The following op-ed was published in today’s Montreal Gazette and posted online by the Vancouver Sun, The Province, Leader Post, Edmonton Journal, Star Phoenix, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen, Windsor Star and on Canada.com.
By Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada
Young people across Canada will soon be packing up and heading off to university for the fall semester. Those of us a little older may feel a twinge of envy, as we remember our own time on leafy campuses in September. But in fact their experience will be quite unlike ours. More than ever before, these students will be learning by doing.
Today more than 50 percent of undergraduate university students across all fields of study will have a co-op, internship or service learning experience over the course of their studies. And that number is growing.
It’s pretty clear how this benefits students. They’re gaining workplace experience and building a network to help them land that crucial first job. They’re learning to transfer new knowledge and skills to the workplace and preparing to hit the ground running after graduation. But what’s in it for the employer?
Simply put, students are good for the bottom line. And Canada can ill afford to forego what’s good for the bottom line.
Smart employers are drawing on the energy, knowledge and skills of university students to bring fresh thinking to business challenges. Talented students help open up new markets, find efficiencies on the production line and bring innovative thinking to business operations.
Employers get access to a wealth of new knowledge and skills, while both students and employers get to ‘test drive’ the match. But not nearly enough small- and medium-size businesses take on co-op and internship students. That’s the big disconnect in Canada’s economy. Too often, critics wring their hands at the challenges of an increasingly competitive and complex marketplace, while not building bridges to the ready talent in our universities and colleges.
Students see the value. They’re savvy and want an edge in the job market. The number of university students participating in co-op programs has grown by 25 percent in recent years – there were approximately 53,000 students in university co-op programs in 2007 compared to more than 65,000 in 2013. Fifty-nine universities now offer students more than 1,000 co-op programs. But even at that level, it doesn’t satisfy student demand, because not enough employers participate in co-op programs.
Canada needs the private sector to step up and do more to take advantage of the largely untapped potential of university students – from undergraduates to PhDs – to make businesses stronger and advance our competitive advantage.
Enterprises already seizing the opportunity are reaping the benefits. Four out of five employers who take on co-op and internship students say these hires add value to their company as a source of new talent and as future employees with workplace skills. Two-thirds say these students contribute new ideas to the company and are effective in their work.
The value of co-ops and internships for employers is evident in the hiring process. Research shows that graduates coming out of university co-op programs are hired faster and enjoy a 30-40 percent income premium over graduates with no co-op experience.
The stats are just part of the story. Universities Canada recognizes the power of students sharing their stories in their own words. That’s why we recently launched a new online resource at www.universityworks.ca. It’s where a public relations student tells us about brainstorming with senior staff at a marketing firm, and a computer science student says his placement as a software designer will put him ahead of the curve when it comes time to finding a job. We’re also sharing the perspective of employers. They tell us students bring fresh energy to their teams and the latest knowledge and technical skills to their operations.
These student placements also provide our universities with valuable employer feedback on the performance of their students.
The university community welcomes new initiatives designed to strengthen collaboration with the private sector to ensure Canada’s workforce is ready for the future. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has made enhanced opportunities for co-ops and internships a pre-election priority in its electoral platform, A Canada That Wins. Canada’s Manufacturers’ and Exporters have recently launched a new initiative to support work integrated learning amongst their member firms. And it is encouraging to see that the Canadian Council of Chief Executives has launched a new Business-Higher Education Roundtable as a strategic opportunity to bring together the private sector, university, college and polytechnic leaders to share information and objectives for driving Canada’s future prosperity. This kind of collaboration holds promise.
There is a role for the federal government to play. A recent Universities Canada survey of employers shows that new financial incentives for private sector partners, especially small- and medium-size enterprises would enable them to take on more student co-op and quality internship placements.
There is no reason Canada cannot be a global leader in experiential learning. More business leaders have to see themselves in the equation, connecting the dots to improved productivity and expanded markets. Higher education, the private sector and government must commit to a more meaningful, long-term dialogue and action plan to better connect our changing economy and workplaces with students.
Getting it right will bring both short- and long-term benefits to business, and build the highly productive and innovative future workforce Canada needs to be globally competitive. Those students preparing to get back to class are ready to do their part, in bringing new knowledge, energy and skills to the workplace. The private sector, universities and government need to work together to ensure that those workplace doors are open.
Tagged: Co-ops and internships
About Universities Canada
Universities Canada is the voice of Canada’s universities at home and abroad, advancing higher education, research and innovation for the benefit of all Canadians.