Does Work-integrated Learning enhance student employability?

Many universities in Australia and overseas are promoting work-integrated and other experiential learning activities as the most effective way of boosting students’ employability skills. But does going on a placement, undertaking an internship or completing a project for an industry partner actually make a difference to student learning or their chances of securing a job after they graduate?

Yes, according to a new report on cooperative education, Bringing Life to Learning at Ontario Universities, released last week by the Council of Ontario Universities, Canada.

canada flagThis report details the benefits of cooperative education to students and partner organisations, including success stories such as Dominic Toselli, a mechanical engineering student who’s project saved energy giant Shell Canada $1 million a year during a co-op placement in Calgary.

The report makes reference to a 2014 survey by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, where executives of 100 of Canada’s largest companies were asked which qualities matter most in potential employees. Their responses (in order of importance) were: people skills; communications skills; problem-solving skills; analytical abilities; leadership; and industry-specific knowledge and experience, all of which the report claims, are enhanced by co-op experiences.

These preferences are mirrored to a similar extent by Australian employers. In 2010 Graduate Careers Australia asked more than 350 graduate employers from a range of industries about the most important selection criteria they use when recruiting graduates. The top six qualities in order of preference were interpersonal/communication skills; drive, commitment and industry knowledge; analytical/problem solving abilities; academic results; cultural alignment/values fit and work experience.

So where’s the evidence that Work-integrated Learning works?

A recent National Graduates Survey released by Statistics Canada, found that university students who take co-op work placements while pursuing a bachelor’s degree “earn more than their peers, have higher employment and full-time employment rates, and are more likely to report that their debt was paid off two years after graduation” (COU, p. 12). In Canada, employers often require two-to-five years of work experience and according to the report, co-op programs help new graduates meet that requirement, as well as enabling students to become work-ready which gives them an advantage in a competitive job market.

PACE Student with class

The report showcases a diverse range of experiential learning opportunities offered by Ontario universities. These programs and activities are spread across a variety of disciplines including computer science, engineering, business, sports administration, arts, law, and health sciences. These examples demonstrate the breadth and scope of co-op experiences in Canada, and are worth checking out.

Edited by Anna Rowe and Theresa Winchester-Seeto