Scott Zakaib, 26, is thriving in his second year of Carleton University’s biomedical and electrical engineering program. After trying his hand in computer engineering and spending several years working in the tool and die industry, Scott decided to change his entire life around and move cities to go back to school.
I had a great time talking to Scott about his experiences and what life is like as a mature student.
R: Tell me about your professional journey.
S: After high school I went to the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton for computer engineering, something I was really interested in at the time. However the honeymoon wore off for that program sometime in my first year. I don’t know if I lost interest in the content or just the structure of the school itself. In second year it all caught up with me and sort of fell apart so I dropped out during the second semester of my second year. I worked for a little while at a few different places and later decided that I was better served to at least try postsecondary again. By the end of that year I had applied and been accepted to the tool and die machining program at George Brown College. I moved back to Toronto and went to college for two years. I really enjoyed the program. I knew I wasn’t challenged but that didn’t really bother me. What was more interesting to me was taking that experience and building on it.
After college I started working at a tube stock manufacturing plant in Markham, Ont. It was just a job to get me through to finding an apprenticeship. The job wore me down a little bit but I didn’t hate it. I think the thing that bothered me about it was that it definitely wasn’t challenging. It was a quality control job so I was kind of just measuring stuff all day. It was very, very repetitive and drove me a little nuts sometimes. After about a year-and-a-half I decided to get more ambitious and thought, “Why don’t I chase down this apprenticeship?” So after a few months of job searching I found an apprenticeship in Ajax at a tool and die company. That’s where my attitude to the whole thing started to change a little bit. It was still a manufacturing job, in automotive manufacturing. My initial intention when leaving college was to do high-end manufacturing – aerospace, aquatic, shipbuilding, medical – I wanted to do something that was sort of specialized, not as mass-produced. I thought it would be more interesting and more challenging. I was willing to start in automotive because I knew that was much more common and much easier to get into. However there were some serious safety concerns with that job, overall I wasn’t very happy there. So I decided to look for a real job, one that wouldn’t put me at risk and allowed me to work with high-end machines. I found a job closer to home in Scarborough at a mold injection plant. They were also automotive but they had much higher-end machinery. They were more reliant on automation which is what I had wanted to get into. I thought, this is it – this is my ticket!
It soon began to dawn on me over the course of working there that they don’t really need trades people to do that stuff anymore due to the prevalence of powerful automation. They still had some manual machining, there will always be a human element on some level, but they were practically running a skeleton crew. It was pretty much a robotics line with a crew of people to clean up after those robots. I wasn’t happy to just sweep the floors and stare at a machine all day. I wanted to work with those machines. I wanted to know how they worked, program them, design for them. So I talked to some of the people behind the curtain and I found out that they were all engineers. The whole thing came full-circle on me. I realized that I couldn’t do the job I wanted to do without an engineering degree. After that I went a little crazy for a couple of weeks trying to decide what to do. Eventually I just pulled the trigger and decided to go back to school. I sold my car, got a cheaper apartment with a roommate (I had been living in my own place) and started applying to schools. Carleton University in Ottawa accepted me for biomedical and electrical engineering. Now I’m in my second year and I’m a residence advisor in one of their bigger residence buildings. It’s a lot of fun and I love it!
R: Tell me about the moment when you realized you needed to go away and become an engineer.
S: In December of 2012, at the start of my third job since college, I started thinking about school a lot. I hadn’t found people who would think like I do in the industry I was in. I was steeped in an environment of pessimism and it was weighing me down. I had a bit of an existential crisis that culminated with me searching for university programs, applying, and ultimately turning over my entire life. Basically it occurred to me, I’m not happy. I’m probably not going to be happy. If I feel that way now, how am I going to feel in two years when I finish my apprenticeship? I think when you have that revelation it’s healthy to take a long hard look at both your choices and your options. It was definitely difficult, but I felt like it would pay off. The countdown of eight months between deciding to go back to school and going back to school was one of the most exciting times of my life. I kept thinking, this is almost over.
R: What’s next?
S: Right now I’m just looking to finish my undergrad by the time I’m 30. I love university now. My objective is to work in medical manufacturing or electronics design in the medical field. But if I see the same kind of thing that I saw in college in terms of job prospects after I graduate, I’ll go for a master’s degree. I’ll go for what I know I need.
R: What do you recommend to somebody who wants to go into the trades in Ontario?
S: If the program is easy and you’re breezing through it, still work your butt off and do your absolute best. There may be an opportunity in there to make a connection that can save you years of toil trying to find a job that you actually like or that’s relevant. It took me almost two years to get a job in machining after graduating. Also, manage your expectations. Just because you have the knowledge doesn’t mean anybody cares. You need to look at the program really carefully.
R: What advice can you give someone who’s thinking of going back to school and is older than the average student?
S: Give yourself time to prepare for it. Everything you think that will be weird about university will come true. It’s a huge shock to the system being around people who are so much younger than you. It’s important to be open and optimistic about making friends. If you’re tempted to talk yourself out of going back to school because of the cost, know that there are a lot of options for financial support. If you need to wait a year to save money, then do so. Make sure you have friends who you can call. Friends are helpful. Remember everyone who’s starting their first year of university has no idea what they’re doing. You’re not alone. There’s no reason not to go back to school. Just make damn sure you want to do it. It’s a huge commitment and if it’s too much for you it can be really costly. Work hard at it and commit fully.
Scott is excelling at Carleton and loves his new life in Ottawa. His job as a residence advisor has allowed him to make a lot of friends and get involved in university life. I think that Scott’s story is a great example of the importance of going with your gut and thinking creatively about how to advance your career. Know that if you feel like you’re in the wrong place in your life, it’s never too late to change it. Just like Scott did.