Where industry and education connect
Colleges and institutes provide a hands-on approach to education with cooperative opportunities that enable students to gain valuable experience. Their strong relationships with industry and employers in the regions they serve provide their students with unique work-integrated learning experiences.
These types of post-secondary learning institutions are on the leading edge when it comes to helping provide real work experience for students in a variety of ways, something the federal government is also supporting with the Post-Secondary Industry Partnership, a $73 million program supporting new co-op placements and work-integrated learning opportunities.
There are many different types of work-integrated learning opportunities that may be included in a well-rounded college education.
Field experiences, also called practicums, are generally offered to students near the end of their course of studies. Cooperating companies will allow students to “shadow” more experienced personnel, giving them a real-world example of their intended career. Programs that most often include a practicum period include business, tourism/hospitality, community services, health sciences, and communications.
Andrea Casavant R.V.T., a Veterinary Office Assistant instructor says, “A decade ago, simply having a good academic standing was enough to qualify you for a decent job. Today, good grades just don’t cut it. When it comes to securing employment, most companies want to make sure you can put what you learned to practice. Practicums allow students to earn real hands-on experience with the best in the industry.”
A practicum, or work placement program, is a chance for a student to actually see what they’ve learned put into practice and to contribute to the vision of the workplace.
As Casavant explains, “They (practicums) emphasize the importance of learning by doing. They’re where students can transfer their knowledge to actual work. Practicums can also open many opportunities to network and make important contacts within the industry. Another advantage is that you have a reference to provide for future job applications. One of the hardest parts of getting a job in a field where you have just been trained in is that you may not have someone that can give a reference for you.”
A student on practicum will want to make sure the impression they leave on the employer is positive. Just showing up every day is not enough to showcase their abilities.
Casavant doesn’t just teach her students the practical skills they will need, she also tries to instill a good work ethic and provides them with important advice on how to successfully complete their work placement program.
“As a practicum student it is your responsibility to show your supervisor and others within the organization that you have what it takes, both personally and professionally, to fit in with the culture,” Casavant says, “Taking time to learn about the mission of the organization and what it values in its employees can provide essential information on how they identify and define success.”
A practicum also benefits the company by allowing them to connect with potential employees, and get an advance opportunity to hire accomplished graduates.
“Many employers who offer practicums do so as a way to try out and recruit new full time employees. Even though practicums are a way for students to gain experience and learn more about a specific career field of interest, they are also a way for organizations to try out individuals and decide how well they fit within the overall culture of the organization,” Casavant shares.
Casavant is a firm believer in the practicum process. “My practicums were great experiences that allowed me to put everything that I learned about animal health and my subject matter into action. It allowed me to test the waters under the supervision of an experienced technician who could guide me along and help me become the kind of technician that I wanted to be. I fully embraced the opportunity and was able to learn a lot from the experience,” she enthuses.
And she wants her students to appreciate the opportunity for practical experience as much as she did. “Being able to successfully complete a practicum can put you miles ahead. It can give your resume the extra boost it needs to land a job interview in the desired industry after graduation. Moreover, a good work placement experience can oftentimes lead to an employment offer, or at the very least a great reference.”
Work-integrated learning also includes co-operative education, a structured system which combines classroom learning time in addition to practical career experience. Co-op students receive academic credit for their on-the-job learning experience. Co-op learning is typically offered as an option in business, IT and computer science, applied sciences, math, arts and social sciences.
A clinical placement is another form of work-integrated learning and is generally reserved for those entering the healthcare field. A clinical placement is mandatory in order for the student to obtain their professional license or designation. A student will gain their experience in an environment that deals directly with patients, in a hospital or other healthcare centre setting.
Skilled trades and occupations often require apprenticeships which are a combination of in-school education and workplace training for a designated period of time. The apprentice is hired by a contractor and works in the trade under the supervision of a journeyperson. After a certain number of hours spent learning and practicing their trade, the apprentice will then receive technical college training. It can take a few years to complete an apprenticeship, depending on the trade.
