Breaking into the Human Services Field: A Guide for Students and Recent Graduates

I have the privilege of working as the recruitment coordinator with the PRIYD Program at Family Services of Greater Vancouver. That means I get to meet and offer employment to students and recent graduates from programs such as psychology, sociology, social work and family studies. The great thing about these degrees is that there is high demand – as society is changing to bring more attention to mental health and inclusion there is a scramble for young people to fill positions supporting those who are experiencing challenges in life, particularly youth.

If you’re considering a career in the human services field, here are some tips on how to make your education and experience work for you:

1. You don’t need to attend graduate school.

Unless you’re looking to work as a registered counsellor or equivalent, a 4-year or even 2-year program is enough. In fact, you may be less likely to be hired with a graduate degree because the employer may think you won’t stick around. It’s best to ask the prospective employer what degree they are looking for before starting that Masters.

2. If still in school, think about what you want to do and pick courses accordingly.

You can work as a behavioural interventionist or in a safehouse for youth with that anthropology degree – just make sure you take courses that relate, such as a couple of specific psych electives and courses in contemporary social problems and disability. List related courses explicitly on your resume. If you’ve already graduated think about taking a couple of additional college courses to supplement your degree and express your interest in the field.

3. Don’t focus as much on your dream job as getting into the field.

Maybe you don’t intend to work with seniors with disabilities your whole life but it’s a great way to get started and gain the necessary hands-on experience. It is acceptable to look for a large organization and work in one area for a year and then apply for other positions. I don’t recommend staying for less than one year, however, as non-profits will be hesitant to invest precious money in you for shorter periods of time. I welcome explicit conversations about this from applicants.

4. Recognize that a lot of positions are part-time or casual.

This part is great for some people and not so great if you need to pay the bills (particularly here in Vancouver). I hire a lot of students so it works very well for them. Luckily demand is high so you should be able to put together 2 part-time jobs, often within the same organization, to make ends meet. Full-time positions with benefits do come up but you may need to put in your time doing part-time or casual first to be competitive.

5. Have a solid volunteer history.

I don’t hire anyone without hands-on experience in the field, even if they hold advanced degrees. Your experience should be directly related but it does not have to be paid experience and can even include caring for family members who need extra support. An important factor here is that you hold that position for a good length of time. If you worked with Big Brothers for 4 months it’s best to leave that off the resume as it does not reflect well on your ability to commit – this is important in this field as leaving your post after a short time can have devastating effects on the individuals you support. Having built a solid relationship with your supervisor and taken steps to seek feedback is also important.

6. Tailor your Resume.

You already knew this but it’s worth repeating. Go ahead and list your job at Starbucks (again, if it was long term) but highlight in your cover letter your directly relevant experience. I look over hundreds of resumes and only skim them so being to-the-point is important. Look for specific experiences and skills in the job posting and briefly mention how you gained those in your past experience or training.

7. Show evidence that you want the job.

Sometimes enthusiasm can get you the job. Responding to emails and phone calls promptly and doing so in a professional manner is surprisingly rare. Make sure you provide the employer with contact information that you check multiple times a day and get back to them right away, even if it’s just to acknowledge that you are very much interested and look forward to speaking with them. Finally, non-profits do not have money to spend hiring and training someone who does not really want the job so respect that and don’t accept an offer you are not prepared to honour with your full attention.

8. Demonstrate self-awareness and an ability to get along.

Mention different opportunities you have taken to grow and learn. A colleague at the Directions Youth Services program says, “For us, education is nice but you can have all of the formal post secondary schooling in the world and still be a poor practitioner, so we’re looking for individuals to demonstrate that they learn from their mistakes and take responsibility in proactive ways.”

Additionally, being a team player is important in this industry: “One of our questions specifically asks how a staff member would go about developing professional relationships with their coworkers while being a good teammate, and this question is one we weigh very heavily.”

Jacqueline Young is the Recruitment Coordinator for FSGV’s PRIYD program (Providing Resources and Independence for Youth Development). To learn more about a career with PRIYD, email jyoung@fsgv.ca or visit our careers page.