Work-study placements and experiential learning benefit post-secondary students, non-profit organizations, and academic institutions

Students are having a difficult time finding employment after graduation. Although post-secondary institutions equip their students with technical skills relevant to specific fields, there is often a lack of training in human skills, such as fundamental, personal management, and teamwork skills. Not-for-profit organizations (NPOs) and academic institutions often need support. Work-study placements and experiential learning are opportunities for students to gain human skills and for NPOs and academic institutions to get some help they may need. As a result, the University of Saskatchewan had students undertake work-study placements at NPOs and Kwantlen Polytechnic University provided experiential learning opportunities to their students.

University to unemployment: the reality of post-secondary life

It is common to know a recent university or college graduate who is struggling to find employment.  Although post-secondary graduates perform better than the average in today’s labour market, hundreds of thousands of young Canadians still face the challenge of finding a job. In fact, as of January 2019, the youth unemployment rate is 11.2 per cent, nearly double the national average. To make matters worse, the global pandemic has caused many graduating students’ employment opportunities to slip away without any guarantee of returning anytime soon. According to Statistics Canada, the unemployment rate soared to 13 per cent and a total of more than three million jobs were lost during the crisis. With greater competition and decreased opportunities, what is a new grad to do?

One of the reasons that graduates are having a difficult time looking for a job is because they are lacking the skills that employers are looking for. How is that possible? Canadians are some of the most educated people in the world, 56.7 per cent of 25 to 64 year-olds complete post-secondary education. However, there is increasing feedback from employers that recent graduates are lacking the skills they need. Let’s break it down. Although applicants need to have relevant technical skills, human skills are needed to get one’s foot in the door. The Conference Board of Canada groups employability skills, the skills needed to enter, stay in, and progress in the world of work, into three categories:

  • Fundamental skills – the skills needed as a basis for further development
    • Communication, managing information, using numbers, thinking and solving problems
  • Personal management skills – the personal skills, attitudes, and behaviours that drive one’s potential for growth
    • Demonstrating positive attitudes and behaviours, being responsible, being adaptable, learning continuously, working safely
  • Teamwork skills – the skills and attributes needed to contribute productively
    • Working with others, participating in projects and tasks

These employability skills, or human skills, are relevant to any field. Post-secondary institutions prioritize developing technical skills relevant to specific industries. Sometimes, teaching and cultivating human skills to their students can be neglected. Human skills can be the differentiating factor between landing the job or remaining jobless. To increase the success of their students, post-secondary institutions need to iterate and adapt their programs to develop technical AND human skills. They need to make graduate employment outcomes a top institutional priority by implementing enhanced career readiness support and collaborate with employers to develop work-ready skills in students. By building bridges between post-secondary institutions and employers, we can learn from each other. Consequently, post-secondary institutions will be able to better equip their students to be what employers are looking for and employers will have access to the talent they seek. The time is now to invest in students, Canada’s greatest resource and our future.

Non-profit organizations and academic institutions require support

The challenges that non-profit organizations (NPOs) face are well known. They are often understaffed, under-resourced, and need support. Labour and skill shortages in the non-profit industry are a reality and limited financial means make it difficult to hire and retain skilled employees. Even though NPOs are on the front lines tackling the biggest challenges that the world faces, they are constantly forced to be nimble and innovative without adequate resources to do so. This leaves less room for innovation and investing in ways to make the organization be more effective and efficient. NPOs suffer from the “innovation-aspiration” problem: Out of 145 non-profit leaders, 80 per cent say that the sector needs to make changes in practice to make greater societal gains, whereas only 40 per cent believe that they have the capacity do that. Stretched budgets and teams contribute to inability to innovate and diminished potential to make a positive impact.

Research is important to society; it is a critical tool for successfully navigating our complex world. It propels humanity forward and is a way for us to obtain the latest information to help solve the world’s never-ending problems. Therefore, it is essential to continue investing in and building capacity for this work. Despite this, funding from the government has left researchers concerned about the future and competitiveness.

Innovation processes vary widely among non-profits, and new ideas can come from both internal and external sources. A 2016 BCG report revealed that many of the most promising ideas come from field and external partners, such as universities. A common element shared between NPOs that make breakthroughs in innovation is diverse teams. More specifically, different minds, backgrounds, and skillsets give way for more perspectives. Also, don’t forget, NPOs are employers too. Total employment by charities and non-profits has climbed to 2.4 million in 2017, up from 2.1 million in 2007. Non-profit sector employees are a well-educated group, 84 per cent or more have completed at least some post-secondary education.

