The Globe and Mail: Group wants workplace stints for all postsecondary students

Every university and college student in Canada should participate in a co-op, internship or other workplace experience before they graduate, a group of business, university and college leaders says, arguing that students in arts and humanities must participate as well as those in engineering and business.

The group, formally known as the Business-Higher Education Roundtable, will unveil Thursday an initial plan to work toward the goal of ensuring that 100 per cent of students participate in work-integrated learning. The aim is to address long-running concerns that many postsecondary students lack the skills and experience businesses are seeking, and often end up in jobs for which they are overqualified.

“This [roundtable] is a majority of the country, it’s the largest employers, it’s the largest educators,” said Tom Jenkins, the chair of Open Text, the largest Canadian software company, and one of three roundtable co-chairs. He added that the group represents a significant portion of the country’s GDP. “If we can act in a concerted way, the scale is quite profound.”

Experiential education is increasingly seen as a way to help business recruit younger staff and train them for the skills companies need. Students flock to such opportunities, but traditionally they have been restricted to those in engineering, tech or business.

The roundtable – an initiative from the Business Council of Canada – wants to go further.

“If we are going to educate people for anthropology or sociology, they are being educated for a purpose in society. Their education will be enhanced if we give them that experiential learning,” Mr. Jenkins said.

The commitment comes as governments are increasingly looking to help expand such programs. In this year’s federal budget, Ottawa announced a new $73-million fund to increase co-op placements in high-demand fields over the next four years.

Although the group has been ambitious in setting a target, many questions remain about how they will achieve it. No deadline accompanies the release and members of the roundtable said they are more than a year away from developing benchmarks. Universities will also need time to adapt highly theoretical programs such as philosophy to include credit for one or more work terms.

For now, areas that will be first to expand the number of work-integrated learning opportunities include advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity and IT. Companies participating include TransAlta Corporation, Linamar, Microsoft, IBM, RBC, Telus and Clearwater Fine Foods Inc.

Including arts, humanities and social-science students will be one of the most challenging parts of fulfilling the promise, members of the roundtable recognize.

“The arts faculties is where to me there is huge opportunity for scale up,” said Elizabeth Cannon, the president of the University of Calgary and a roundtable co-chair. “That’s where you need industry creating capacity,” she said.

About 40 per cent of Canadian-born university graduates are overqualified for their jobs, a report this fall from the Parliamentary Budget Office found. Those with degrees in humanities, social sciences and business are more likely to not be using their skills in the workplace.

“There needs to be investment from industry, but [universities and colleges] will also need to put in resources in terms of managing and organizing how this is going to work,” said Anne Sado, the president of George Brown College, and a co-chair of the group.

One such example is a partnership between RBC and Ryerson University. Ryerson students from any discipline enroll in a business boot-camp offered by the university, and are then eligible to be recruited by RBC.

For students outside high-demand fields, internships also give them the connections they need in order to land a full-time job.

Vanessa Buote, who has a PhD in psychology, is now the director of research for Plasticity Labs, a company that develops software to improve employee engagement.

The position came out of an internship she found through Mitacs, a non-profit national training and research organization that began by offering co-ops to graduate students in tech, engineering and science, but has since expanded to the arts and social-science fields.

“The more real-world experience a student can get, the better off you are,” Ms. Boute said. “When you are able to take an internship, you can see if this is really the career path you want.”

Mitacs received $14-million over two years from the federal government in the spring budget.

The roundtable does not plan to rely on government funding to move the project forward, however.

What universities and business urgently need from Ottawa and the provinces is better labour-market data, Ms. Sado said.

“One of the things we talked about around the table was that this cannot be us saying there are three or four things we need to get done and look to government,” Dr. Cannon added. “There has to be commitment between education and industry first.”

Byline: Simona Chiose