Steve Ducharme is the Training Director for Piping Industry Technical College (PITC)/UA Local 254 in Winnipeg. Through both his own apprenticeship and his current career, Ducharme has extensive experience in apprenticeships and is a strong supporter of the process.
Ducharme says, “An apprenticeship ties in the technical training to a practical experience. Tradespeople are a different style of learner – we need to see it, not just read about it.”
He adds, “The biggest part of any apprentices’ learning experience, is when their Journeyperson or mentor teaches them something in the trade, and they finally get it, and get it right. I remember running my first offset piping arrangement, and my journeyman let me build it all on my own. I did the math, I did it all, with him watching me. Took me a week to build it, and when I installed it, it fit like a glove. There was a sense of accomplishment and pride. I was catching on!”
Becoming involved in an apprenticeship program benefits both the apprentice and the company who employs them.
“A company can groom or teach an apprentice to their market and company culture. Contractors can use apprentices to lower costs when tendering a project. Raising new tradespeople through their company ensures a long lived company structure,” says Ducharme.
“The apprentice gets paid to learn their craft. It coordinates what the apprentice needs to learn and when. The biggest part is the certification into their chosen trade. In most trades they are compulsory and you need to have a certification in order to operate as a tradesperson,” Ducharme explains.
Another example of work-integrated learning is an applied research project. Students work in concert with business and industry to develop practical solutions for real-world issues. Students may be tasked with establishing clinical trials, developing prototypes, operating feasibility and market research studies, or providing technical consultations. By participating in an applied research project, a student will work in close collaboration with potential employers and successful completion will increase their competitiveness while pursuing their career. This type of learning is commonly offered in science fields, environmental studies and technology.
Institution-based enterprises like hair salons and spas, dental hygiene clinics, restaurants and farms are commonly found on college campuses, generating additional revenue while also providing a practical approach to learning.
At the Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology, the hairstyling program takes place in their full-service salon and students can perfect their techniques by providing low-cost styling services to members of the public.
Brianna Dean is a recent MITT hairstyling graduate and has been successfully employed since completing the course.
“Most trade jobs are very different from regular jobs, they’re a lot more hands on, so having something like a workshop or a salon where you can actually feel and see how things work is a lot more helpful than learning something out of a text book,” says Dean.
Institution-based businesses don’t just provide students with the skills they need to succeed, they also give them confidence in their abilities and a deeper insight into proper work environment etiquette.
Dean shares, “I feel like I’ve benefited from looking around and seeing other people even older than I am still not knowing what they want to do in life, and that scares me. I’ve never wanted to be that person. It also gave me a sense of maturity and professionalism because they treat you as if you were working a real job not just some school assignment. I do feel like I got a head start from everyone else and it’s really nice. I have friends who don’t even know what they want to take in school never mind what they want to do with their careers and here I am one of the youngest girls in my salon and I’m still able to keep up with the more experienced girls!”
Work-integrated learning is a win-win-win situation for the student, the employer, and the learning institution.
Students get a chance to showcase their skills and learn on the job from experienced mentors, they get to put the theories they’ve learned to practical use in the workplace. Students can also gain a better understanding of workplace behaviours and expectations. Being involved in this type of education provides excellent networking opportunities and industry contacts for participants. And certain paid forms of work-integrated learning can be a great way for students to offset their direct costs for tuition.
Employers benefit from being able to pre-screen and recruit job candidates in a timely and cost-effective manner, while also building connections and fostering good community relations. Input from industry and local employers helps keep the curriculum current and ensure students develop the skills and knowledge to be readily employable following graduation. Employers have the first opportunity to hire students with fresh ideas and creativity. What’s more, placements providing compensation to students are often eligible for government funding or tax credits.
For colleges, participating in work-integrated learning increases the value of their programs by providing a high level of graduate satisfaction, an increased rate of employment following graduation and a good reputation with local industry, thereby increasing their rate of student recruitment.
For the student, for the learning institution and for the companies and industries involved, work-integrated learning will continue to be a valuable tool in the education process.
By Jackie Fritz