Last August, the Government of Canada announced that they’ll create 60,000 work placements to help post-secondary students develop important work-ready skills. The program, which is now underway and enjoying a very positive response from universities and employers, is part of an ongoing Government push to boost work-integrated learning, or WIL.
WIL isn’t an entirely new concept. The ‘co-op’ model, which integrates paid work experience into degree programmes, was first introduced by the University of Waterloo in 1957, and now around two thirds of their undergraduates are enjoying the benefits. The Canadian government wants to create more opportunities like this by encouraging universities to form partnerships with employers and introduce internships, mentorship programs, practicums, field education and service learning – all of which should create a larger pool of graduates who are able to apply theory to practice.
This push for WIL is in response to Canada’s lagging productivity rankings. According to the Conference Board of Canada, the country’s labour productivity has been lower than its peers for decades. This could present an enormous challenge for Canada’s future economic prosperity and has understandably led to some mutual finger pointing – universities have been accused of producing graduates without the required skills, whilst companies have been criticized for not investing in training.
If the government’s incentives are successful, they will benefit students and employers alike. Students will enter the labour market fully equipped with relevant skills and experience, both of which should open doors, and it’ll also make sense for them financially. Tuition fees in Canada, whilst less than some other countries, aren’t exactly cheap, with the average cost of a typical four-year honour’s degree costing around CAD $27,600 (GBP 16,200, USD 20,680). Work-integrated learning will help them to accurately assess whether their chosen industry is right for them, narrowing the risk of spending a large sum of money on the wrong courses. Finally, they’ll graduate with something many students are desperately short on – a network of contacts. So even if they aren’t employed by the company they get experience with, there’s a good chance they’ll meet someone who can help.
Likewise, there’s plenty to keep employers happy. They’ll gain a larger pool of skilled graduates to choose from and those graduates will function as productive members of their team more quickly. It’s also likely that they’ll be happier with the graduates they employ, as students who have undergone work-integrated learning are more likely to have the problem-solving, creative thinking and global competencies that employers want.
One programme that’s already enjoyed success is the partnership set up by Carleton University and Shopify – a cloud-based commerce platform designed for businesses. Students split their time between the Carleton campus and Shopify’s headquarters throughout their four-year Bachelor of Computer Science. On campus they’ll take theoretical courses, whilst at Shopify they’ll apply theory to practice by joining teams and contributing to projects. To top it all off, Shopify will pay them a salary and cover their tuition fees.
For Shopify, it’s a great move. According to Jean-Michel Lemieux, their senior vice-president of engineering, some of the company’s best ideas and contributions come from their interns: “If you consider that high school and university students today are the first generation of internet kids,” he points out, “it’s not that surprising.” Likewise, current interns are thrilled that they’re getting “real-world coding and business experience with all the benefits of a university degree.” The programme hasn’t been completely hiccup-free, however. Dr. Douglas Howe, a professor at Carleton, noticed that students felt overwhelmed by being thrown into development teams right away, so Shopify added a training program to teach students about expectations and software tools. So far it’s worked, and it could be argued that this bridge would need to be crossed at some point anyway, so better for students to cross it whilst they have professional and educational support.
For the Canadian government, it’s further proof of a step in the right direction. This year they’ve rolled out a $73million Student Work Placements Program to create 10,000 paid student work placements over four years for postsecondary students in fields like aerospace, IT, environmental science and biotechnology. This is in addition to funding provided to Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that provides research internships with a goal of creating 10,000 work placements a year.
Unsurprisingly, it seems that Canada isn’t the only country to get on the WIL bandwagon. It’s on the rise in Australia, following considerable evidence of the positive impact of work-based participation within courses from multiple studies. And here in the UK, the government have invested more than £4.5 million in degree apprenticeships, through which students spend the majority of their time in the workplace whilst working towards a full bachelor’s degree, without paying a penny in tuition fees.
So, can we expect an end to inexperienced graduates worldwide? Possibly not, as there are still some hurdles to overcome. Whilst certain degree subjects, particularly those in STEM, lend themselves perfectly to WIL, it may be trickier for universities to curate work placements for subjects such as Philosophy, English Literature, History and Anthropology. In addition, universities will need to adjust. According to a recent study on the issue, for academics it’ll necessitate an ‘adaptation of different teaching and learning styles’, together with a significant demand on resources, whereas for students ‘it requires seeing the importance and relevance in engaging with WIL to their future prospects and careers’. Finally, there’s absolutely nothing stopping students from taking advantage of an employer-university collaboration only to be scooped up by a different employer after graduation, or moving to a new country altogether, which somewhat negates the point of government funding.
Problematic as it may be, with enough prodding from government bodies, collaborations between universities and corporate partners are likely to grow steadily in the coming years. And whilst there are certainly risks for employers, it can’t be denied that this shift will place students firmly in the driver’s seat.
If you know anyone who'd like to consider work-integrated learning in Canada, we've written a guide to help them get going here, which they can access by logging in as a student on Unifrog.