You won’t hear a provincial leader speak about education without mentioning the importance of “preparing students for the future” or “preparing students for the workforce”. Education, and post-secondary education more specifically, is increasingly viewed by political leaders, policy makers, higher education stakeholders, and even students themselves, as a prerequisite for employment — a bridge to the workforce. At the same time, there continues to be a disconnect between the skills students learn in general arts and science degree programs and the ability to translate these skills into employment.
Last month, Statistics Canada released Maximum insights on minimum wage workers: 20 years of data, a research paper that revealed that, not only has the proportion of employees earning minimum wage doubled since 1998, but the proportion of employees earning minimum wage who have a post-secondary degree has also grown significantly. This is concerning for a number of reasons, particularly given that minimum wage in Ontario ($14.00) falls way under what is considered a living wage in all regions of the province (ranging anywhere between $15.53 and $21.75) and those workers with post-secondary degrees often have the additional financial burden of having to repay student loans. On top of that, minimum wage earners “are also less likely to receive non-wage benefits such as a pension plan, supplementary health benefits or paid sick leave.” If earning a university degree is a bridge to the workforce, why are graduates crossing that bridge only to be faced with poverty and precarious work?
While the Statistics Canada paper does not speak to the reasons for the growth in minimum wage earners with post-secondary degrees, there is something to be said for the fact that students have been concerned about a lack of work-integrated learning opportunities for students in general arts and science programs and about the lack of support offered to help them articulate skills learned in the classroom to potential employers. Both concerns speak to how universities are not adequately preparing students for the future promised by a university degree.
For anyone who’s sat in a lecture hall, it is obvious that classroom learning, while important to building a foundation of knowledge, cannot adequately foster all the skills that students need to succeed after graduation. “Communication, critical thinking, and teamwork skills have become increasingly important in the workforce and are often not taught in traditional, lecture-style teaching methods.” For students, preparing for the workforce requires a broader approach to learning, one that gives them opportunities to develop skills both in and out of the classroom. This is echoed by employers who recognize that “we need to build stronger bridges between workplaces and lecture halls.” One way to do this that is popular in business, engineering, and STEM programs is through work-integrated learning opportunities. Work-integrated learning is a mutually beneficial model that provides students with the experience necessary to take foundational knowledge learned in the classroom and engage in real-world, practical applications. Work-integrated learning opportunities have been shown to help students feel better prepared for the workplace by fostering industry-specific knowledge.
But for students who are in general arts and science-based programs, work-integrated learning opportunities are limited. The 2017 Ontario Post-Secondary Student Survey suggests that more than half of students attending OUSA’s member schools are enrolled in general arts and science-based programs, and forthcoming results reveal that only one-third of respondents had a work-integrated learning opportunity. Almost half of all students in a 2016 survey by Abacus Data said there were not enough work-integrated learning opportunities, and 89% of graduates supported more work-integrated learning opportunities in post-secondary programs.
One of the barriers to increasing work-integrated learning opportunities for students in general arts and science-based programs is a lack of financial incentives for employers. In order to provide work-integrated learning opportunities, employers need to be on board; and if they do not see the inherent value that students bring to the table or do not have the infrastructure to support student placements, they will be hesitant to create these opportunities. But with financial support, it is easy to make the case for hiring students and supervising work-integrated learning opportunities. OUSA recommends that investments be made in the Career Ready Fund to incentivize employers to increase such opportunities, an investment that benefits students, employers, and society. Students benefit by gaining experience and feeling better prepared for the workforce, having a more enjoyable post-secondary experience, and setting themselves up to earn higher salaries post-graduation. Employers benefit by having unique perspectives in the workplace and by fostering a pool of potential future employees to train and recruit from. Society benefits from the strength of the skills students bring to their work and their ability to engage in work across sectors, including in municipal development.
Expanding the approach to learning by incorporating effective work-integrated learning opportunities for all students will be ineffective if students are not adequately prepared to articulate the skills they are learning to potential employers. Important skills, like communication, critical thinking, and teamwork, can be difficult to quantify, and if students are not taught how to demonstrate these skills to potential employers and employers are not prepared to ask and look for these skills, prepared and experienced graduates may be unable to find work in their field and struggle as minimum wage earners trying to pay off sometimes debilitating student debts. There’s an opportunity for the Ministry of Colleges and Universities to support universities in their efforts to prepare students to articulate the academic, oral, practical, and writing skills they acquire in the classroom and in work-integrated learning opportunities, building on the work done for the Experiential Learning Toolkit and learning from Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada’s Work-Integrated Learning Resource Hub. Building a best practice model to support students and employers to better articulate and understand these skills would contribute to a more seamless transition for students into the workforce.
There are endless opportunities to enhance student experiences with work-integrated learning and to strengthen the bridge from university to the workforce that not only benefit students, but contribute to a more prosperous society. If we want students to be prepared for the future — a shared priority for OUSA and the provincial government — we have to continue to move forward and support students as they build the skills and experiences necessary to succeed. OUSA’s Student Entrepreneurship, Employment, & Employability policy paper offers a number of student-written recommendations on this issue.