Connecting work to education should be priority beyond pandemic

COVID-19 has disrupted labour markets unlike anything since the Great Depression. Young people have been especially hard hit by the economic slowdown, with school closures and a transition to remote learning. Youth were also among the hardest hit when employers reduced operations. 

One of the biggest disruptions has been a transition to remote work.  

Remote work poses a particular challenge for polytechnics, who use work-integrated learning to connect students to real-life experience with the help of engaged employers. Training in the form of practicums, work placements, co-ops, and apprenticeships are hallmarks of the polytechnic learning model.

Despite the challenges of offering hands-on placements during a pandemic, relevant employment experience is more critical now than ever.

When the economy slowed, so did the availability of placements.  Yet, the demand for work-ready graduates hasn’t abated. To ensure the pandemic doesn’t leave today’s youth behind, governments, employers, and post-secondary institutions need to find innovative ways to create smooth transitions to an otherwise bumpy labour market.

How do we do it?

First, we need to get creative. As it became clear the pandemic would not be short-term, program heads at Saskatchewan Polytechnic sought technological solutions that would enable remote learning. This meant cook-at-home assignments for culinary arts students. Virtual slides allowed Medical Laboratory Technologist students to conduct blood-cell counts and identify diseases online.

We also looked at alternatives to work-integrated learning placements. Students in the occupational health and safety certificate program were able to complete their practicums with the Saskatchewan Workers’ Compensation Board virtually, using online tools.

Because these approaches won’t work for every program, we partnered with Riipen, a technology platform that enables online work-integrated learning. Educators submit collaboration requests in response to projects posted by employers. Once employers choose with whom they want to work, students are assigned to the project.

One such project involved tech startup Ergonomyx Technologies Canada Inc. of Victoria, and 26 international students in the marketing management class at our Prince Albert campus. The company produces desks where users can exercise and work simultaneously, tracking progress using web-enabled applications.

Unable to work face to face, students are interacting with Ergonomyx employees remotely to analyze advertising strategies, sales and target markets, and identify new opportunities.

A group of students in business information systems used the same platform to connect with the online marketplace, Easy Job Quote for their placement. Students are performing upgrades and adding new functionality to an application where contractors submit bids for home renovation projects posted by homeowners.

While virtual placements are working in some occupations, apprenticeships in the skilled trades offer a different challenge. Under contract with the Saskatchewan Apprenticeship and Trade Certification Commission, Saskatchewan Polytechnic delivers apprenticeship training for designated trades in the province. One of those trades is agricultural equipment technician. They’re the ones who set up, diagnose, repair, modify, overhaul, and maintain agricultural equipment.

Despite the pandemic, we have been able to maintain our apprenticeships at Dot Technology Corporation in Pilot Butte, Sask. The high-tech manufacturer has garnered worldwide attention for its innovative autonomous agricultural equipment. Apprentices are working onsite using enhanced personal protective equipment, physical distancing and sanitization practices.  Following provincial and company-specific health and safety guidelines, apprentices remain employed.

We need employers to join us in looking for new approaches for current workplace realities.  Wage subsidies available through the federal student-work placement program help bridge financial barriers.

The federal government can help further by investing in a digital learning infrastructure that includes simulation, augmented and virtual reality and hybrid training options. Enabling both virtual classrooms and virtual work placements requires a sizable upfront investment but promises long-term benefits by creating a more digitally enabled workforce.

The return on this investment will be a more adaptable, innovative and resilient labour market.  It will create more made-in-Canada talent for employers requiring smart solutions as the economy emerges from shutdown.  And ultimately, that means a more competitive, work-ready Canadian workforce.

About the Author

Dr. Larry Rosia, President and CEO, Saskatchewan Polytechnics.

As President and CEO of Saskatchewan Polytechnic, Dr. Larry Rosia leads the province’s primary provider of technical education and skills training. He is the President of Post-Secondary International Network, Chair of Polytechnics Canada Board of Directors and serves on Boards including the CANARIE, Community Colleges for International Development, Polytechnics Canada, the International Mineral Innovation Institute, Skills Canada (Saskatchewan), the Chair Academy International Leadership Board, the Saskatchewan Post-Secondary International Education Council, the Saskatchewan Labour Market Task Force, World Federation of Colleges and Polytechnics and the University of Regina Senate. Dr. Rosia is an alumnus of the University of Alberta and Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, and earned his PhD in academic leadership at the University of Calgary.