Choosing which ball to drop

(Photo credit: Karen K. Ho)

From the Museo de la Revolucion in Leon, Nicaragua. (Photo credit: Karen K. Ho)

I got a new job a few weeks ago. After the initial period of worrying I wasn’t learning fast enough and trying not to have panic attacks all the time, I’m finally starting to feel like things are manageable.

But in the seven weeks since I started, I realized I have a lot of uncomfortable questions about how to be an early-career writer with a pretty-consuming day job in media, and no one seems to have a really good answer for them.

For starters, I made the switch from writing in print to online and then to broadcast. While my job in live television is full-time (40 hours), it involves very little writing.

And even though my ability to generate interesting ideas hasn’t gone away, I do constantly worry my writing skills are getting rusty from lack of daily use. I’ve quickly realized I miss it and need to write outside of work.

The problem is figuring out where to fit it in.

At my job (which I am very grateful to have, let’s be clear), I’m paid by the hour. If I’m sick or request vacation time, I don’t get paid. I don’t have health benefits. So I spend a lot of time cooking my meals at home to save money, exercising to reduce stress (I’ve been grinding my teeth again) and trying to sleep at least seven hours a night so I can have enough energy for my job. Slide in a desire to regularly do laundry, spend time with my family, see friends, learn languages, read books and occasionally date – the hours fill up fast.

So now I have to make the uncomfortable call of figuring out what I need to do to be able to write more.

Do I see my family less on the weekends, even though they generously support me in pursuing what increasingly feels like a rapidly-shrinking industry? Do I go to the gym less? Do I sleep less and drink more coffee to make up the difference? Further put off studying Mandarin again? Give up trying to date for a few months? And do I have a certain milestone of clippings in mind when I can start picking things up again?

I also know whatever choice I make, I have to be productive with the “extra time” because I’m actively sacrificing time doing something else I’d really enjoy to work on my writing.

Sure, I don’t have to worry about the basic necessity of paying rent and buying groceries because of my day job. And what I do is strongly related to the kind of writing I want to pursue. But I realize I do still have to make some sort of sacrifice to fit writing in my life. And much as I’d like to believe it’s possible, I really don’t think it’s something I can’t avoid through time-management or “leaning in”.

Like a lot of other driven people, I don’t know if the sacrifice or any of the work will actually pay off. But I’m consoled by the fact that I’m not alone, and there are lots of other people trying to figure this out too, even years into their careers.

Ultimately, we’ll all juggling stuff. Now I just need to choose.

When you suddenly realize you are running out of money

The fear of being broke creeps in slowly. Stress about what you can and can’t afford, the “daily deals” emails you automatically delete, the sudden tendency to never leave the house because then you won’t be at risk of accidentally spending something extra while wandering through a grocery store.

That used to be my favourite way to kill stress. On a bad day, I would walk through the aisles of a No Frills or FreshCo discount supermarket, picking up sale items. Grabbing a container of coconut Liberté was my favourite indulgence. The bill would rarely top $40 and I figured the whole exercise was better than if I had wandered through a mall for the same shopping high. I could consume everything I bought. I couldn’t do that with a sweater from the Gap.

But ever since I realized I had been out of work for more than six months and that my attempts at freelancing consisted mostly of sending out emails and job applications with few replies, my pile of savings started to look much smaller than I remembered.

The other day, I wondered if I could afford $2 protein bars or a $3 pack of Oreos I’d normally give to my sister.

“Did I eat too much just now?” is something I now often think to myself. “Should I have saved that for later?”

When you are worried about money, you can no longer be as generous to others. When I had a job, I tried to live frugally so I wouldn’t think twice about giving money to my local food bank, buying chocolate for my mother or baking cookies for an event.

“I get it,” my roommate said. “You’re in survival mode.”

I know I am one of the fortunate ones. I have parents willing to help me out while I try to figure out what to do next. But I am embarrassed by how much they pay for. I recently turned 27 and feel like I should be trying to pay them back by now for everything they’ve done for me. Instead, they worry about how I’m continuing to pay my rent.

People tell me not to give up on my aspirations of a long-term career in business reporting, to keep trying to pitch and apply to jobs, and that things will eventually turn around.

But I wonder if there’s a point when I’m going to be tired of struggling to make writing and reporting the thing that enables me to pay my bills, maybe get married and have kids.

One journalist advised me, “You’re young! It’s okay not to be making a lot of money now, just get published in lots of places.” Another one suggested I move back home to my parents’ house in Scarborough to save on expenses. But I know I would be even less productive if I relocated to my childhood room.

I’ve been told that in normal circumstances, I would be qualified enough to get hired in a newsroom. “But nothing is normal anymore,” said a man who offered to connect me with the publisher of a major national newspaper for further advice.

I  have thought about “writing for exposure” to build up my clippings. But this increasingly looks like reporting entire pieces on spec. Even if my pitches are accepted and these stories are published, I don’t know how much that helps beyond making me look great on paper. So many places I know have hiring freezes and whatever positions are available can expect to receive hundreds of applications.

