2023-11-06T17:17:00-05:00Nov 8, 2023|

How to build a professional work portfolio to improve your job search in Canada

As a newcomer looking for your first job in Canada, standing out from the pack isn’t always easy. This is why you should take every opportunity to shine and ensure you’re doing all the right things to impress employers. One of the ways to do this is by showcasing your accomplishments with a work portfolio – in addition to a winning resume

In this article, we break down what a professional work portfolio is and which roles require a portfolio as a part of the job application process.

In this article:

What is a work portfolio?  

While a Canadian-style resume is typically a one or two-page summary of your experience, skills and achievements, a work portfolio expands on this and provides tangible proof of your expertise

As a newcomer, including samples of your best work, whether these are from earlier jobs (with the employers’ permission, of course) or something you did in your spare time, can help employers and hiring managers visualize the value you can bring to the table. It’s an opportunity to showcase what you are capable of with visual and concrete samples of your work, as well as any awards or certifications you have earned.

Professional work portfolios can be physical or digital, but bear in mind that a digital portfolio is easier to share with a wider audience (particularly if you’re applying for roles in Canada from your home country), and you can even include a link to it on your LinkedIn profile or resume.

What careers require a portfolio in Canada?

Typically, if you are pursuing a career in a creative industry, a work portfolio can give your application a boost. Some examples of occupations where you might need a professional portfolio include:

  • Web design 
  • Graphic design
  • Writer 
  • Photography
  • Advertising
  • Marketing
  • Interior decorating
  • Teaching
  • Architecture
  • Engineering

You may also benefit from having a portfolio if you’re looking for a job in technical occupations such as website development and architecture.

Why is having a work portfolio important in Canada?

It’s not uncommon for HR professionals to receive hundreds of applications for one position. That’s a lot of resumes to read through. Here are some reasons why a work portfolio gives you an advantage in your job search:

  • Convinces Canadian employers of your skills: Let’s face it, not having Canadian experience can be a blocker for newcomers looking for work in Canada. Having a portfolio is a great way to show employers that your international experience and skills translate well into the Canadian job market.
  • Visually demonstrates your achievements: It’s not always easy for a recruiter to visualize what a candidate brings to the table and the quality of work they are capable of. It’s one thing for your resume summary to state you’re an innovative designer who can integrate interactive media into a website, it’s another to actually show the hiring manager an example of an amazing website you designed. A professional work portfolio with your best work provides a preview of what your on-the-job performance will look like and will help set you apart in an interview
  • Provide additional information on projects you’ve completed: You may mention a project very succinctly on your resume, with one or two data points, but in your portfolio you have room to expand on that project and include visuals, additional information and details that may be of keen interest to interviewers.
  • Showcases your personal brand: A portfolio also helps to convey the story of who you are and your brand far better than a few bullet points on a resume.
  • Creates opportunities where none exist: If you’re including a link to your portfolio on LinkedIn, it’s also possible that your work samples may catch the eye of an employer who wasn’t on your radar or who did not have any open positions before. In such situations, it’s not unheard of for special job positions to be created for talented professionals.

Four ways to create a strong portfolio

There’s no right or wrong way of putting together a work portfolio. Your portfolio is an opportunity to showcase your creativity (which is one of the top soft skills employers are looking for). Here are some points to consider:

1. Decide what examples of your work to include

Consider the story you want to tell – about yourself, the skills you’ve developed, and examples of your work. Ask yourself, is it relevant to my industry or the type of role you’re looking for? Does it support the skills and experience highlighted in my resume? Is it my best work? And if needed, can I walk the hiring manager through the ideation and creation process of each sample?

If you have a robust collection of work you’ve already produced in previous jobs in your home country, showcase your best examples and lead with the most impressive to make an impact. If you don’t have any work samples handy, don’t worry. You can use your free time to create some new samples for your portfolio (you can even create samples customized towards your target industries or employers).

2. Think visually

While some careers lend themselves naturally to a visual medium, for others, you may have to think outside the box. For example, someone who works in UX design can showcase the evolution from prototype to finished product. A public relations professional could include coverage they landed for previous clients coupled with the number of media impressions it would have received. If you work in social media, your portfolio can be a collection of some of your viral posts or campaigns. 

For professions such as content management or journalism, your portfolio can include the best pieces you’ve written or it could be a personal blog that includes content you’ve written outside of your professional roles.

