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Workshops - Job Search Strategies: Competing in the Job Market

Working with Purpose: Having Experience Under Your Belt

Julie Ouellette

Watch streaming video of Julie Ouellette

Julie is a disabilities counsellor at the Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities at Carleton University in Ottawa. Previously, she worked in the university’s Career Services Department, and at the University of Guelph’s Centre for Students with Disabilities. Through her work experience, she has been involved in training for several departments at Carleton, as well as in the Ottawa community. She holds a Masters in Education from the University of Ottawa specializing in Educational Counselling, as well as a B.A. from the University of Guelph, with majors in psychology and French.


In addition to emphasizing a post-secondary education, many employers may prefer candidates with work experience. This presentation will look at how the combination of a post-secondary education and relevant work experience can help students with disabilities to be competitive in today’s job market.

Issues to be addressed include balancing academics and employment, non-traditional ways of finding relevant work experience, and on-campus options (temporary, occasional, part-time opportunities) that may be available. It will look at job search challenges including organizational barriers, and the specific implications of disability on students’ ability to tackle both work and school concurrently. It will also present potential solutions for students, to ensure they have education and experience upon graduation. Students who attend this session will gain concrete ideas for their job search and questions to elicit further self-reflection with regards to career planning success.



Julie Ouellette gave participants tips on how to combine work experience and post-secondary education. After a brief overview of statistics regarding the link between post-secondary education and higher earnings, Ouellette told participants that with more individuals accessing post-secondary education, a degree or diploma might not be as meaningful in the job market unless paired with some work experience. She said job postings often call for a minimum of work experience, since employers “want to know you can apply your theoretical knowledge in a work setting.”

The benefits of hiring an employee with work experience are quite evident for the employer, said Ouellette. Employers want to know “what you will contribute to our organization, what strengths you will bring to their team, and if you can do the work you will be hired for,” she said.

Students also can benefit from work experience. Work experience can be financially rewarding; can bring context and meaning to studies; can help students learn more about their work options, develop a sense of competence or determine a future career; and can increase social participation.

Students with disabilities face particular challenges when trying to combine work and school. These students may already be taking a reduced course load and have no time to work, may be limited in their potential earnings because of funding sources, or may not know how to advocate for their needs.

Ouellette suggested several paths that could lead to work experience as a student. She said that students should find out what options are available in their post-secondary institution, such as co-op placements, internships, apprenticeships, experiential learning, research or teaching assistant positions, or mentoring. She also mentioned volunteer opportunities or alternate work arrangements such as flex time or telecommuting as good options for students with disabilities.

Ouellette outlined several organizational myths students with disabilities could face in the workplace. The first one, she said, is the “You Look Normal to Me” syndrome. This occurs most often in the case of hidden disabilities, where the employer fails to see the need for accommodation and the employee needs to be more vocal about accommodation requirements. Another myth is that a disabled person requires more training or that accommodations are too expensive or excessive for a short-term placement or for a student worker. However, “research indicates that in most cases, accommodations for disabled employees cost less than $500,” she said.

Ouellette gave participants an outline of the top personal qualities employers look for in a candidate. These include verbal and written communication skills, a strong work ethic, the ability to work well with others, initiative, and problem-solving skills. She suggested that post-secondary students look for work in a stable environment that is honest and fair, that employs ethical practices, that offers benefits, and that provides security. Enjoying your work, promoting your skills and abilities, and having a positive attitude are also important, she added.

As to where to go for help in their job search, Ouellette told participants to comb through online job search sites, visit their post-secondary institution’s career centre or disability services office, tap into their social network, and connect with community organizations.

Ouellette quoted Anatole France: “To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.”

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