Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations in virtually every sector have needed to adapt and pivot, implementing new practices and technologies to support sustainability and growth. Rapid changes accelerated labour challenges that Canadian companies were facing even before the pandemic, including the urgent need for upskilling and the search for new talent.
The polytechnic model of education is ideally positioned to respond. It is purpose-built to support local economic and social development goals, meet the needs of employers, respond to changing work environments and – most notably – to assist individuals in efforts to find employment and stay current in their careers.
Polytechnics Canada sat down with Dario Guescini, Director of Work-Integrated Learning, Experiential Education & Global Mobility at George Brown College, to discuss the ways polytechnics help employer and community partners respond to shifting labour market needs.
Polytechnics Canada: Work-integrated learning takes many forms at George Brown. Given your institution’s commitment to ensuring all programs include a WIL component, I imagine there are challenges given the broad scope of programming. What does WIL typically look like for a GBC student? Are there differences across faculties?
Dario Guescini: Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada (CEWIL) defines WIL as a form of experiential education that integrates a student’s academic studies with quality experiences in a practical setting. WIL experiences require an engaged partnership of the academic institution, a host organization and a student. WIL can occur at the course or program level, building outcomes that include employability, agency, knowledge development and lifelong learning.
Because of the breadth of WIL, there is no typical student experience at GBC. Students engaged in community projects or industry research might be conduct consulting, design or community-based research projects. Those in apprenticeship spend 80 per cent of their time in the workplace and just 20 per cent on technical classroom instruction. Professional practicums and clinical placements involve working under the supervision of an experienced registered or licensed professional, which is often a requirement of professional licensure or certification. Field placements provide students with an intensive part-time or short-term experience relevant to their studies. WIL entrepreneurship allows a student to leverage resources, space, mentorship and/or funding to engage in the early-stage development of a business start-up. Community Service Learning, meanwhile, integrates meaningful community service with classroom instruction and critical reflection. Students work in partnership with a community-based organization to apply their knowledge and energy to a challenge identified by the community. Co-ops often involve alternating academic and paid work terms in a workplace setting, with the number of terms varying by program.
Generally speaking, apprenticeships relate to skilled trades programs, professional practicums and clinical placements to the health sciences, field placements in the biological and earth sciences, with co-op, entrepreneurship and service learning applying more broadly.
PC: Presumably WIL is designed, first and foremost, to equip the learner for the workforce. How do you ensure students get the most out of the experience?
DG: Providing students with a quality experience requires us to consider the currency and authenticity of our offerings. WIL is an essential piece to the academic journey we offer students, shaping and preparing them for the world of work. We must find the right balance between classroom delivery and WIL to ensure our students are well-prepared to hit the ground running in their fields. We believe this is a promise we make to our students.
GBC understands that to fully integrate experiential education into academic programming, we needed a quality assurance framework. This includes asking ourselves whether experiential learning at the college:
- Is authentic and substantive
- Is sequenced to ensure adequate preparation and self-reflection
- Supports the application of theory to practice
- Aligns with program learning outcomes and is assessed accordingly
- Includes supports for all stakeholders
- Is reviewed and improved with feedback from stakeholders
To ensure inclusivity and access, the experiences captured in this framework are course-based and are offered to every student in a program.
PC: As we begin to transition back to in-person work and learning, what does this mean for students?
DG: We have a few new business models for delivering WIL programming. Over the course of the pandemic, we launched virtual co-ops and remote work placements, which were new to everyone. Technological innovation is part of GBC’s strategy and this helped us accelerate remote WIL opportunities during COVID. We were able to partner with Riipen, an online work-based learning marketplace, to connect our learners with short-term projects and internships. We engaged students on industry projects, where partner organizations and students worked virtually to solve real industry challenges. Technology also allowed us to provide our students with virtual international WIL experiences. Working with organizations on the other side of the world, students were able to practice the soft skills specific to remote work, such as time management, resiliency, entrepreneurship and professional communication.
For students who were not able to secure a remote placement, we also launched the WIL Entrepreneurship Program.
PC: Tell me about the online experiences you were able to create with international employers. What was the response from students? Do local employers value this kind of intercultural experience or is this an opportunity to be hired internationally?
DG: International opportunities help students develop cultural competencies, strengthen their professional networking skills and put what they’ve learned in the classroom into practice. Our virtual WIL pilot program engaged students who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to gain international experience. We also collected data that will drive the integration of new technology to track WIL placements, allowing students and administrators to view, interact, manage and share their experiences on a single platform.
We have had an overwhelmingly positive response from participants. In an increasingly global workforce, being able to manage projects across time zones is an asset, as are strong digital communication skills and cultural competencies. These international experiences help students be cognizant of working across time zones, learn about business trends in different markets and find a place within a diverse team. All of these are of vital importance in both local and global organizations today.
PC: How do you pitch WIL to busy employers?
DG: At George Brown, we actively collaborate with employers to offer online, work-from-home opportunities across Canada and around the world. By providing sector-specific, hands-on experiential learning, we are building a seamless bridge between learners and employment. WIL is truly a win-win, offering meaningful benefits to employers and students alike. Host employers have a unique opportunity to help develop the next generation of talent, while meeting potential employees. Not only are students hard-working and enthusiastic, they also bring fresh ideas and perspectives to the workplace.
Organizations of all sizes can benefit from WIL partnerships, in many cases with support from our federal and provincial governments. For example, through the federal Student Work Placement Program, employers can receive up to $7,500 in wage subsidies to hire post-secondary students. Other organizations such as CEWIL Canada and the Business/Higher Education Roundtable (BHER) work closely with governments and the post-secondary sector to ensure the necessary resources, flexibility and support are available to employers and students.
Organizations interested in hosting a student can contact us on our website.