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Valerie Walker
Executive Director - Business/Higher Education Roundtable
Part of the Spotlight on the Future of Work

Canada Needs a National Work-Integrated Learning Strategy to Prepare Students for the Future of Work

Takeaways

  1. Canada needs a national strategy for work integrated learning that allows for better coordination on employment and skills across provincial borders.
  2. While some companies are relaxing hard degree requirements for formal education, young Canadians increasingly need to learn how to learn in order to keep upgrading their knowledge and skills.
  3. Achieving buy-in for work-integrated learning among a critical mass of CEOs within a certain industry is essential to scale programs to the size they must be to have significant impact.

Action

My pitch to employers, government and educators is that we need to work together to help laid-off employees get the skills they need to get back into the workforce quickly. We also need to prepare our youth to be adaptable, flexible and empathetic, and have the human skills to succeed no matter what the future of work looks like.


Why is it important for Canada to be having a national conversation about the future of work?

I am certainly not the only one seeing technological change, whether it is automation or artificial intelligence (AI), affecting work in the future. Actually, it is not necessarily new AI algorithms that are disrupting our workforce, but the widespread adoption of technology everywhere, including in rural Canada. Canada’s aging population is another challenge pointed out by the Business/Higher Education Roundtable (BHER) and the Business Council of Canada. Baby boomers are on their way out of the workforce and millennials have different expectations when it comes to work. Finally, urbanization and the increasing rural-urban divide in expectations for workers is a cause for concern. Education, work experience and expectations are extremely different in Toronto or Vancouver and Thunder Bay or Prince George.

Most people still follow the linear process of primary, secondary and post-secondary education, after which you are expected to find employment. However, in the next couple of years, we will increasingly move past the expectation that formally recognized degrees and credentials will be the key selection criteria for jobs. For example, in Canada, Shopify and Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) have recently announced that they are no longer going to set hard MBA or finance degree requirements for recruitment. If candidates can prove that they have the skills and competencies needed to do the job, companies increasingly do not care whether they have a degree or not. That is a good start, although it will take years before these changes will trickle down to hiring practice across industry.

“In the next couple of years, we will increasingly move past the expectation that formally recognized degrees and credentials will be the key selection criteria for jobs.”

Even on the employee side, the expectation of working at a single job for 30 or 40 years before retirement does not hold true for an increasing number of people in the country. The data says that the likelihood of switching not just where you work but the fundamental type of work you do is rising. For example, I have a PhD in Heart Physiology and used to be a molecular biologist and biochemist. Then, I went into the federal public service and became a policy analyst. I left that job and got into delivering internships for graduate students. And now I run a not-for-profit.

My pitch to employers, government and educators is that we need to work together to help laid-off employees get the skills they need to get back into the workforce quickly. Then, we need to prepare our youth to be adaptable, flexible and empathetic, and have the human skills to succeed no matter what the future of work looks like.


How does Canada perform when it comes to integrating education, work and industry?

We have about 150 CEOs as members of the Business Council Canada from across the country, whom we survey every couple of years about their skills and talent needs. In 2016, we asked the question, “Do you have a formal partnership with a post-secondary institution?”, to which 76% said “Yes”. Then, the follow up question was, “If yes, what type of relationship do you have – research partnership, co-op, internship or curriculum?” By far, the most common answer was the traditional co-op program. In 2018, when we did that survey again, we kept that question worded exactly the same, and this time, 83% of companies replied in the affirmative.

“60% of students in Canada currently experience some type of work-integrated learning before graduation such as a co-op, internship, applied research project or apprenticeship.”

That is a sign of improvement in Canada, but we have a long way to go in comparison with other countries’ performance. When the same question was asked to American CEOs in 2016, 93% of them said “Yes”. 60% of students in Canada currently experience some type of work-integrated learning (WIL) before graduation such as a co-op, internship, applied research project or apprenticeship. This gap translates into the need to create 150,000 new WIL opportunities each year.

The University of Waterloo is a leader in work-integrated learning, along with the University of Cincinnati. But the other schools are quickly catching up and expanding beyond coops to other forms of work-integrated learning that are more flexible. Despite some progress, there continues to be a disconnect between education and businesses, which is why we created the Business/Higher Education Roundtable.


Do we need a national strategy on the future of work and, if so, how should it be implemented?

