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Sarah Plouffe
Director of the Student Work Placement Program - Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC)

Canada’s Future Workforce and Work-Integrated Learning

Published on

Takeaways

  1. Work-integrated learning programs give students the opportunity to gain valuable experience early on, allowing them to match with employers and bolster their credentials.
  2. Educational institutions and employers have to work together to develop curricula that cater better to the needs of employers.
  3. The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on the employment of youth, but work-integrated learning programs can help curb the effects of this.

Action

Parents can help guide their children to make the best career choices by allowing them to experience workplace realities before committing to a specific career path for the long term. Work-integrated learning programs are the perfect way for the youth to train in their skills and gain valuable insight into their career choices.


What is the goal of the Student Work Placement Program? 

The Student Work Placement Program is a program that brings together employers and post-secondary students from colleges, universities, and polytechnics across the country to help students gain experience to be better able to transition right into the labour market once they graduate. The goal is to help them be able to contribute more effectively to employers’ bottom lines and productivity, as well as to the labour market and Canada’s economy. 

The program was developed with the intention to help students and employers. Both parties came to us before the institution of the program to explain that students were investing time, energy, and resources into post-secondary studies, but by the end of it all they did not have the experience employers were looking for. We were also hearing from employers that they were in a dire situation where they needed to find new talent and access these talent pools of new graduates. They wanted to hire them, but they found that there was a disconnect between the skills that the students possessed and what they were looking for in terms of new hires to help them in their businesses. Things evolve so quickly in today’s labour market and today’s economy is a very global economy. 

“Students were investing time, energy, and resources into post-secondary studies, but by the end of it all they did not have the experience employers were looking for.” 

By facilitating student-employer match-ups earlier in students’ career paths, it allows them to learn the skills that they need earlier on and be more productive more quickly. 


Why is work-integrated learning for Canadian students critical for our future economy, specifically our electricity sector?  

From the data that we have seen through surveys sent to students, it is clear that students recognize that the best and easiest way to learn is through experience in a workplace setting. Learning theory and learning about practice are both great. Bringing those two worlds together in a workplace setting and allowing students to apply theoretical learning to a concrete workplace setting marries the best of both worlds. Work-integrated learning helps us develop the fastest and most efficient way to teach and onboard new candidates to your workforce.  

“Students recognize that the best and easiest way to learn is through experience.” 

The electricity sector is a high technology sector that evolves so quickly. Not to throw any education institutions under the bus, but sometimes their programs may not be evolving quite as quickly as technologies in the labour market and in big electricity companies are. Allowing students to participate in work-integrated learning within the workplace before graduation can help them learn about new machinery, technologies, and ways of doing things that are happening on the ground as they keep learning the theory behind all of these new technologies. 


Do we need more connections between the academic and business worlds? 

Absolutely. We all gain from having a more integrated system where employers are informing education, which is in turn supporting the labour market. The more exchanges we create between those two worlds, the more efficient our labour market becomes. These are the best measures to ease the transition for students and give them the best returns on their education investments. 

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How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the ability of students to engage in work-integrated learning? 

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on youth at large. According to Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey numbers, out of all the subgroups that are seeing increased employment through the pandemic’s recovery phases, youth are at a disadvantage. They are the group that has been left behind. Any effort that we can contribute to getting youth involved in work-integrated learning can buffer the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the long term.  

“Through the Student Work Placement Program, we have invested an additional $266 million—over $400 million this year—to compensate for that pandemic’s effect on youth.” 

For the Student Work Placement Program, we were looking at a reduction of at least 50% in placements when the pandemic started in March 2020. We reached out to our delivery partners in a variety of sectors including electricity, and employers in all of those sectors were predicting at least 50% reductions in their student hiring over the summer and fall. We worked hard to implement some flexibility measures and additional program investments. Through the Student Work Placement Program, we have invested an additional $266 million—over $400 million this year—to compensate for that pandemic’s effect on youth. We have recruited thousands of additional students, meeting the original targets and also surpassing them for the year. Intake is ongoing and we hope to be able to do the same next year. 


How best can we train the electricity workforce of the future through work-integrated learning? 

For the electricity sector, there is a very low proportion of women that are participating in the sector in an active way. The number of women is increasing thanks to organizations like Electricity Human Resources Canada (EHRC) who are working hard to explain to youth, students, and women what careers are available to them in the electricity sector.  

We need everyone’s participation in this sector. It is a sector that is booming right now and will continue to evolve as we look to have a greener future and generate electricity that does not pollute our planet. It has so much potential and growth in front of it. Canada is a world leader in electricity management and generation, and that is something that is going to continue over the next decades. 


What kind of partnerships are essential to preparing students for the future of work in electricity? 

The partnerships established by the Student Work Placement Program between the federal government and sector organizations are key in bringing employers, academia, and students together to work towards the same objective. When it comes to education, the provincial and territorial governments are very involved and central to the process. Having all of the stakeholders working together is the best and most efficient way to promote an efficient labour market and giving students access to the best training and workplace learning opportunities. No one group, organization, or sector of the economy can prepare the future workforce on their own. It needs to be a team effort. We are happy to contribute to that and recognize the value brought by other groups within the ecosystem. It takes a village. A lot of us recognize the value in work-integrated learning and having the right partnerships and people around the table to drive this forward. Without everyone’s participation, it would be very difficult to arrive at the same result. 


What is the current state of the supply and demand of work-integrated learning in Canada?  

I worked in the education field for 20 years. Only during the last 5 years have I been more directly involved with work-integrated learning. I have been learning myself about this sector and about the demands for it. At the onset, when we set up the Student Work Placement Program, we had a significant imbalance. Federal supports and wage subsidies cannot answer all of the demand out there. There is a growing understanding, both from students and employers, that work-integrated learning is a win-win scenario. Employers and students are seeing more value in investing and participating in work-integrated learning. Students know that once they graduate, they will have all of these potential employers to work with and a CV with good experience on it. Employers are now recognizing the value of having youth within their organizations that have the right skill set and creative mindset to keep propelling their businesses to the next level. 


What and who would you pitch to strengthen and improve how Canada trains our future energy workforce?  

I will surprise you with this one. The people in power I would like to address my comment to would be parents across the country. They have a lot of influence and power to guide their children’s career choices and pathways through the confidence levels and interest they have in their educational choices. I would encourage parents to recognize the value of work-integrated learning and workplace experience for their children. Let them experience the different opportunities out there before committing to a long-term career path. Allow them to experience different realities and learn from those so that they can propel themselves forward.  

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Sarah Plouffe
Director of the Student Work Placement Program - Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC)

Bio: Sarah Plouffe is the Director of the Student Work Placement Program, a government initiative to give Canadian post-secondary students paid work experience related to their field of study, at Employment and Social Development Canada. Before this, she was a Senior Policy Analyst at the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills. She was also a Research Analyst at Statistics Canada. She has a Master of Arts in Education, Measurement, and Evaluation from the University of Ottawa 

 

Organization Profile: Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) is a government organization working to promote a highly skilled and inclusive labour force in the country. They are responsible for developing policies and programs that help Canadians with issues surrounding employment, learning, and retirement. In addition, the organization is also responsible for employment insurance, pensions, benefits, and more.