Toronto writer Shawn Micallef recently revealed on Twitter that he had temped for a while to make things work financially. He said a good person at an agency could find him interesting jobs that still had a loose enough commitment that they allowed him to work on writing and art projects. It was a lesson I wished someone had taught me in journalism school: “If you freelance, it’s not uncommon to do other things to pay rent.”

All I know is, I have to try and keep busy. I try to have a daily routine where I work at pitching and applying to jobs. I keep trying to work on the magazine piece I got a contract for a week before I was laid off. Sometimes I think about other careers. But now I always carefully count whatever money I have left.



Shimaneko and I are here to tell you what’s up. (Roppongi Hills, Tokyo)

In mid-August of last year, and its sister site were both shut down by Star Media Group. Fifteen people, including myself, were laid off.

Soon afterwards, all of the news articles were removed, leaving no online archive available for the general public or subscribers. As a result, I have uploaded more than 200 articles I wrote for the online business subscription news service here using the tag #yourmississaugabiz.

Since the layoff, I have had the opportunity to become a part of the Asian American Journalists’ Association through their national conference in New York, as well as go on a eye-opening month-long trip to Hong Kong and Japan.

I am now freelancing full-time and available to work on projects. For inquiries about writing, editing or fact-checking, feel free to email me at karen [at] karenho [dot] ca.

What can you expect from a continuing education class at UTM

This story was originally published on

Local entrepreneur Bill Smalley has been teaching a business course on negotiating skills in the University of Toronto Mississauga’s continuing education program for the past three years.

The president and CEO of Oakville-based consultancy firm Route Five International Inc. has a background in sales and marketing, teaching leadership and team building, as well as 13 years of experience as a corporate trainer and professional speaker.

Smalley explained to why more business professionals should sign up for con-ed classes, and what they should expect once they’re on campus.

Your classmates can come from all over

Whether it be cultural experience, ethnicity, industry or career stage, Smalley said the variety in peers will give additional, unexpected value to a class. “I’ve had people exchange business cards and keep in touch afterwards and help build their networks,” he said.

It’s normal to have low expectations

This is a common thing in Smalley’s course evaluations. “They’re often surprised at the quality of the content and how useful and relevant it is,” he said. “How much it helps them.”

Pursuit of education is a big trend

“More and more we’re seeing people who realize it’s a competitive environment out there, careers and jobs aren’t a static situation, it’s a fluid environment and there are always other people that are learning and growing around you so you need to keep your skills sharp and stay relevant.”

It’s not like when you were last in school

“It can be fun,” Smalley said simply, contrasting it with his own experience in school as being incredibly boring. “[As an instructor,] you want to make it fun, you want to make it engaging, so it can be a really enriching experience.”

It looks great on your resume

A specific course or program might give you skills particularly relevant to your particular industry, but Smalley said pursuing additional education also helps someone stand out in the hiring process.

“Employers look for people that want to better themselves,” he said, explaining the inclusion of continuing education shows someone’s initiative, desire to grow themselves, and be better. “That will definitely give you an edge.”

Some results can happen right away

“People go back to their existing jobs and do better,” Smalley said of some of his past students, who passed on news of promotions or other kinds of professional growth as a result of his class.

It might not cost you anything

Many of Smalley’s students actually have the cost of their classes reimbursed by their employers. It’s worth looking into if your workplace has some sort of education subsidy or other program that can help offset class fees.

However, Smalley said for students who were responsible for all of their fees, the benefits always far outweigh any financial costs. “I have never had any student say to me that they rejected the investment or the time invested,” he said.

UTM continuing education classes offer skills training

This story was originally published on

Local entrepreneur Bill Smalley said that more managers and business professionals should think about taking continuing education classes.

“Employers look for people that want to better themselves,” he told “It’s a desirable trait.”

The president and CEO of Oakville-based consultancy firm Route Five International Inc. speaks from personal experience. Smalley has been an instructor at the continuing studies program at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) for the past three years, teaching interspace negotiation skills to hundreds of students.

Smalley said there are many personal and professional benefits to be gained from taking courses like his at UTM.

“I’ve had people exchange business cards and keep in touch afterwards and help build their networks,” he said speaking about his students. “People go back to their existing jobs and do better. And it can be fun.”

Smalley said a large number of the people who take his classes are international students.

He and other School of Continuing Studies instructors are able to factor in their professional experience as consultants, speakers and trainers in the corporate world into what they teach, Smalley said.

Some SCS courses are fairly short at only five to six weeks long. “You’ve got to make sure the content is useful and relevant,” Smalley said, emphasizing the addition of a lot of verbal content and practical casework in his classes.

Since all the instructors are still practicing business owners or professionals, Smalley said they’re helping the students understand the needs of employers and become more marketable and relevant.

“Really grounding the content in practical knowledge means when these students are being interviewed by these employers, they can see very clearly where they can fit in and help them,” Smalley said, citing his own experience teaching and training companies across North America for more than a decade. “And their learning curves are shorter once they do get hired.”