Post-secondary students, NPO’s, and academic institutions all benefit from work-study placements and experiential learning

It’s a match made in heaven. Okay, maybe not exactly, but it’s pretty close. There is a symbiotic relationship between students, NPOs through work-study placements, and academic institutions through experiential learning. Work-study placements and experiential learning give students a chance to gain on-the-job experience, determine career fit, refine learning goals, develop specific competencies, and build a network of post-graduate contacts.  Findings by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario supports this; students who undergo work-study placements and/or experiential learning are more prepared to enter the workforce with relevant, transferable, marketable skills, or also known as human skills. They have explored their career options and have improved prospects for post-graduate job opportunities. As well, students with work-study experience are more likely to feel appropriately qualified for their job and to have a job related to their long-term career goals and studies. No doubt, work-study experiences and experiential learning are beneficial for students; in fact, the statistics convey this. These students have a lower rate of unemployment and are more likely to see higher earnings.

What about for the NPOs and academic institutions? Remember that point about diverse teams being key to innovation? Students can bring new ideas, fresh perspectives, and enthusiasm to the workplace and research environment. Work-study placements offer access to diversely talented and highly motivated students and sometimes aid in vetting students before the hiring process begins, which in turn reduces recruiting costs. Furthermore, they are an opportunity to evaluate a potential long-term employee before committing. To add to that point, employers, in this case NPOs, get to observe first-hand the work readiness of future graduates. Under-resourced NPOs get an infusion of help that they may need for managing short-term pressures or special projects.  Developing and maintaining research programs benefits students, faculty mentors, and universities. Through research, or experiential learning opportunities, students are enabled to develop independent critical thinking skills, and oral and written communication skills. Faculty members can enhance learning experiences for students while benefiting from a productive research agenda. Universities also benefit from receiving increased visibility in the scientific community through presentations and publications.

Particularly for NPOs, work-study placements involve having meaningful relationships with post-secondary institutions and having access to ideas based on emerging research. There are many benefits of structured collaboration between NPOs and post-secondary institutions. These collaborations provide opportunities for research and education around the non-profit setting and enhance community capacity. With post-secondary institutions prioritizing graduate employment outcomes, a partnership with NPOs can mean greater employment opportunities for students. In turn, NPOs that need support can receive the help that they need to innovate and be more efficient and effective. An additional perk is that post-secondary institutions canlearn and have a deeper understanding about NPOs’ activities, needs, and challenges and pinpoint how their students’ competencies can grow when dealing with NPOs’ issues. Seems like a win-win situation.

University of Saskatchewan and Kwantlen Polytechnic University: Case studies for successful work-study placements and experiential learning  

University of Saskatchewan: A case study of successful work-study placements in NPOs

As part of a Research Impact Canada project, funded by the Conference Board of Canada and the Future Skills Centre, five USask graduate students undertook work-study placements at NPOs in Saskatoon. The goals of USask’s project were to:

  • Understand key employment skills necessary for NPOs that support equity-seeking groups
  • Build onto the Future Skills Centre’s FUSION project by informing development in graduate course work
  • Increase research capacity and awareness for local non-profits and community partners

USask’s project aligns well with the FUSION project’s priorities. The FUSION project’s objective is to foster collaboration around skills development and speed diffusion of successful innovations. Its focus is to build on more inclusive forms of skills development and to create more flexible learning formats to better facilitate skill acquisition to improve employability. Similarly, USask’s project helped its students gain important skills for employment through work-study placements in NPOs.

Teaching an NPO new tricks

Students take learnings from their work-study placements. They can also impart valuable knowledge to NPOs and their clients. This was the case for USask students, Chiamaka and Constanza.

Chiamaka helped tackle experiences of hunger by promoting food security through nutritional education at the Saskatoon Food Bank & Learning Centre. The goal of her placement was to provide families with access to food and equip them with improved nutritional knowledge through increasing client engagement. She brought to light that although the centre has an excellent nutrition program,  it needed to be promoted more. She made recommendations to promote the nutrition education workshops on the website, to promote success stories from the nutrition program, and to create videos to highlight the centre’s programs in order to increase client engagement and raise funds. The Saskatoon Food Bank & Learning Centre had the tools to increase client engagement. Chiamaka’s perspective and guidance helped them meet their goals.

At the Safe Drinking Water Foundation, Constanza contributed to the goal of educating the general public, including students, about drinking water quality issues and solutions. Her role was to update the Foundation’s documents on teaching outcomes so that they aligned with current school curricula in each province, across all grade levels and subject areas. She leveraged her experience working in K-12 programs as an instructor, her experience designing curricula, and knowledge from her thesis project to help the Foundation educate their clients.

Bringing diversity to light

Not only can students contribute to diversity in a workplace but they can also lead diversity initiatives. Workplace diversity is important because it is essential in solving problems, it brings together voices and ideas from different perspectives. Edgar helped the YMCA achieve its vision of becoming a diverse community where people are healthy and have a collective sense of belonging. His work placement involved assessing the current level of diversity among the organization’s employees. The results of his work informed a long-term diversity strategy and heighted awareness of what diversity means in the workplace. He also pointed opportunities to expand gender, sexual orientation, and economic background diversity.

