New grads should look to small businesses for entry-level jobs to start their careers

Glow Gardens in Langley, BC, which hosts spectacular Christmas light shows across Canada and the United States, hires new graduates for entry-level jobs so they can acquire essential skills that will help them in their careers.Dylaina Gollub Photography

If you’re hired by Daryl Driegen and perform well, you’ll earn an excellent rating — but that’s not the only benefit of taking an entry-level job at his organization.

“We have about 25 employees at each of our locations at any given time, and 80 to 90 percent of our employees are entry-level students,” says Mr. Driegen, operations manager at Glow Gardens in Langley, BC, who dictates at glitzy Christmas light shows in cities across Canada and the United States.

The real benefits of starting at the bottom come from the soft skills experiences and ideas that can be picked up in the workplace, says Driegen.

“I don’t even know how many of the young people we hire end up staying in entertainment, but they get the experience that comes from working as a team with a manager,” he explains.

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“You get the fundamentals and skills for things like scheduling and technology management. They learn about the various tools of the workplace and learn that something bigger than themselves is at stake. Those are building block skills.”

Getting a first job in a small company can help newcomers gain skills and experience they might not be able to get in a larger organization, says Melanie Richardson, coordinator of collaborative education at Toronto’s Centennial College.

“As the small business grows, you can quickly become the longest serving or the most knowledgeable employee. Sometimes the pay rates aren’t as competitive as at a larger company, but the growth and breadth of work you do at a smaller company can be more expansive,” she says.

There are pros and cons to starting your career in either a small company or a large company, says Moren Levesque, CPA Ontario Chair in International Entrepreneurship and co-director of entrepreneurship studies at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto.

“It depends on being able to tap into a network of key people who can help you advance your career or your own business,” she says.

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The downsides to starting with either a smaller or larger organization are the same, she adds:

“Your talent will benefit someone else.”

“Larger companies can be more hierarchical,” agrees Ms. Richardson. “On the other hand, you can be mentored by someone in a larger organization who is fully invested in a specialty area, so you can learn a lot,” she adds.

For those just starting their careers, it can be daunting to know where to start. One program Prof. Levesque has found helpful is Venture for Canada – a non-profit organization that matches recent graduates with entrepreneurs and start-ups.

“Alumni who take part in the program say they like being able to develop skills in a range of areas, not just one. You wear a lot of hats,” says Prof. Levesque.

Twice a year, the Schulich School in York also hosts a startup night where entrepreneurs tell their stories to students and students give presentations about their own potential startup companies and compete for prizes including grants.

Universities and colleges can also connect employers with young workers looking for an internship. Federal and state laws require that interns receive some compensation, except in certain circumstances. York University policy states that an unpaid internship is only acceptable if the position is directly related to coursework. “Otherwise it has to be a paid internship,” says Prof. Levesque.

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Glow Gardens recruits young professionals by going straight to universities and colleges and even high schools, says Mr. Driegen. The schools themselves also help a lot. For example, Humber College in Toronto operates a job portal called Career Connect, and the Longo Faculty of Business has a team that connects students, recent graduates and employers.

“We also offer many services such as For example, free job postings on our job portal and direct access to students through our own work-integrated learning team,” says Antionette DiMarco, manager of work-integrated learning centers at the Longo Faculty of Business at Humber College.

“This allows employers to come to campus and attend recruiting events, job fairs, networking, guest speakers and industry panels,” she says. Schools also bring students into contact with scholarship programs.

Small businesses benefit from the energy and hard work that young professionals bring to the workplace, says Driegen. However, these new, young employees need good management, he adds.

“You have to over-communicate. You need to be clear so your employees know what’s expected.”

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