With the release of the highly skilled workforce report and a significant focus in the sector on work-integrated learning, I feel that there are two things missing from these conversations that need to be addressed.
I recently had the opportunity to be a panellist for an experiential learning panel hosted by Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science Department. While other panellists talked about what Laurier is doing and what employers are looking for, I talked about the feedback that the Students’ Union has received from students on the topic. Two barriers that students identified are things I had never thought about, and they both tie back to messaging.
The first barrier comes from universities. Universities across Ontario are encouraging their students to get involved and participate in work integrated learning opportunities. While programs like Laurier’s Bachelor of Business Administration provide strong co-op programs, many students in faculties such as the Faculty of Arts at Laurier are struggling to find out what they are able to do to make themselves more competitive. They simply do not view volunteer opportunities, summer internships or on campus placements as the same quality of experience as co-op, mainly due to the messaging surrounding co-op programs.
Universities need to start shifting their messaging about the opportunities they provide their students if they truly want every student to feel like they have had a valuable work-integrated learning opportunity. The largest area of concern that arts students in particular highlighted was the messaging around programs. Universities constantly market their co-op programs as pathways to careers. Messaging such as “the experience you gain in our co-op program is incomparable,” or “Our co-op program will lead you to the career you want” alienate students from programs who do not offer co-op placements. Students have told me that this makes them feel that they will struggle to gain entry level employment, as they are competing against students who have taken these programs. They have also said that they feel that co-op outweighs the other opportunities that they have had on campus, as universities rarely market the transferable skills that come with volunteer opportunities or internships. Since they are graduating without “co-op” on their degree, they feel that they will struggle to get employment.
The second barrier that they have identified is messaging from employers. Students have told me that entry level job postings, and even some summer internship postings, have made them feel unqualified. Just the other day as I was looking at job postings, I came across a research internship that is for current students and recent graduates. This four month summer internship, being marketed to students, stated that I needed 3 years of relevant experience. This term scares students, as they often do not realize that their volunteer opportunities, on campus work placements, and other experiences can help make up those three years. If employers truly want recent graduates to succeed and feel comfortable applying for their positions, as the panel at Laurier indicated, their messaging needs to be changed.
To make students feel like they are in an adequate position to succeed, these two areas need to be addressed. Additionally, universities need to do a better job at helping students understand that the skills that they develop from volunteering for a safe walk program or orientation week will help them in the job market. If universities start focusing on developing messaging outlining how any student will graduate with the skills required to succeed in an entry level job, rather than focusing on how their co-op programs will get students a job, they will help address this concern. This, in combination with employers reframing how they explain the requirements for positions, will make students more comfortable as they attempt to transition out of our institutions and into Ontario’s workforce.