Three weeks after finishing his first year in mechanical engineering at Queen’s University in Ontario, Neil Pandya was in a remote area of northeast Alberta at Cenovus Energy’s Christina Lake oil sands project. “I was nervous,” he remembers. “I was 19, with a week of safety training and eight months of introductory engineering courses, but this was my first exposure to engineering in the real world.” Naturally, he had lots of questions. “Some things aren’t covered in 8:30 a.m. lectures. Why are you putting valves in these locations? What do these instrumentation values stand for? How does this fit into the broader business model?”
By the time his four-month work placement wrapped up, Pandya had moved on from asking questions to answering them. “When I came back after another year of engineering classes, I brought what I learned back to Cenovus. That summer I drove across Alberta, visiting 10 sites and developing a tracking system to monitor flared and vented natural gas.”
Now a full-time operations engineer at Cenovus, Pandya is a beneficiary of work-integrated learning (WIL) – an umbrella term for co-op placements, internships and other programs that combine classroom theory with practical on-the-job experience. Over the past few years, WIL has become a hot topic on Canadian campuses and among corporate recruiters. Spurred by rising demand for work placements, employers and educational institutions are working to increase the supply of WIL programs – a trend that seems likely to accelerate thanks to an innovative partnership conceived and launched by the Business Council of Canada.
The growing interest in work-integrated learning is not hard to understand. Students who participate in WIL programs say the combination of theoretical learning and practical experience helps them develop skills, explore career options and demonstrate their capabilities to potential employers. For their part, companies that offer WIL placements say they do in part because it gives them a chance to assess the skills and suitability of students before they graduate. By contributing to graduate employability and workplace readiness, WIL also allows employers to play an important role in developing the workforce of the future.
Dave McKay, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Royal Bank of Canada, is one of many Canadian business leaders who understand the benefits of WIL for students, educational institutions and employers alike. In the early 1980s, he was a young computer science student at Waterloo University in Ontario. A co-op work term at RBC, he says, “opened my eyes to a world that involved strategy, people and the finance I was studying, and I never looked back.”
Today, McKay is a passionate believer in the power of WIL to prepare students for successful careers. On top of that, he says, WIL helps to bridge the gap between employers and post-secondary institutions. It also improves labour-market access for people from disadvantaged communities who don’t have the necessary social networks to help them get jobs. “Rightly or wrongly, one’s first big job often depends on who you know,” he wrote in a 2016 article for The Globe and Mail. “Work placements get students in front of employers and act as a social leveller.”