You’ve been in Canada for a few months now. You have a place to live and have become accustomed to your surroundings. However, the work picture for your profession looks bleak. You’ve applied to many jobs in your field, took some courses, did some networking, and perhaps had a few interviews, but nothing has materialized as a temporary or full-time employment.

The bills keep coming, and your savings are decreasing faster than you had thought… so now you’re faced with the decision of whether or not you should take a survival job to make ends meet until an opportunity in your field comes up.

A survival job is typically a low-paying, low-skilled job that someone can take on a temporary basis (often as a last resort) to cover basic living costs, in order to “survive.” Therefore, it’s something that you do because there’s no other way to cover the day-to-day expenses. Examples can be: store clerk, call centre representative, janitor, driver, factory worker, etc.

This article discusses the pros and cons of taking a survival job as your first job in Canada, as well as tips for making the best out of that situation.

The Pros

A steady flow of income: this is the most obvious reason that people take a survival job: covering the basic necessities, such as food and housing. An employment counselor in our network used to say, “if you need to put food on the table for your family, and there’s no other means to obtain income, by all means take the survival job until your situation gets more stable.” There’s no point in getting into deep debt when you’re just starting off in the country.

Feeling productive: even a basic survival job makes you feel you’re doing something useful and are part of the workforce. Most people who have taken survival jobs say that it’s definitely better than staying home all day.

Chances to practice English (or French): if you’re from a country which language is not one of Canada’s official languages, a survival job will give you chances to interact with a variety of people and force you to speak. If you tended to lack confidence when speaking, these opportunities will help you build some essential language skills.

In some cases, a foot in the door: some entry-level jobs may be the break you need to get a position in your field later on. For example, starting in customer service jobs at telecommunication firms, or being a teller of a bank can lead to other jobs by applying internally. Working in these roles will also give you an understanding of the industry and day-to-day issues that you can mention in interviews.

In some cases, additional benefits: some retailers such as Starbucks give their store employees health benefits and other perks, as part of their employee engagement and retention strategies. It’s great to be able to take advantage of these benefits while you’re looking for your dream job.

The Cons

Time away from your job search: working full-time in a survival job means that you have less time to continue searching for the best job in your field or profession. Not just time to browse ads and apply, but also to prepare and go to interviews, attend networking events, and set up information interviews.

Feeling devalued: some people feel that the lower pay is like devaluing their skills. Throughout your profession, you probably made good money in your home country and maintained an above-average status. Even though survival jobs are decent ways to earn money, after a few months you might feel demotivated and out of touch with your profession.

Physical demands: survival jobs can be draining as well. Working shifts in a warehouse, cleaning offices, delivering food, and standing long hours as a store clerk, etc. – all of these demand physical efforts and being up at odd hours.

How can you make the most of such situations?

We’re sharing some tips from people who started in survival jobs or entry-level jobs in Canada, and were able to make progress to jobs in their profession.

Keep your professional goals in mind: do not lose sight of the goals that you set for yourself as a professional. Keep them visible (e.g. Post-Its on the wall) and write down specific actions you’ll take each week to get closer to those goals. Make sure to implement those actions because every step counts!

Know yourself, value yourself: be aware of what you can and cannot do. We mentioned physical duties in some survival jobs. If you know or have the intuition that after 8 hours of physically-demanding work, you won’t be able to continue your search of a professional job, look for something “lighter.” Also, always remember that the amount of money you make does not define you. Your skills, experience and knowledge, and more importantly, yourself as a person, are very valuable.

Build your marketability: try to find survival jobs that enable you to gain new knowledge in a specific industry or add to your skills repertoire. For example, a supply chain professional working in a retail store can learn about inventory management or gain an understanding of vendor relations. A human resources professional working in a call centre can practice dealing with all kinds of customers and use those examples in an interview to showcase their interpersonal and conflict management skills. Linking your day-to-day actions to a future job in your profession will help you stay focused with a forward-looking attitude.

Find a job that speaks to your passion: consider a survival job that relates to a hobby or interest, so that you can keep your motivation in your day-to-day tasks. For instance, a person who loves making flower arrangements as a hobby could work as a clerk of a flower shop.

Work at the Best Companies: Look for annual lists of Canada’s best companies to work for. For example:

An entry-level job at one of those companies will likely open doors for you after 6-12 months when applying internally or by meeting a hiring manager.

Every situation is a learning opportunity: take every situation you encounter in the survival job as a chance to learn about:

  • Canadian culture: by working with other people, you’ll get opportunities to understand attitudes, reactions and accepted ways to respond in Canada. Every day brings a chance to gain a better understanding of the Canadian environment.
  • Language: while you’re working, there might be words and expressions that you may not be familiar with – take a step back and research those terms, use them in your next interactions, or take the opportunity to ask questions to get to know others.
  • New networks: you will likely have a few co-workers who can teach you new things about their lives in Canada. Keep an open mind and listen to what they’re willing to share with you. Build trust with them by asking questions and sharing your thoughts as well.

Keep talking to people: find other professionals who have been in Canada for a long time, and/or a mentor in your profession. Take time to meet them for coffee. They will likely help you to maintain motivation while you’re looking for better opportunities.

Continuous education is important: Canadians value education and knowledge, and seek “subject matter experts” in all fields. Take courses related to your field and keep polishing your language so that you’re well prepared for the job of your dreams.

Know your rights: lastly, any company you work for should respect your rights. Many newcomers get “stuck” in less-than-desirable working conditions because they don’t know the local employment laws. By law, employers in Canada must pay at least the minimum wage that is established for the province where they operate, comply with other employment standards, and follow the health & safety regulations. Make an effort to understand and know your rights as an employee. You can start by reading the Rights in the Workplace, the Workers’ Basic Rights related to Health and Safety, and the Workplace Standards by Province.

Do you have any stories or resources to add? Please tell us in the comments!

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