By Chelsea Nash, CFICE Communications Research Assistant

A woman in business attire and holding a briefcase, leaping between one rock and another rock with the text "job" resting on it.Co-op placements and internships, some unpaid, have long been the only way for many university students to put what they’re learning in classrooms into practice. These opportunities provide students with the chance to do a sort of taste-test of their chosen career path before graduation. If they enjoy their experience, they are all the more prepared for graduation and entry into the workforce, having made valuable connections and laid the foundation for a professional network.

This workforce preparation is why in June 2016, a ‘highly skilled workforce expert panel’ put together under the direction of then-premier Kathleen Wynne, recommended that all postsecondary students engage in at least one work-integrated learning (WIL) opportunity before graduation. In an effort to make new graduates more employable in their fields, the panel recommended that all students be required to participate in things like co-op placements, internships, practicums, field education and community service-learning, all of which fall under the umbrella of work-integrated learning.

Whether or not work-integrated learning becomes a focus for premier-elect Doug Ford remains to be seen, however, the national trend points to an increase in these experiences for students, with the 2017 federal budget announcement that the Canadian government will help fund 60,000 paid student work placements over five years. And, according to an article in University Affairs, both the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia governments have also considered how to integrate more experiential learning opportunities for postsecondary students.

“When Canadian students get on-the-job education, they’re getting the experience they need to succeed,” said Patty Hajdu, the federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour in a press release.

While work experience in their field can add value to a student’s education and to their resume, finding placements for the more than two million post-secondary students in Ontario comes with its own challenges for both faculty and employers. CFICE has put together a brief list of what faculty, community organizations, and students should expect from this new provincial policy. Much of this information is based on 2012 surveys conducted by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, in which employers, students, and faculty were surveyed.

What faculty can expect

  • Additions to your workload
    • Incorporating work-integrated learning (WIL) into course requirements will require a lot of time and resources for matching employers with their students, for instance. As reported by academic faculty with experience in coordinating WIL experiences, finding enough placements is one thing, but finding quality placements where students can thrive is another. A report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario found that “half of faculty respondents who taught a course with a WIL component reported performing 11 or more” tasks in addition to their typical duties per term.
  • Balancing course expectations with WIL timelines
    • This pertains primarily to those faculty who will be incorporating WIL into their courses, or, who might have students who are engaged in WIL while simultaneously enrolled in their course. The report mentioned above found that students often struggle with time management when engaged in WIL experiences, and the demands of an academic semester can sometimes clash. Further, managing WIL placements with large class sizes can be additionally challenging.
  • Establishing your own connections to the community
    • Through the organization of WIL opportunities for students, faculty can learn more about the work going on in their own community, and perhaps lay the foundation for a more involved relationship with industry players in their field. This could result in something as simple as having access to relevant guest speakers to attend your classes for the benefit of students.

What community organizations can expect

  • An influx in requests for placements
    • With this new mandate, post-secondary institutions will likely be on the hunt for partners in the community sector and elsewhere to place students. Don’t forget that in this situation, the institution’s objective is to ensure students fulfill their learning requirements. But, with planning and effective communication both with the student and with the liaison at the institution, community organizations can put the extra capacity to good use.
  • Trained and engaged new-hires
    • After the placement has come to an end and the student(s) has graduated, the community organization may have the opportunity to continue its relationship with the student, who is already familiar with the work, the organization, and can start their job further ahead than a brand new person would. Of course, this may be challenging for smaller community organizations with lower budgets, however, even if the student does not continue their work with your organization, you may still have a relationship with someone in the field who has developed an interest in the work your organization is doing. Perhaps the student goes into academia—down the road you will have an existing relationship with a researcher, something that could flourish into a community-campus partnership.
  • Developing closer relationships with institutions
    • When post-secondary institutions reach out to your organization to arrange WIL for their students, it could be the first time they are encountering the work that you do. Establishing a relationship with the institution could lead to a future partnership, which could mean future funding and collaborative research.
  • Managing short-term and special projects
    • Students engaged in WIL are short-term. For any organization, it could be a challenge to find sufficient work for these students to do without the additional work of having to manage them. Being creative with what students are assigned, and engaging them in short-term projects can be an effective capacity builder for your organization.

What students can expect

  • Different types of Work-Integrated Learning
    • Fulfilling a WIL requirement can take many forms, including a co-op placement, an internship, an apprenticeship, a clinical placement, experiential course learning, a field placement, community-service learning, or an applied research project. What type of WIL you experience will be dependent on your program, courses, or the availability of options at your post-secondary institution. You may have the opportunity to engage in more than one of the above experiences.

The Benefits  

  • Building skills
    • Work-integrated learning is believed to enhance learning outcomes. By applying theory and concepts students are learning about in classrooms, they can deepen their understanding and retain more information.
  • Building connections
    • Work experience in a students’ desired field is an important step to developing a professional network. Often, students find post-graduation employment with the organization or company they worked with.
  • Shaping career goals
    • A 2012 study done on graduating post-secondary students across Ontario found that both college and university students found value in their WIL experience. The benefits identified included clarifying career interests and influencing their career goals.
  • Developing personal maturity
    • The same study found that students identified personal growth as a benefit of their WIL experience. Additionally, exposure to a professional work environment increased their confidence when it came to their career prospects.
  • Increasing earning potential
    • Employers consistently offer higher starting salaries to new graduates who have WIL experience on their resume.
  • Nearly half of university students are already graduating with some form of WIL experience
    • You may be involved in a work-integrated learning experience already! Do you find it to be valuable experience?

The Challenges

  • Financial barriers
    • Financial barriers are one of the biggest barriers to students participating in work-integrated learning experiences, as not all opportunities are paid. Often, this means that students who can engage in unpaid placements are privileged enough to have financial stability, something not all students have. Additionally, in some situations, a work-integrated experience could add to a students’ anticipated degree completion date.
  • Extra demands on time
    • Student life is busy enough, and post-secondary students are often juggling part-time work with full-time classes to get by financially. The 2012 report found that nearly half of the students surveyed reported difficulty managing their work-integrated learning experience with the rest of their demands.
  • International students and visas
    • International students have the added barrier of requiring a work visa in order to participate in paid placements. If they cannot get a work visa, their only option may be an unpaid placement, which, as noted before, can be a burden on a student who is already in a financially precarious situation.