Tara Coulter: Jumpstarting Careers in STEM

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So you want to be an engineer? In this first edition of Leading Ladies, I asked Tara Coulter, Employment Development Officer at the University of Victoria (UVic) about helping Engineering and Computer Science students take the first steps of their new careers.

You’ve been helping UVic’s co-op students begin their engineering careers for 10 years. Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to the role?

I have had an usual career path driven by my desire to live in beautiful places. With a degree in Sociology from Western University and a diploma in Performing Arts Management from Confederation College, I worked for The Banff Centre and Parks Canada for five years. We oversaw the twinning of the Lake Louise section of the Trans Canada Highway as well as some other major infrastructure projects. From that brief introduction to heavy civil engineering, I had no idea that working with Engineers would become my future.

As my career twisted and turned through years as a top selling realtor, a spa therapist, and an executive assistant in the Directors’ Office of the Royal BC Museum, I learned many lessons that led me to my current role and continue to serve me well.

You can be very successful in a career, but if it is not the right career for you, there will be a price to pay.

Following a move to the Comox Valley, my husband and I reinvented ourselves. I became a top selling Realtor selling homes and recreational property on Mt. Washington, but the long hours took a toll on my health. It was a hard lesson to learn that you can be very successful in a career, but if it is not the right career for you, there will be a price to pay. I started searching for natural solutions to manage my stress and became fascinated with natural health therapies, which led to the next phase of my career.

Continue to learn and upgrade your skills.

After earning the required certifications while working full time, I worked as a full-time spa therapist at the KingFisher Spa & Resort, continuing to learn new therapies and upgrade my skills throughout my 10 year tenure there.

Upon moving to Victoria, I made finding a job my full-time job and after many failed attempts was hired by the Ministry of Forests into their call centre for forest fires for the summer. Little did I know at the time that the job search skills that I honed during this time, would come in handy when I had to teach them to first year Engineering students a few years later.

Build relationships. You never know how people are connected.

My next opportunity came in an interview for an Executive Assistant position at the Royal BC Museum. During the interview, I relayed a story from my time in Banff when I was doing some volunteer writing for the local newspaper and had the chance to interview Dolly Iverson. Dolly was born in 1905 and shared with me incredible stories and photos of her life in the Rockies. I gently suggested that she should donate her photos to the Whyte Museum where they could be enjoyed by others. 

When I finished telling this story, one of the interviewers put down his pen and said, “She did what you suggested and donated the photos.” His remark caught me by surprise and he continued, “I used to be the Head Archivist at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff and Dolly donated her photos.”  You never know how people are connected. I got the job!

Be proactive.

When provincial government cutbacks loomed, I knew the importance of being proactive in my career and started applying to jobs at UVic. I was hired into the Engineering and Computer Science co-op office as a Placement Coordinator. Using skills from the spa in coaching clients and job search tips learned from my own experience, I helped students with their job search. As our enrollment numbers continued to increase, a new position was created – Employment Development Officer.

In this position, I work with employers to help them hire co-op students. This can entail assisting with writing job descriptions, explaining funding programs and navigating the competitive recruitment process. I use the skills I developed in each and every one of my previous careers to connect employers with the right students for their opportunities.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career so far?

I had to find my own definition of success. When I graduated university, a successful career meant choosing a profession or a 30-year stint at the same company. This path was in direct conflict with my desire to live in beautiful places so I had to find meaning and purpose in each and every position. Once you understand your own value, it is easier to explain that to someone else.

What is your favourite part of your current role?

Every time a student is placed (650 – 750 times a term), we receive an email announcing the placement. My favourite part of the job is when I receive that placement email because I know how much effort has gone into that student getting the job. Co-op hiring is very competitive and for high profile companies, there can be 400 applications for one position. This is why we all do our best to make sure that our students are prepared for their job search. The jobs are not handed to them; they compete for each job all while managing to take five or six courses. Our students are amazing.

In what ways have early career opportunities for future engineers changed over the course of your career?

Computer Science and Software Engineering co-op students are in high demand and many have offers for full-time employment before they graduate. Companies use co-op hiring to create a talent pipeline for their full-time roles. A co-op work term allows the employer to assess the student’s fit for their company while also allowing the student to do the same.

“You never know how people are connected or will be connected in the future. Build your professional network.”

That said, technology has become more technical and some companies do not have openings for new grads, not even those with 16 months of co-op work experience. Work experience definitely gives new grads a competitive advantage over those who do not have it, but they may still need to leverage their network for a helping hand for that first job after they graduate. I advise each of my students embarking on their first co-op work term to take the time to form professional relationships with the people you work with. You never know how people are connected or will be connected in the future. Build your professional network.

Do you have any words of wisdom for those considering a career in engineering or computer science?

  • Although Engineering and Computer Science degrees are taught in silos, once you graduate, you will find that full-time jobs often require cross-disciplinary skills; keep learning and developing your skills. 
  • Even when you are happily employed, read job descriptions to see what skills employers are looking for. 
  • Nurture your network. 
  • Find a mentor who can help you stretch beyond your comfort zone and when you can, be a mentor for someone else. 
  • Make time on a regular basis to evaluate where you are in your career and where you want to go; if you feel lost, hire a career coach to help you get perspective.
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