Anyone who's tried to break into the job market can tell you that most employers ask for 2-3 years of experience, even for entry-level jobs. Work placement programs, like co-ops, internships and apprenticeships, are an invaluable way for students to get real experience in the workplace to complement their technical skills, while helping defray their tuition costs and reducing the level of debt they graduate with. Making high-quality work placements available to more students will equip Canada's youth for today's (and tomorrow's) competitive labor markets. But this isn't just a matter of giving more funding to existing programs. There are serious gaps and shortfalls in the way that work placement is carried out today, which is one reason why there's such a wide disparity in outcomes from post-secondary education. The federal government has a great opportunity to fill in those gaps. By doing so, it will lay the groundwork, not just for a more productive labour force, but for a more inclusive economy.
The quality and availability of work placement programs varies greatly between fields. Students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects can find rewarding co-op jobs at high-profile and exciting firms. Arts students, who make up the largest part of the undergraduate class at most universities, have far fewer opportunities to gain relevant and high-quality experience in the workplace than their peers in STEM fields.
Just as important, there is a huge variation in the quality of work placement positions even within the same field. Many employers use students as a source of cheap, temporary labour with no regard for their career development. Computer science students who fail to get their dream jobs at Google might find themselves working in a call center instead. Internships can be rewarding, enriching experiences- or the exact opposite, sometimes even within the same organization. Worse, it can be impossible for applicants to know what kind of experience they'll get from a given posting.
This means that students with limited financial resources can't rely on co-op programs or internships for income through their studies. They might well find that a minimum-wage job flipping burgers or stocking shelves, which offers reliable income without needing to sit through extensive interviews or buy expensive work attire, makes more financial sense than trying to find a co-op or an internship. These students are being left behind, working dead-end jobs while their better-off peers compete for plum assignments.
The intense competition for the best work placements means that they're likely to go to financially secure students who are highly motivated, have good interpersonal skills, and who are studying high-demand subjects- in other words, the same people who would probably be able to find a good job after graduation no matter what.
To expand students' access to high-quality work placement programs, the Government of Canada should:
- Encourage employers to use work placement programs for fields and occupations that so far have been under-represented;
- Facilitate new or reformed work placement programs to better meet the needs of employers in fields that traditionally haven't employed students;
- Ensure that work placement offerings are aligned with the future job prospects of graduates, so that every student has the ability to launch their career with a work placement opportunity;
- Create programs aimed at students who are a poor fit for traditional work placement opportunities, such as those with language deficits, disabilities, or those who lack developed interpersonal skills for the workplace;
- Ensure that employers are open and transparent in their job postings about the type of position they are offering, the scope of work, the degree of responsibility, and the skills the experience will foster; and,
- If necessary, amend existing programs to prevent employers from posting jobs that do not provide a valuable experience to students.