Liberals to roll out new spending for student work placements

The government is aiming to tackle the "very real gap" that exists in Canadian worker readiness

Federal Labour Minister Patty Hajdu speaks to reporters during a weekend meeting of the national caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Saturday, March 25, 2017. Hajdu, a Thunder Bay MP, says she's not surprised by "appalling" new numbers that suggest the Ontario city has the highest rate of metropolitan hate crime in Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Federal Labour Minister Patty Hajdu speaks to reporters during a weekend meeting of the national caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Saturday, March 25, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA – The federal government is making its biggest push yet into the country’s classrooms, hoping that millions in new spending will help students heading on to campuses to leave there better prepared to join the workforce.

The government has been told by its economic advisory council that it needs to put more resources into what’s known as work-integrated learning, because existing efforts aren’t big enough to tackle the “real gap” that exists in worker readiness, as companies believe a “majority of graduates are unprepared for the workforce.”

The details outlined in federal documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act provide a look at the government’s thinking on the spending and how the money could influence post-secondary education.

The Liberals had promised to spend $73 million over four years to subsidize educational work placements, with funds to start flowing last year. The spending was delayed until this academic year to finalize funding deals with the employer groups.

The 2016 budget predicted the money would create up to 8,700 placements over four years, but Labour Minister Patty Hajdu announced this week the funding will create up to 10,000 positions. A further $221 million over five years should create 50,000 total placements for graduate researchers.

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“Oftentimes, they (students) are academically astute, but they’re not necessarily truly understanding how to apply that learning that they’ve gained through their studies to the work setting,” Hajdu said in a recent interview.

“The idea behind work integrated learning is that it addresses that concern that employers have that there is this gap in terms of the applicability of what they’re learning.”

Tom Murad, head of Siemens Canada’s Engineering and Technology Academy, a forerunner to the Liberal’s work-integrated learning program, said there will be delays in closing the skills gap without deep funding from the government. He suggested many companies could cut corners on programs that “are not going to give the same results and they may be self-defeating.”

One of the largest programs in the country that has caught the attention of government officials comes out of Toronto where a group of 14 financial services companies have teamed with seven schools to provide educational work opportunities. None want federal cash for wages; instead, the Toronto Financial Services Alliance, which is overseeing the program, is looking for federal cash to scale up.

The value for each company is attracting and recruiting students from “STEM” disciplines: science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

“We never had a challenge attracting business students to our sector, but now, more and more, we need to attract more STEM students, we need to attract more students with agile project management skills,” said Sashya D’Souza, senior vice-president of talent initiatives at the Toronto Financial Services Alliance.

“There’s a different skill set that’s needed in our workforce.”

Eventually, the program will create a feedback loop where schools can tell companies how to tweak placement experiences, and businesses can tell educators what is needed to make curricula relevant to their needs, D’Souza said.

The economic advisory council’s sub-committee on education and training envisioned that in an October 2016 presentation, saying companies need to have a hand in shaping curriculum, without mentioning that the process is usually long and can get bogged down in debates.

Over half of undergraduates already have the opportunity to work as part of their studies by the time they graduate, but the hope from universities is to have 100 per cent coverage in the future, because schools see it as such a critical way for students to transition into the workforce, said Pari Johnston, vice-president, policy and public affairs at Universities Canada.

“Students are asking for it,” she said. “The demand is very high and we’ve seen a real increase in the number of co-ops being offered, which have more than doubled in recent years.”

The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations said this week it was happy to see the government provide opportunities to STEM and business students, but hoped the Liberals would expand the program to all academic disciplines.

Minutes from a Dec. 8, 2016 meeting of federal and provincial education officials showed interest in doing just that, but also creating similar opportunities at the high school level.