Articles

Linking the classroom and the workplace

As originally appearing in Policy Options.

Written by Anne Sado, Elizabeth Cannon and Tom Jenkins

We are living in rapidly changing times. The pace of innovation, disruptive new technologies and rising global competition for talent mean that today’s graduates are entering a labour market dramatically different from the one that awaited previous generations of Canadians. With career trajectories less linear, and jobs requiring a very different mix of skills, Canada needs a fresh approach to meeting the challenges that exist at the intersection of business, education and employment.

As we prepare students for a world increasingly reliant on technology, we must ensure that the fundamental skills acquired in higher education – the ability to unravel big problems, to work on diverse teams, and to communicate complex issues – can be applied to new and unexpected challenges. By bridging the classroom and professional world, work-integrated learning (WIL) allows students to test-drive their skills and ease their transition into their careers.

As members of the Business/Higher Education Roundtable (BHER), we believe that 100 percent of Canada’s post-secondary students should have the opportunity to benefit from a meaningful WIL experience before completing their studies.

Work-integrated learning

Work-integrated learning has helped prepare students for the workplace for decades. The University of Waterloo launched a co-operative education system in the 1960s. Colleges have known the value of apprenticeships and applied learning for generations. Sir John A. Macdonald learned his legal skills through articling with older lawyers because there were no law schools in British North America.

Through linking the classroom and the workplace, WIL helps students broaden and hone their skills in different environments. Until recently, WIL placements have focused on more technical fields such as software development, construction technologies and medicine. While these hands-on disciplines offer obvious opportunities for workforce application, we at BHER see the advantages of WIL in more diverse academic disciplines. And we’re not alone.

Many groups across the country recognize the value of combining the classroom with on-the-ground work experience. An Abacus survey of current students and recent graduates found that 89 percent of students support WIL in their programs, and 88 percent think that students who graduate with WIL experience will have an advantage when it comes to finding a job. And in a 2015 survey of major Canadian companies, respondents emphasized how graduates from WIL programs had the right blend of skills to prepare them for the workforce.

A formula for success

The changing nature of work is undoubtedly a major focus for Canada’s policy community, but talk can only get us so far. We need champions from the private sector to focus on how these fundamental changes impact their organizations, since they are often equipped to provide targeted solutions.

One such solution is a ground-breaking partnership between businesses in Toronto’s financial services sector. Rather than competing for talent, the companies are engaging the region’s leading universities and colleges to attract young Canadians and invest in their skills.

Led by the Toronto Financial Services Alliance, the soon-to-be-announced program (called ASPIRE) can be adapted by other sectors facing their own unique talent challenges. As the data show, rather than a uniform skills gap across the country, Canada has shortages that vary according to regions and the sectors.

A partnership must be a reflection of the real pressures facing the industry involved, and it must take into account the individual capacities of the post-secondary institutions. Copying and pasting an internship program developed at Nova Scotia Community College to the University of British Columbia won’t get us very far. Instead, employers and institutions must choose the kind of experience – internships, co-op placements, applied research projects or a series of problem-solving platforms, like hackathons – that offer the highest quality of programming for students and provide the greatest value to employers.

Here are the steps we’re taking to create new sector-specific, work-integrated learning initiatives:

  • Diagnose the sector-specific skills challenge to ensure that we’re confronting a real problem.
  • Identify a CEO champion from the sector to act as a spokesperson for the program.
  • Find a partner who understands the space, can work with different stakeholders, and can deliver the program.
  • Secure broad buy-in by bringing people together to create an advisory group from the public and private sectors to develop a program that meets everyone’s needs.
  • Measure progress and share successes so others can learn and adapt similar programs for their own regions and industry sectors.

Critically, approaches need to be championed by committed parties, able to ensure that these programs not only meet the needs of the employers but provide students with high-quality, meaningful work experiences.

Getting ready to change to world

The Business/Higher Education Roundtable is still in the early stages – start-up mode. When it was created in 2015, Canada was one of few OECD countries that did not have an organization dedicated to bringing industry and higher education leaders together.

We have three primary objectives:

  • To assist young Canadians as they transition from school to work.
  • To strengthen the country’s research capacity.
  • To help employers adapt to the economy of the future.

As BHER grows, we will work with partner organizations to ensure the larger picture remains in focus. We hope that the commitments governments have made to improving labour market information will help employers and institutions gain the information they need to identify industry-specific skills challenges. For industries facing disruption, more frequent engagement with educational institutions can help align their future needs with the formal skills taught in the classroom. Our long-term vision sees these kinds of targeted WIL programs adapted by organizations with less capacity, such as small businesses and not-for-profits.

Canada is not alone. Around the world, societies are confronting how rapid innovation and technological change reshape key industries and the workforce itself. By leading, learning and working together, we can help ensure that young Canadians get the skills they need to pursue rewarding, successful careers in a strong and growing economy.