- Work-integrated learning allows students to explore fields outside of their study disciplines and provides industries with a much-needed diversity of skills.
- Through work-integrated learning programs, organizations can strengthen their talent pipeline and cut down on the burden of onboarding training.
- Work-integrated learning can help many small businesses and sectors that fly under the radar get access to key talent.
Both provincial and federal governments should consider expanding funding to academic institutions for work-integrated learning programs, as they are a key part of the ecosystem alongside industry partners. Furthermore, federal funding should be made available for international students to participate in these programs so they can become a valuable part of the Canadian talent pipeline.
What is work-integrated learning and how does it prepare Canada’s students for the future of our workforce and economy?
Work-integrated learning is a term describing a variety of educational experiences where students complete authentic work-based activities in partnership with industry, community organizations, or even the general public as a formal component of their educational program. Work-integrated learning has been long recognized for its ability to support students in the transition from school to work. There are a couple of key aspects behind that.
“Work-integrated learning has been long recognized for its ability to support students in the transition from school to work.”
First of all, it is the experience that the students get. They have the opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills they are developing in the classroom in that authentic context. In those experiences, they deepen their skills and strengthen their understanding of a variety of different organizations and industries. Work-integrated learning helps students understand where they want to go in life and have better career clarity. With work-integrated learning programs, students have an opportunity to work for three or four different organizations within their academic program and that helps them to see their fit within a specific organization. It can spark a passion for a particular industry that they may not have been aware of as a possible career option for them.
The future of work is a world where workers will need to be constantly upskilling, reskilling, and pivoting their knowledge from one career into possibly an entirely different field that did not exist when they graduated. There are some real components of work-integrated learning that uniquely prepare our students with agility, comfort with change, ability, and aptitude to learn quickly and build relationships.
“We can use the model of classroom learning and workplace application and use it for rapid upskilling and reskilling.”
We have been talking a lot about learning-integrated work at the University of Waterloo and how we can use the model of classroom learning and workplace application and use it for rapid upskilling and reskilling. This is a way for people to come back to campus for shorter periods of time or have internships in midcareer that help them transition into growing sectors. Lots of work is underway on both sides of it at a number of post-secondary institutions across the country.
How does work-integrated learning contribute to fulfilling the needs of Canada’s future workforce?
This is something we spent a lot of time thinking about and working on at the University of Waterloo. We have developed what we call the Future Ready Talent Framework that lists 12 competencies students need now for success in their work-integrated learning opportunities and that will be absolutely critical for navigating a rapidly changing workforce.
“Work-integrated learning is a holistic educational program that gives students opportunities to develop the competencies needed for future work.”
Those 12 competencies cluster into four specific areas: expanding and transferring expertise, developing self, building relationships, and designing and delivering solutions. Work-integrated learning is a holistic educational program that gives students opportunities to develop the competencies needed for future work. In terms of their work-integrated learning experiences, students are not only transferring the knowledge they learned in the classroom but they are deepening their skills whether that is specific technical skills they learn by working with an employer or other context-specific skills. All work-integrated learning programs have reflective elements built into them and in those reflective components, students get an opportunity to learn how to assess their skills effectively, identify gaps that they have, and think about critical aspects of self-management like emotional intelligence, adaptability, resilience, and career management.
What are the benefits of work-integrated learning to companies, institutions, and sectors?
There is a multitude of benefits for community or industry partners that bring students into their workplace or bring projects into the classroom. One of the most commonly cited benefits of work-integrated learning is strengthening an organization’s or industry’s talent pipeline. Work-integrated learning opportunities are often seen as extended job interviews. In that short period of time, the student is able to determine if that is an industry or an organization they would like to work in, and the employer can test out the student for fit. In those opportunities, the employer can also help the student develop specific technical skills or industry-specific skills to reduce some of that training burden for entry-level employees.
“One of the most commonly cited benefits of work-integrated learning is strengthening an organization’s or industry’s talent pipeline.”
