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HR News | Ontario considers mandatory work experience for all students

Posted Aug 12th, 2016

Mandatory experience among recommendations of the Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel. 

By Liz Bernier

There's a possibility the Ontario government will implement mandatory work experience for students, if recommendations from an expert panel are implemented.

Mandatory work-integrated learning initiatives such as co-op programs or internships for all high school, college and university students in the province were among the recommendations of the Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel appointed in December.

The panel's report, Building the Workforce of Tomorrow, said experiential learning can significantly assist with entry into the workforce.

"These experiences are valuable for new immigrants, adults and students. Successful experiential learning programs provide value for the employer as well as the worker and provide individuals with opportunities to solve problems and work in interdisciplinary teams. Experiential learning also plays a valuable role in helping individuals make decisions about future careers and employment pathways," it said.

"Employer participation in, and support for, experiential learning programs tends to be limited because of employer concerns about certain kinds of administrative and/or operational requirements ... Employer participation is also limited due to onerous
time/resource requirements associated with programs and at times misalignment between the required skills and aptitude of potential hires with business needs. The panel feels strongly that experiential learning must become an
important component of business activity at all levels. The panel heard that intermediaries are often quite effective at easing the administrative and operational burdens."

Government officials spoke out in favour of the idea, and Premier Kathleen Wynne said she would support the move. "I completely support this recommendation because I believe that young people need to have experiential learning opportunities, both in the elementary and secondary panels, and in the post-secondary education panel," she said.

Win for employers

Work-integrated experience can certainly provide benefits for both students and the employers that hire them, said Sharon Irwin-Foulon, executive director of career management and corporate recruiting at the Ivey School of Business at Western University in London, Ont.

"The benefit to the employer is really around the idea that you get to shape someone's perspective on what healthy workplaces look like. The benefit is you get to put someone on that work that has a completely different viewpoint; that's fresh. And if you give them the space and permission to ask questions, you might actually get some insight," she said.

Certainly from an employer's perspective, there are numerous benefits to having students come into the workplace, said Anne Fannon, director of the professional development program at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and incoming president at the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education.

"They bring such energy, such enthusiasm and such new and fresh perspectives," she said. "One of the benefits we see from bringing in co-op students is that they can help us address those project needs that we wouldn't necessarily have full-time resources to dedicate to." 

As someone who did three separate co-op terms himself during university, Christopher Chen has firsthand knowledge of both sides of the co-op experience.

"When it came time for me to step into my first roles, I was ready. I knew where the washrooms were, I knew what the work process was like, my body was ready for a nine-to-five (job) instead of going from a student culture and system, so I think it was very helpful," said Chen, who is senior client partner and Canada practice leader at Korn Ferry Hay Group in Toronto.

"Now, long-term, will it have a lasting impact or affect on your ability to perform? I don't think so. I think people figure it out - it just makes the transition easier.

"I also think it makes it easier for you to find that role or position because you've got that background prior to coming to a workplace."

Korn Ferry Hay Group has been hiring co-op students for years, said Chen.

"Why do we like co-ops? We find that, by and large, when we bring a co-op, in they are extremely eager. They bring an incredible level of energy. They do bring new ideas. They typically don't know very much compared with someone who's a full-time person, but then we are not going to compensate them at the same level that you'd have for someone who's coming out of school or with one or two years of experience," he said.

Often, compensation is suggested or on a grid provided by the educational institution so it's extremely easy for the employer to determine what to pay, said Chen.

Some of it is more rote work, and the students help employers to get some of the basic work out of the way while freeing up other staff to do other work, he said.

"We've also found that the co-op students have been a form of insurance policy for us. There have been times and situations where we have lost - for various reasons - first-, second- or third-year employees ... and we have asked our co-op students to step up and basically fill the role of someone who's a graduate."

In addition, making sure the students are stretched, but supported as they're stretched, is a great way to make sure an employer has a strong employment brand and becomes a destination for new grads, said Irwin-F oulon.
"That's often undervalued by employers, but they're coming out as ambassadors to your brand."

It's also an opportunity to stretch your own talent, to help them learn how to mentor and coach others.

"If someone is on my team ready to be promoted, poised and ready to manage people, an intern is a great way to ease them into it," said Irwin-Foulon.

New grads often unprepared

It's especially important in a climate where many new graduates arrive unprepared for the realities of the workplace, said Lara Dodo, regional vice-president at Robert Half in Toronto.

When employers are hiring today, they're looking specifically for candidates with solid functional expertise, but they're also looking for more than that - such as strong communication skills and a strong work ethic. "And they want it all packaged up in an applicant who's polished and pays attention to detail," she said. 

"We know that's what the employers are looking for, and where the challenge comes is where we have new graduates or job-seekers who don't have any work experience, a lot of those qualities are not learned in the classroom - they're learned from real­world experience or from having to adapt to a work environment. "That experience is coming from co-op, from volunteer work, from community involvement."

A majority of new graduates feel less than adequately prepared to enter the workplace, according to a 2015 Accountemps survey of 300 Canadian professionals. "Sixty per cent of them felt they were somewhat prepared; 15 per cent said they were not at all prepared," said Dodo.

As for what they felt unprepared for, the top response, at 47 per cent, was that information from school and classes did not translate to the actual job, she said. The second highest, with 43 per cent of respondents, was they didn't know how to handle office politics. "And if you think of the workplace today, it's more diverse than ever. Diversity is cultural diversity, generational diversity and skill-sets ... and everything is about teams and collaboration," said Dodo.

"So when you're taking a grad who comes from academia and put them into an environment where there's already some difficulty in translating that knowledge to the job, if you have an individual who also hasn't had any exposure on how to interact with different types of situations, that is really quite a tall order. "From the employer's perspective, orientation or the time to productivity is a greater delta than with someone who comes with those soft skills under their belt."

The question of mandatory

So, should work-integrated learning be mandatory? Or is it simply a nice-to-have? It's an interesting question, said Irwin-Foulon.

"What is valuable work experience? That's the burning question for me. I can tell you that the most important experience I ever had was working at McDonald's. It taught me about process, it taught me about hierarchy, it taught me about customer first," she said, adding that valuable learning isn't just about being in a corporate environment.

In terms of mandatory internships, there are certainly other models around the world, said Fannon.

"In France, there's a requirement that five percent of payroll at any organization that has more than 50 employees needs to be dedicated to students engaged in work­integrated learning," she said.

"So there are models out there that work. I think there is capacity within the system to build more opportunities for employers and students to engage and to better prepare students for those opportunities and to help better prepare employers to bring students in for those opportunities; I just don't think it's the kind of thing that we'll see happen overnight. There really is a lot of communication, collaboration that's going to have to happen between (employers) and academia in order to make that happen."

One of the things commonly heard from students who experience challenges related to work-integrated learning has to do with the actual work environment they're entering. "The students would say things like they didn't feel that there was enough work for them in the work placement or the work was boring or they didn't feel as if they were integrated into the fabric of the team or that the organizations weren't prepared to welcome short-tenn employees," said Fannon.

"That's probably one of the biggest challenges that both industry and academia will have to work on together in order to facilitate more work-integrated learning."

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