One practical approach Smalley uses is having his students take in content and theory and apply it to events in the news, such as a major union negotiation. “I’ll say, ‘How did they handle that? Is this a productive approach? What’s wrong with this picture?’” he said.

With a “vibrant” learning environment comprised of high-quality, driven people, Smalley said the students also get exposed to other cultures.

So far student feedback from Smalley’s courses has been unanimously positive, both in terms of enjoyment and improvements in their professional lives. he said, “It’s clear that students are actually using what they’re learning and it’s making a difference for them.”

Employers and managers should also highly encourage their staff to sign up for classes. “There’s really no downside,” he said. “The feedback I get from other instructors is that it’s a really good investment. People are pleasantly surprised.”

Highlights of the new programs at UTM’s School of Continuing Studies

In the last few years, the University of Toronto Mississauga has introduced new programs, classes and space for students in the School of Continuing Studies.

Many have been designed for specifically to address the needs of local residents, nearby companies and key industries in Mississauga, such as pharma, finance, biotechnology and business. asked SCS assistant director, Phil Schalm, for some of his highlights and what he’s most excited to see at the Mississauga campus this fall.

1. More complete programming in accounting

Students looking to complete all the courses needed for their Certified General Accountant or Certified Management Accountant designation can now do so without having to go to the St. George campus. “That was a big improvement for us,” Schalm said. “Previously we were offering [only] introductory courses.”

2. Certificate in Business Process Management

The program was designed to give people the skills to look at the detailed business processes in an organization in order to refine or improve them. It could be through technology or better utilizing staff resources.

Schalm said students have typically been junior or middle managers being asked to make their teams more efficient, maximizing their talent and increasing growth.

3. Academic Culture & English (ACE)

Introduced two years ago, ACE is designed for students who are residents of Canada and have received conditional acceptance to UTM but require additional English language skills training. Organized in partnership with the Registrar’s office, the program runs full-time in the summer and part-time during the rest of the school year.

Enrolment for this program grew rapidly from 59 students last summer, to 230 the same time this year.

Prices for SCS courses at UTM vary depending on type. Schalm said programs and classes for business are approximately $650-700, whereas the costs of English language offerings is about $300-$350.

YourMississaugaBiz is the property of Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd. Access to our content is provided exclusively for paid and free trial subscribers. If you are reading one of our articles without being a registered subscriber, you may be in violation of copyright laws. You can rectify this easily by selecting from our subscription options Contact us at 1 (888) 857 3271 if you require more information about single or bulk subscriptions or licensing options.

UTM continuing education classes giving newcomers a leg up

University of Toronto Mississauga campus
(Tory Zimmerman/Toronto Star)

The University of Toronto Mississauga is expanding its continuing education classes to attract well-educated immigrants looking to improve their skill set and obtain Canadian credentials.

Led by the School of Continuing Studies (SCS), the campus has put serious effort into increasing the number of classes and programs they offer to address the needs of nearby companies and local industries, including biotechnology, pharma, the financial sector and import/export.

“We also try to work very hard with community agencies in order to reach immigrants,” SCS’s assistant director, Phil Schalm, told

There is an increasing demand for the new classes and programs. Over the last five years, UTM has seen significant growth in the number of students enrolled in its SCS classes — especially its business offerings. Enrolment grew from 805 students in 2008-09 to 1,976 students in 2013-2014.

There has also been an explosion in enrolment in SCS’s Academic Culture & English (ACE) program. Introduced two years ago, the program is designed for students who are residents of Canada and have been admitted to UTM but require additional English language skills training.

Schalm said data from participants in SCS’s Certificate in Life Science Enterprise over the last three years has also been very positive.

Of the 127 internationally educated professionals who participated in the programs, Schalm said more than 50 per cent of participants found employment within 12 months of completing the program. By the summer of last year, 73 per cent of the participants were employed in their own or a related field.

Additionally, the majority of those jobs were within the Peel region. “This [program] had a strong pharmaceutical orientation and most of the pharma offices are in the Mississauga area,” Schalm said.

Schalm said SCS also developed additional training and skills resources specifically for its students normally offered through a career centre for undergraduates, such as mentoring programs and resume advice. “We gave them opportunities to go through practice interviews with people from industry,” he said. “It was really designed to understand the Canadian environment more carefully.”

The next goal of the SCS program is to increase enrolment through awareness, recruiting and additional marketing. “We’re really able to offer a much broader array of opportunities than three years ago,” Schalm said, estimating the current rate of capacity at 30 to 40 percent. “So there’s lots of opportunity for growth.”

The SCS is a member of the Mississauga Board of Trade.

YourMississaugaBiz is the property of Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd. Access to our content is provided exclusively for paid and free trial subscribers. If you are reading one of our articles without being a registered subscriber, you may be in violation of copyright laws. You can rectify this easily by selecting from our subscription options Contact us at 1 (888) 857 3271 if you require more information about single or bulk subscriptions or licensing options.