To be totally candid, I’m really agnostic on if you call it a ‘national strategy’ or something else. The bottom line is that we need better alignment and coordination across provincial borders and across traditionally siloed sectors to tackle employment and skills challenges. People are often sceptical of national strategies that are written in Ottawa because they are quite out of touch with the provinces. With this in mind, BHER has pushed for the creation and implementation of a national strategy for work-integrated learning. However, we have suggested that the educational component, in particular, should not be run by the federal government, since education squarely sits within provincial jurisdiction.

To be effective, national strategies require a very broad group of organizations, individuals and governments, to agree on a common direction. They need to collectively recognize one group or a very small number of groups to help lead the coordinated effort. We think BHER can be that group for WIL. There is value in a decentralized coordinated effort because a top-down approach will not work due of the size of our country. Although there is a lot of variability between the provinces, they can still sit at the roundtable and share best practices, their network of people, their learnings and their data collection. In the summer of 2018, we sent our proposed plan for WIL, which was signed by 26 associations across the country, to Minister of Finance Bill Morneau.

“We need better alignment and coordination across provincial borders and across traditionally siloed sectors to tackle employment and skills challenges.”

BHER has also helped set up pilot WIL programs with sectors such as aerospace, financial services, mining, construction and advanced manufacturing. We started with the CEOs who were willing to champion the concept in their sector, such as RBC in the financial services space. The financial services pilot program began in 2017 and is run out of Toronto Finance International, formerly Toronto Financial Services Alliance (TFSA). The evidence proves that these programs benefit students, employers and institutions. Once a couple of CEOs get started, the pilot snowballs into a sector-wide or economy-wide initiative. That initial buy-in from individuals has allowed us to focus on truly getting to scale. Finally, BHER is working to increase positions for young people in all levels of the public service, which currently constitute 20% of Canada’s jobs.

A new addition to the national “future skills” conversation is the Government of Canada’s Future Skills Council. This is a group of experts from across the country who will provide advice to the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour on emerging skills, workforce trends and priorities of pan-Canadian significance relating to skills development and training for Canadians. Although the Council is in its early days, I am very enthusiastic about the value it will bring to the national discourse on this important topic.


What does the future of work look like from the perspective of Canada’s youth?

Recent hires come in with an expectation for a promotion quite a bit sooner today. The data also shows a stronger desire for work/life balance in young Canadians. That can mean flexibility in terms of work hours or work location, or more comfortable workplaces. Young people are not always looking for raises right away but other supports like health or educational benefits do make them feel secure.

Canada’s youth also gives high importance to a sense of purpose while choosing their career. Ten years ago, Business Council members, which are large companies, would probably have set up a separate foundation for their corporate social responsibility. But today, social responsibility is increasingly at the core of their business.


What career advice would you give your younger self from 20 years ago?

I would still say a degree, diploma or some kind of training does matter. You do not need a PhD in Heart Physiology, but any kind of education, whether it is a short diploma or a lot of school, teaches you how to learn. With the advent of the internet, content is now so accessible that you can learn almost anything you choose to. So, the more important skill is knowing how to learn, including being able to recognize which content is valuable versus a waste of your time or “fake news”.While many tasks and some full jobs will be automated out of existence, human skills such as communication, problem solving, critical thinking and resiliency will always be required.These skills could be acquired through a number of means, be it formal education, informal education, or work experience. The challenge with human skills is that they are hard to measure. For instance, it is really difficult to judge how good a communicator or problem solver you are compared to your peers.

“Human skills such as communication, problem solving, critical thinking and resiliency will always be required.”

I do get the chance to mentor graduate students who are often concerned that they might not be able to get a job as a professor. I tell them that might be okay and that they have to be open to other opportunities. Especially when you are young, you should take up interesting opportunities even if you don’t think they reflect your long-term career plans.

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Valerie Walker
Executive Director - Business/Higher Education Roundtable

Valerie Walker leads the Business/Higher Education Roundtable (BHER). Val was also recently named co-chair of the Government of Canada’s Future Skills Council. She advises government officials, academics and private sector leaders on changing trends in training and skill development, and speaks regularly on innovation and talent. Previously, Val was the Director of Policy at Mitacs. She holds a PhD from McGill University and is an alumna of the Government of Canada’s Recruitment of Policy Leaders Program.


The Business/Higher Education Roundtable (BHER) was launched in 2015 by the Business Council of Canada. It represents some of Canada’s largest companies and leading post-secondary institutions. Composed of leaders from the private sector, universities, colleges and polytechnics. It brings business and post-secondary education leaders together to collaborate on solutions to Canada’s skills and innovation challenges. Its goals are to help young Canadians as they transition from school to work, strengthen Canada’s research and innovation capacity, and help employers and workers as they adapt to the economy of the future.