Innovation aspirations into reality

Often NPOs cannot innovate due to limited capacity and resources. In the case of the Elizabeth Fry Society and the Saskatchewan Elocution and Debate Association, they had some help from Martyne and Abukari to progress their innovation aspirations.

Martyne completed her placement at the Elizabeth Fry Society (EFS), an organization that works with women before, during, and after incarceration to reduce reoccurrences of criminal activity and support women at high-risk of such activity due to racism, violence, and poverty. EFS has to collect personal information on clients to secure grant funding. Martyne’s job was to research best practices and create a policy framework for EFS staff to use in gathering information in a way that prioritizes client autonomy and dignity. With Martyne’s efforts and expertise in ethics of data collection, EFS now has data forms and processes in place which focus on their commitment to inclusive, responsible, and responsive practice. Her work also opens up opportunities to extend and share with similar NPOs working with vulnerable people.

At the Saskatchewan Elocution and Debate Association (SEDA), Abukari’s goal was to develop a consensus-style debate to train and equip learners with new skills and knowledge on how to resolve complex real-life problems – a debate style that honors diverse views, opinions, and perspectives, and is capable of promoting Indigenous engagement. The outcome of this work-study partnership provided SEDA with critical help that move this initiative past the planning and discussion stage and ready for implementation and field trial. Abukari helped bring SEDA’s vision to reality.

Kwantlen Polytech University: Modeling successful experiential learning

Through various research placements, KPU students helped make it possible for faculty to solve big research problems.

Sue Fairburn, a researcher and product design instructor at KPU’s Wilson School of Design, is an expert in the design of survival equipment for extreme environments such as the Arctic. An outwear company, Mustang survival, requested that she design a hypothermia blanket. Fairburn tasked a small group of third-year product design students to create a second-generation rewarming bag specifically for polar water conditions and provided experts that could consult on physiological, product development, and user standpoints. The result – the polar burrito – is a highly technical and carefully researched product that could save lives. The students were able to take the design from research to concept to working prototype in just seven weeks, a feat that Fairburn would have not been able to achieve in such a short period of time.

Dr. Asma Sayed, an English instructor, leads several projects including archiving South Asian artistic productions, and translating the work of Canadian authors from South Asian language to English. With the help of a student, Rahil Faruqi, she was able to locate archival recordings of interviews and translate and transcribe them into English. With a dedicated resource to help her accomplish this work, Dr. Sayed is able to have more time and capacity to examine source material more closely and speak about social justice issues through the lens of literary and cultural texts.

Dr. James Hoyland enlists the help of students in developing a means for independent organic farmers to build their network of sensors in a financially sustainable manner. Although sensors are not new, the technology is expensive to install and out of reach for small-scale farmers. By researching and field-testing the simplest and most affordable way to build a wireless network of crop sensors, Hoyland empowers independent organic farmers with the ability to micro-manage their limited resources and become more viable without turning to less environmentally sustainable methods. With a fourth-year physics of modern technology student, Hoyland has built sensor nodes that are ready to test the field. Working with students allows for interaction of different disciplines and interdisciplinary communication at the student-level which is key to Hoyland’s research work and success.

(Student) mission accomplished

Upon reflection, all students said that through their work-placement experience or experiential learning opportunities, they gained transferable, human skills such as communication, interpersonal, problem solving, and collaboration skills. They also said that they were able to apply their research skills to a practical problem and they felt fulfillment in helping others achieve their goals. This opportunity allowed the students see other options for jobs and learned to appreciate the importance of education as a tool to make people aware of issues.

In case it was missed…

These are the key takeaways:

  • Post-secondary students are often struggling to find employment opportunities. They are often lacking the skills that employers are looking for: human skills. Human skills are the skills needed to enter, stay in and progress in the workforce.
  • Non-profit organizations face the challenge of being under-resourced, under-staffed and as a result are unable to be innovative.
  • Although research is important, funding for it is often lacking creating a need for greater resources and capacity to solve the world’s problems
  • Work-study placements and experiential learning are opportunities for students to get on-the-job experience, a network of post-grad contacts, human skills, and prospects for employment opportunities. In turn, non-profit organizations gain access to diverse talent, evaluate potential long-term employees, and help to manage short-term pressures or progress special projects. Experiential learning opportunities in research create efficiencies and greater capacity to solve problems within academic institutions. It is a beneficial situation for all parties.

The above report was created in partnership between Research Impact Canada, the University of Saskatchewan, and Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

This work was funded by The Conference Board of Canada through the Government of Canada‘s Future Skills Centre. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Future Skills Centre, its funder, or its partners.

Future Skills Centre is a partnership of Ryerson University, The Conference Board of Canada, and Blueprint.