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The value of work-integrated learning


David McKay, president and CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada:

I was significantly impacted by my co-op experience, my work integrated learning experience, as a math student at the University of Waterloo. It allowed me to join the great institution that I’ve had the honour of working for for 30 years, at RBC. But it also helped me find my way. I went back to that class after every work term, and I learned differently. I had learned things in those four months. And when a professor – the sage on stage, as we call them today – tried to teach me, I said well, that’s not exactly how it works out there. And yeah, that’s the theory, but no one puts it into practice that way. And I was a lot more critical of how I was being taught, the content I was being taught, and that just grew year over year.

So the benefits of work integrated learning are as co-op students vastly improve the classroom. They teach each other. It levels the playing field. It democratizes access to jobs. Work integrated learning improves economic access for minority groups. So I often I see that first job goes – those great jobs go to someone who knows someone in society, who already has pull and influence. And new immigrants trying to break in, Indigenous people trying to break into those big jobs, don’t have a chance. Co-op and integrated learning levels the playing field. Work integrated learning helps build networks. Doing two, three, four co-ops, you build a network, you meet customers, you interview for the job over time. You build credibility and confidence in yourself, and you’re a completely different person when you enter the workforce. There’s so many powerful benefits inside the classroom, outside the classroom. It helps us get a much greater return on our investment in our students and our taxpayer dollars.

What’s RBC’s role? We’re kind of a unique organization. We’re Canada’s largest company. We have 80,000 employees. We have the budgets to hire, as I went through the numbers, a number of co-ops. But we have to challenge ourselves to use our co-ops and our summer students and our internships a lot better than we have. First, I think we need to set an audacious goal. Why shouldn’t 100 percent of graduating students have access to work integrated learning? Everybody should have access to an internship, apprenticeship, co-op in this country. It’s going to make us better. So with that goal in mind, how do we get there? We do need more government funding. We need tax change. There are tax credits, obviously, but I couldn’t think of a better way to spend some of our infrastructure dollars that we’re targeting for mass transit or other things that the taxpayer can see physically on your campuses to create opportunities for them to innovate, to learn, to continue the dialogue as students when they’re – to help fund some of these apprenticeships to get our students into the workplace. It will pay back multiples to the government. I can’t think of a better investment for our government to make than in the youth. They will get that back ten times over.

Businesses need to invest more in developing co-op programs. RBC needs to do more, our sector needs to do more, other sectors need to do more. We need to find a way to encourage small businesses and commercial businesses to be a big part of this. It can’t just be large corporations. Universities need to do a better job of marketing their co-op strength. It’s an incredible asset. It takes decades to build a core co-op program – as Ferridan (ph) knows,  more than decades; 20, 30 years – but it’s a great investment. We need real-time labour market information systems, something that LinkedIn’s talking about, trying to source every job in the world, just create a map. High school students are crying for it. University students are crying for it. Where are jobs going? How should I think about my curriculum and how it feeds into that labour market? How is it changing over time? What insights can we provide?

We have very little. We’re flying blind right now. We are competing in a very sharp-elbow, difficult world, where the world wants to take our jobs, they want to take our prosperity for themselves. And I fundamentally believe that our universities are essential in helping us compete and producing the next generation of leaders that’s going to maintain our prosperity and our competitiveness across the country. And what I offer is my commitment as a leader of RBC to be out in front, to lead by example – financially to lead by example; publicly to say work integrated learning can be that bridge that I believe will create decades of prosperity for Canada if we get it right.


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University facts

  • $35B

    As a $35 billion enterprise in direct expenditures, universities are significant drivers of economic prosperity. They provide employment for close to 250,000 people.

    Source: Statistics Canada, Financial Information of Universities and Colleges Survey and Labour Force Survey, 2014.
  • 1.7M
    students at Canadian universities in 2014-2015

    There were 979,000 full-time students and 312,000 part-time students in 2014-2015.

    Source: Association of Atlantic Universities, Council of Ontario Universities and individual institutions.
  • 1.4M
    new jobs

    Between March 2008 and March 2016, 1,416,600 new jobs were created for university graduates -- almost triple as many new jobs for college and trades graduates combined.

    Source: Statistics Canada, Labour Force Survey, 2008-2016.

Presidents' perspective

Demand for liberal arts graduates


People criticize the liberal arts because they think … our graduates aren’t employable.

But in fact, in 2008, when the economic difficulties struck, the people who were employed in Canada were 95 percent of engineering graduates, 94 percent of health profession graduates and 91 percent of liberal arts graduates, social science and humanities graduates.

And if you ask employers about the skills they want, they want exactly those skills which the liberal arts provide.

They teach student to think critically and creatively, to weigh evidence sceptically, to look at more than one perspective or one side of every question.

The late Steve Jobs said, you know, when he unveiled the last piece of technology before he passed, he said that it’s not technology alone, but technology married with the liberal arts that produces the results that makes our hearts sing.

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