There is also awareness of the organization, whether that is the branding of a specific organization or of a broader sector. By engaging with students while they are still in school, industries have an opportunity to raise students’ awareness of the benefits of working within that particular sector. Another commonly cited benefit is the fresh perspectives, energy, and enthusiasm that students bring into the workplace. I remember hearing a CEO of a multimedia company say, “I would rather bring in 10 co-op students than pay one consultant because the ideas and questions they bring cannot be paid for.”
“Once the employers have brought that first student into the workplace, they report so many benefits.”
What we have learned at Waterloo in over 60 years of running the world’s largest co-op program is that time after time, once the employers have brought that first student into the workplace, they report so many benefits. There was a study done by Deloitte in 2019 that showed for every dollar that an employer expended in paying a student, they received $2 back in value from that student. Another study was done of over 1,000 of our co-op employers, where over 93% reported a positive return on investment for their time spent mentoring and supervising co-op students.
What are the needs of the electricity sector’s future workforce and how can work-integrated learning contribute?
The electricity sector, like many other sectors in the Canadian economy, is changing at a rapid pace. That is changing the types of jobs within the sector and the kinds of skills needed to support those jobs.
“The biggest opportunity for work-integrated learning in the electricity sector is first and foremost awareness.”
The electricity sector has an aging workforce and requires young talent, both for succession planning and to bring in new and varied skills that are not traditionally associated with the sector. The biggest opportunity for work-integrated learning in the electricity sector is first and foremost awareness, particularly when we are speaking of underrepresented groups within the electricity sector and bringing in students engaged in disciplines that are not typically associated with the electricity sector. There is going to be a huge need for information technology (IT) professionals and management professionals within the sector.
Electrical engineering students might already be considering doing a work term within the electricity sector, but work-integrated learning provides an opportunity to bring in students studying a variety of disciplines. Perhaps an English student could move into a management position down the road even if they had never really considered working in the electricity sector.
Exposure to the way in which the sector is changing, such as through green energy, is important for young workers. Students often look for work that aligns with their values. How work in the electricity sector could help improve our world and cut down on global warming is not something that a lot of students have thought of, but if they are exposed to the sector through work-integrated learning, that might open up the door for them to consider a career in the field.
How should employers and educators in the electricity ecosystem approach work-integrated learning?
When we think about the rapidly changing workforce, we need to break down the traditional notion that students should only be having work experiences that directly relate to their academic discipline. We need students in relevant trades and who have had work experience in the electricity sector. We still want engineering students to think about having a co-op work term here. However, as we think about the future of work-integrated learning in Canada, we want to look for opportunities to help students see the spectrum of career opportunities that exist for them whether or not that is directly related to their academic discipline.
For the electricity sector, that means finding ways to come to campus and get into classes that might not be typical to raise awareness of the key issues within the sector as well as some of the benefits of working there. For the academic institutions, that means thinking differently about the kinds of relationships we have with industry or community partners that may not have a typical direct connection between an academic program and a work-integrated learning experience.
“We need to break down the traditional notion that students should only be having work experiences that directly relate to their academic discipline.”
What is important for us to maintain a strong work-integrated learning ecosystem in the country is there needs to be a consistent level of attention and resources from the provincial governments, particularly in funding post-secondary institutions, for delivering work-integrated learning programs. There is staff within universities and colleges that are specialists in spanning the boundaries between academia and industry. Those staff work with employers, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, to help them determine the kinds of skills that students have so that those organizations can build quality and realistic projects that students can work on. While it is absolutely fantastic that we have had funding from the federal government to support the industry side, it is also critical to recognize that the system has a third partner in it, which is post-secondary institutions. Work-integrated learning programs require resources on both sides.
What and who would you pitch to strengthen and improve how Canada trains our future workforce?
The federal government should consider the important role that international students can play in Canada’s future workforce. There are lots of wonderful federal funding programs to support work-integrated learning, but oftentimes international students are not eligible for those programs. There are a number of challenges associated with international students getting co-op work permits to even participate in work-integrated learning programs. I urge the federal government to streamline the process for international students to engage in work-integrated learning opportunities and also open up federal funding programs to these students. Canada’s labour force will need international talent to buttress it and these international students are an excellent source of that talent. If we give them work-integrated learning opportunities while they are with us in school, they may decide to make Canada their home.