3. Keep it simple

While a portfolio allows you to expand on your resume, that doesn’t mean you should put everything in it. Keep the format and contents of your portfolio curated, clean, and simple, so it’s easier for a hiring manager to navigate. 

If your portfolio is housed online, make sure you include a menu and a separate page for each category (if you’ve worked on several categories of projects). Keep text to a minimum and let images speak for themselves. You should add a description to each image that includes the client or company you did the work for, your role in the project and any wins. Make your portfolio easy to navigate by creating categories or grouping work under the umbrella of a client logo, if it’s online. Visually, it’s cleaner to provide a snapshot of your work, whether that’s a feature article or a marketing campaign, then link out to the original.

4. Reflect your personal brand

Your portfolio should also reflect the personal brand you’ve built through your online presence. This can be as simple as matching the look and feel of your LinkedIn profile. A hiring manager is looking to get to know who you are. Like your elevator pitch, a work portfolio is another opportunity to tell your story and what makes you unique. 

Your portfolio could include a short paragraph on why you chose the career you did, how your background led you to a particular industry, and your professional wins from your home country. While you want to add some personal flair to your portfolio, also look at it through the eyes of a hiring manager. What conclusions might they draw from how you present your work?  If you’re unsure, ask a trusted friend or family member to review your portfolio and give you feedback. Personality is important, but you also want to come across as polished and professional.

The benefits of a physical vs. digital portfolio

Newcomers often wonder whether it’s best to have a physical or digital portfolio, but there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. It’s best to have at least a digital portfolio, which you can combine with a physical version (of simply print it out) when you need to share it during in-person interviews. Here are some pros and cons for both options:

Physical portfolios

Traditionally, a portfolio consisted of a printed, physical copy of your work and achievements. However, today most people create a digital portfolio. The advantage of a paper portfolio is it’s instantly accessible in an in-person interview, making it easy to back up your skills and experience with hard copies of what you are capable of. You don’t have to gamble on whether a hiring manager took the time to search out your online portfolio before or after your interview.

However, if you’re interviewing virtually, it may be impossible to share your physical portfolio. If you’re going to have to scan your portfolio and digitize it, it might be better to create a digital portfolio to begin with. 

Another downside of having a physical portfolio is that since you want it to look professional, this means investing in quality paper, colour copying and presentation covers. You should also expect to leave a physical portfolio with your interviewer, so factor in the costs of replicating your original.

Digital portfolios

A digital portfolio is inexpensive, if not free, to create. All you need is a little storytelling and design work. An online version of your work is easier for virtual or panel interviews (while saving a few trees) and can also be a vehicle for your creativity and technical skills. As a newcomer, if you’re beginning your job search from your home country, a digital portfolio allows you to showcase your work samples virtually.

The downside, of course, is you can’t rely on being able to present your online portfolio during your interview. Be sure to include the URL on your resume and on your LinkedIn profile, so a hiring manager has the opportunity to view it. You also want to ensure your portfolio is mobile-friendly.

Resources to build a professional work portfolio

Whether you decide to build a physical portfolio or design an online version, there are a number of free or cheap resources available to help.

1. Canva

Canva is a free online design tool that can help you produce a sleek online or physical portfolio. The design platform also has suggestions on what to include in your professional portfolio and how to present your work.

2. Contently & Muck Rack

Writers and digital content creators can sign up to Contently or Muck Rack to create an online platform for their work free of charge. Both sites make it easy for you to upload content and aggregate your work in one place.

3. Behance

Behance is home to millions of artists, photographers and UX designers. Users can create a project of images, video, or other digital content that have a related theme. The site is free to use, and each project has a unique URL that can be shared.

4. Format

Format is a portfolio creation platform for videographers. If you’re in the field or art, fashion, photography, film, design or illustration, this platform allows you to create impressive portfolios. It also includes website templates based on profession. Although the service isn’t free, plans start at as low as $5 a month. 

5. A personal website

Crafting an impressive digital portfolio doesn’t have to be daunting. There are a number of other free websites that will make it easy for you to display your work and showcase your skills. If you’re looking to create a simple, attractive website to showcase your work, sites like WordPress, Squarespace, and Wix are good places to start.

Though work portfolios may not always be necessary for every profession, it can be a great way to complement your resume and cover letter as part of your job search. A well-curated portfolio contains samples of your best work, giving employers a visual overview of your skills and achievements and convincing them of the value you can bring to their organization.