Post-secondary institutions need to step up to prepare graduates for new realities

After nearly two years of business uncertainty and worldwide economic contraction, employers across sectors are talking about skill shortages again.  Job vacancies are at an all-time high only 22 months after millions of Canadians were sidelined by COVID. 

Today’s cry for skilled workers has a new, pandemic-driven context.  Workplaces are evolving even more rapidly than before, with a focus on technology adoption, remote work and employee resilience in the face of relentless change.

During the pandemic, employers have been challenged to onboard new staff outside their normal processes, making the introduction of entry-level employees that much more difficult.  Identifying high performers and keeping them engaged is testing traditional HR approaches.

In the face of such challenges, post-secondary institutions need to step up to prepare their graduates for new workplace realities.  

At Canada’s polytechnics, applied research is one way we’re doing just that.

Applied research offers students sophisticated and practical learning experiences with industry.  Students participate in research connected to their field of study, solving real-world problems identified by industry partners.  Not only does this accelerate their career-readiness, but they are able to notch significant achievements even before they graduate.

Ask student research assistant LaChae Hood, recently named as a co-inventor of technology used in a waterless hair conditioner Time called one of the best inventions of 2021.  Seneca helped Everist Inc., the creator, develop the technology through an applied research partnership.

As research assistants, students like LaChae get paid to work on real-world problems with expert faculty and employers.  They have access to research facilities and equipment they’ll encounter in their careers, all before graduation day.

For enterprises that don’t have access to advanced labs, testing facilities and in-house expertise, polytechnic applied research offers a win-win.  For example, the Seneca Centre for Innovation in Life Sciences is a state-of-the-art research hub for product development, enhancement and validation – processes that most smaller companies don’t have the capacity to do alone. 

Applied research also introduces employers to potential new employees, and students meet potential employers as they work with industry partners. 

In a recent project, Seneca researchers worked with Spectral Materials to develop a next-generation coating to protect sensitive medicines in storage or during transport.  Seneca’s team tested the coating’s insulation power, developed chemical improvements and optimized the manufacturing process.  Such projects enable partners to commercialize and ship their products around the world.

While Seneca’s strengths are in life sciences, software and data, health and social innovation, financial services and engineering, expertise differs by institution.

What does this mean for Canada?

Simply put, polytechnics are developing a talent pipeline that is work- and innovation-ready.  During the pandemic, students have shown tremendous flexibility with the shift to online and hybrid learning.  Applied research goes a step further, offering an intense focus on real-world challenges.

This approach readies graduates for today’s business environment, ensuring the talent pipeline is running smoothly when it’s needed most.

About the Author

David Agnew, President, Seneca College

David Agnew became the fifth president of Seneca in July 2009 and is Chair of Polytechnics Canada. Under his leadership, Seneca has experienced record growth in enrolment and expanded its offerings in both undergraduate and graduate programs. One of the largest colleges in Canada, Seneca is growing its applied research, broadening international and corporate partnerships, investing in capital expansion and adopting an innovative academic direction to increase experiential, cross-disciplinary and flexible learning opportunities.