asked how much emphasis to place on volunteering when employers also demand high marks. “It comes back to finding that school, work, life balance,” Dillon said. “It comes down to choices.” She advised participants to consider whether they wanted to take longer in school and gain experience at the same time, or to go through school as fast as they can and gain experience afterward. “Regardless, you need education and experience.”
Clark recommended using the cover letter to highlight skills gained through volunteer experience. “Connect the dots for the employer.”
Volunteer activity often draws on the same skills needed to run a small business, McIsaac said. Not every job is for every applicant: “There’s no point taking a job that will have you on stress leave and on medication six months after you start,” he said.
“Each of us has strengths, and it’s a matter of honing in on those strengths,” Dillon said. She said each employee will be able to contribute something to the job better than other team members. “There will be some things you can do really great, and some things that will take you longer. It will be the same with your co-workers ... As people with disabilities, we’re really good at organization and time management. All those coping skills that lend themselves well to getting things done on time.”
Jennifer Dillon, Job Search Strategies Consultant, NEADS
Dillon emphasized the importance of setting career goals, thinking out a job search plan, determining the necessary accommodations, and deciding how to manage disclosure.
She said she encouraged job seekers to take time and put thought into the process. If accommodations are required, job seekers should research in advance what they need, how they can get it, how quickly they can get it, and whether funding is available. “If you’re in an interview, you want to have all that information at your fingertips. That will make you look incredibly professional.”
Job seekers should engage in self-reflection and self-assessment, she said; they should identify skills and strengths and articulate them well. They should be prepared to handle different types of interview styles, anticipating questions and planning responses in advance.
“I find it really helpful to look at the job posting carefully,” she said. “You can usually gain some insight into what some of those interview questions might be in advance.”
Networking is essential to career development. “When you leave jobs, stay in touch with people. Always keep up those relationships, so you’re keeping up your network as you move from job to job.”
Developing career goals can be challenging and daunting; sometimes the easier course is to rule out certain careers by talking to people in different fields about their jobs.
Job seekers should make full use of online and community resources, she said. “I encourage you to have an open mind. Opportunities come about when you least expect them.”
She also encouraged the participants to cultivate encouragement and support. “There will be some very tough days when you will feel discouraged and you need to have something that will encourage you and re-energize you.”