Four ways career professionals can support graduates’ school-to-work transition

Chiedza Pasipanodya

author headshotAccording to the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE), the number of international students in Canada increased by 185% between 2010 and 2019. Despite this impressive growth, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in national discussions on the need for appropriate service provision for these students, and only few conversations about international student outcomes after graduation. The pandemic has also limited the mobility of international students and many are studying remotely from their home countries, introducing a different set of challenges. As international students transition from post-secondary education to the world of work, the unique challenges and barriers they face require innovative and intentional supports.

A 2019 Statistics Canada report found that although international students are more likely than their domestic counterparts to have completed advanced degrees typically associated with higher earnings, such as a master’s or doctorate, they still earn less than their Canadian-born peers in the years following graduation. These findings highlight the need for a strategic, specialized approach to service provision for international students, particularly as they are a key source of talent for the Canadian labour market and play an essential supporting role in the sustainability of post-secondary enrolment. International students also figure significantly in Canada’s immigration strategy; nearly a third of those holding a bachelor’s degree and almost half of international students with a master’s degree transition to permanent residence within their first 10 years in the country.

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn have increased competition for jobs. Labour market shifts have also underscored the need for recent international graduates to take an exploratory turn from their major and geographical location to consider career options more aligned with their broader skills and competencies. New career pathways and ways of working are emerging quickly, often faster than higher-education institutions can develop programming. The ability of recent graduates to apply their skills in different and emerging industries is essential in order to succeed in the labour market. This adaptability, combined with a commitment to lifelong learning, will ensure that international graduates are able to retrain and upskill as needed to meet labour market demands.

“A 2019 Statistics Canada report found that although international students are more likely than their domestic counterparts to have completed advanced degrees typically associated with higher earnings, such as a master’s or doctorate, they still earn less than their Canadian-born peers in the years following graduation.”

Career practitioners are well positioned to provide supports that better equip international students to overcome barriers to successful participation as they enter the labour force. This article will outline four ways career professionals can support international students as they transition from school to work.

1. Encourage them connect to their competencies

 As new industries and jobs emerge, career development practitioners should encourage recent international graduates to explore careers and work opportunities outside the narrow scope of their major. The courage and ambition that enabled international students to leave their home countries and study abroad position them well to transition to the workforce and leverage their skills across sectors and roles.

To move into the workforce, international students need to understand how the skills and competencies they acquired in post-secondary can be applied to different jobs and sectors. For example, a political science student might feel a government policy job is a natural fit for their degree, but they could leverage their creativity, analytical skills and research experience to work in communications or knowledge management. Career practitioners can use skill identification and competency assessment tools to provide recent graduates with valuable information about their skillsets, thereby increasing new graduates’ agency over their career choices. The best of these tools provide real-time labour market information and have the potential to help employers interpret the skills and competencies that recent graduates can offer at a time when younger workers are essential to labour market sustainability.

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2. Get informed about immigration regulations

While flexibility is a key component of career success, the extent to which recent international graduates can pivot is often limited by Canada’s permanent residency employment requirements. Research shows that international students need campus and career services that are specific to the students’ goal of pursuing employment as part of their immigration process. Understanding immigration regulations in light of the Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) program and the limitations on working in various sectors without compromising international students’ eligibility to pursue permanent residence is essential to those serving them. (The PGWP is the work permit issued by Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada that allows international student graduates from designated Canadian colleges and universities to work in Canada upon graduation.) Practitioners who understand the bigger procedural picture can provide better support linking students’ studies to their jobs, to fulfill Canadian work experience requirements.

3. Take an intersectional approach 

International students are diverse and so require diverse approaches to the challenges they face; those advised by career practitioners who take an intersectional approach may be better served. Intersectionality is a term coined by U.S. law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the way multiple forms of discrimination (for example, race- or gender-based) overlap in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups. Service provision should consider the varied ways in which racism, sexism and systems of oppression affect international students and their ability to change course and pursue new opportunities to flourish in the labour market. Practitioners should provide specific, appropriate and responsive supports that address graduates’ many challenges and barriers to entering the labour market.

4. Help them grow their networks

Evidence from previous economic downturns suggests that youth graduating from post-secondary education during a recession find it harder to find employment, particularly well-paid employment, compared with their immediate predecessors; lower earnings persist for 10 to 15 years. Increased labour market competition makes networking an even more important component of job search. However, when international students at Memorial University were asked to identify their most challenging barriers to employment, 82% said they had minimal to no professional networks in Canada.

COVID-19-related restrictions have made it more difficult to develop these important networks, but many organizations have shifted the networking experience online. There is value in leveraging webinars, online conferences and other virtual events to expand one’s network. Actively participating in such forums can help international students and recent graduates meet people and develop relationships to better understand the labour market, the opportunities available and the required skillsets. Online networking can also facilitate opportunities to arrange informational interviews, which can go a long way toward improving students’ understanding of different industries and roles. Career practitioners can recommend communities and platforms such as Immigrant Networks for Immigrants and International Students that provide invaluable supports and opportunities to develop mentor-like relationships with professionals.

A strategic approach to international student career services – one that addresses students’ complex identities and acknowledges the unique role of career practitioners in this area of labour market integration – is essential. The ability to pivot and adapt quickly is a quality born of flexibility and adaptability, a characteristic critical to the future of work as international students and recent graduates enter and explore the labour market.

Chiedza Pasipanodya is Program Manager, Knowledge Management, Global Talent Bridge at World Education Services (WES). As an immigration and refugee policy and programming professional, she also uses her lived experience to inform her approach to supporting newcomers to Canada.


Arthur, N. and Flynn, S., 2011. Career development influences of international students who pursue permanent immigration to Canada. International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance, 11(3), pp. 221-237.

Arthur, N. and Flynn, S., 2013. International Students’ Views of Transition to Employment and Immigration. The Canadian Journal of Career Development, 12 (1).

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Frenette, M., Lu, Y. and Chan, W., 2019. The Postsecondary Experience and Early Labour Market Outcomes of International Study Permit Holders. Statistics Canada.

Steinmetz, K., 2020. She Coined the Term ‘Intersectionality’ Over 30 Years Ago. Here’s What It Means to Her Today.,inequality%20is%20not%20created%20equal