Building WIL programs isn’t an exercise in corporate philanthropy – it’s a smart way for businesses to get ahead

Apprenticeships, co-ops, internships or field placements. Applied research projects, service learning, bootcamps and hackathons. Call it experiential learning, out of classroom knowledge, or work-integrated learning (WIL), the challenge remains the same – students want more of it, and employers are realizing the possibilities.

Currently, aggregated studies suggest that about half of Canadian university students, and 65 to 70 per cent of college students, take part in some form of work-integrated learning. The problem isn’t an issue of demand – an Abacus Data study on work-integrated learning found that 89 per cent of students support more work-integrated learning programs, a fact supported by OUSA’s research. Rather, we suffer from a lack of supply. Despite

Despite widespread appeal, institutions and industries aren’t offering enough opportunities. Employers are on the same page. A 2015 survey of major Canadian companies conducted by the Business Council of Canada emphasized how WIL helps students kick-start their careers, with one noting that “the mix of on-the-job experience and exposure, combined with their education, prepares them well for the workforce.”

Launched in 2015, the Business/Higher Education Roundtable (BHER) represents some of Canada’s largest companies and leading post-secondary institutions. Although partnerships between higher education and industry have existed in other countries for decades – including the U.K., U.S. and Australia –Canada has lacked a coordinated strategy to strengthening cooperation between employers and educators. Building high-quality WIL placements isn’t an exercise in corporate philanthropy – it’s a savvy way for smart businesses to navigate future challenges.

Benefits of a WIL program for employer participants include:

1. A TALENT PIPELINE When banks, insurers and other financial services companies analyzed potential problems, the answer was clear: not enough talent to navigate the disruptive impacts of artificial intelligence, big data and global pressures. Enter ASPIRE, a WIL initiative launched through the Toronto Financial Services Alliance to help companies meet, train and work alongside potential new recruits.

2. INNOVATIVE THINKING As Steven Murphy, Dean of the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University recently wrote in The Globe and Mail, “Techsavvy, resourceful, purpose-driven and unburdened by the baggage of corporate culture, students can inject the exact kind of adrenalin a company needs to spur innovation from within.” Whether through co-ops, internships or boot camps, students supply creative thinking and out-of-the-box approaches into organizations that may be slow to adapt.

3. BRIDGING POTENTIAL PARTNERS In March 2016 IBM, Hamilton Health Services and McMaster University launched a collaborative research initiative focused on healthcare innovation, a type of industry/academic research partnership that could have huge benefits not just for participants, but the wider community. But learning how to navigate complex post-secondary institutions can be daunting – especially for smaller businesses. Building a program can be a first step to understanding the potential collaboration.

4. CREATING AMBASSADORS It’s no secret that when employees have a positive relationship with a company, the goodwill continues into the future. Many alumni of work-integrated learning programs report staying in touch with their former employers, even as they’ve gone on to other industries or organizations. As a former George Brown College student, who completed multiple work terms with EllisDon Corporation said, “I’m not with that company anymore, but I’m close to members of that team. I’ll reach out to discuss my upcoming projects and ideas.”

These reasons are why WIL is increasingly becoming a priority for business. In May 2016, BHER members agreed on a target: for 100 per cent of undergraduate students – college and university included – to have some form of work-integrated learning before they finish school. Since then, the group has supported industry-led pilots featuring a coalition of employers and institutions in the financial services, construction, advanced manufacturing, mining and entrepreneurship with others in the works.

Meanwhile, federal and provincial governments have increased funding to boost opportunities, recognizing the impact of WIL in easing students’ transition into the labour force. There are barriers. Like with many issues in post-secondary education, a lack of comprehensive data at the program, institution and provincial level makes it difficult to know exactly how many students benefit from WIL, and how many positions are concentrated in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs.

Employers starting WIL programs tend to gravitate towards technical programs, which appear to have more immediate impacts on their business. It takes a bit more creative thinking to build programs that focus on the “human skills” developed through the social sciences and humanities. Identified by Seth Godin as those skills that “encompass our ability to interact and work collaboratively with others, as well as to think strategically and regulate emotions”, human skills are the type that will differentiate people from computers in a future of intelligent machines.

One of the many business leaders thinking about the future of skills and changing nature of work is Dave McKay, President and Chief Executive Officer of RBC. As the leader of BHER’s WIL taskforce, he has pushed other Canadian executives into investing in programs, using his own story to underscore the value of work-integrated learning. In an article in The Globe and Mail in 2015, he wrote that as a computer science student at the University of Waterloo, his RBC co-op terms “opened my eyes to a world that involved strategy, people and the finance I was studying, and I never looked back.” Now, he says that “as Canada comes to grips with its place in the age of disruption, our university and college co-op programs are among our quiet strengths. We need more of them, and to do a lot more with them.”

The world of work comes with the anxiety of navigating a host of unknowns: the speed and impact of automation, changing trends in global competition, and the integration of new technologies. Work-integrated learning isn’t the cure for all the challenges facing organizations – and this includes businesses, not-for-profits, or governments. But as more employers realize how work-integrated learning strengthens their organization over the long term, the more everyone can thrive.

This article originally appeared in the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance’s Educated Solutions journal. Read the full publication here.

Written by Isabelle Duchaine, BHER Manager.