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Work-Integrated Learning: Spotlighting an Essential Policy Tool

Work-integrated learning (WIL), such as internships and co-ops, is the unsung hero of education policy. Despite being highly sought after opportunities for students and the recognized benefits by workplaces, WIL is often eclipsed by buzzier topics like AI and hybrid work. This oversight suggests we're barely scratching the surface of WIL's true potential in bridging education and employment.

The infographic below was extracted from a report by Harvard University that assessed college-to-jobs programs and policies. What do you see?

The highlights in the infographic are my emphasis. The findings related to these WIL interventions tell us that, based on the vast body of research available, WIL programs are a critical asset in our arsenal for helping deliver better economic outcomes for students. Here's what caught my attention from the study: 

1. The relative impact of WIL programs:

Among the 13 interventions studied, WIL programs – internships and apprenticeships in particular – demonstrate the greatest evidence of 'causal research' linking the intervention to impacts. In the case of co-ops, where the findings appear to be more mixed, there is strong evidence of positive impacts on employment and earning outcomes for STEM co-op participants.

2. Low prevalence of promising programs:

Despite the promise shown in co-ops and apprenticeships, they are limited in their prevalence in part due to the difficulties in implementing them successfully, particularly at scale.

Link between Work-Integrated Learning Programs and Student Outcomes

Based on studies of WIL programs in Canada and internationally, student participation has been linked to: better academic performance, improved skills development and employability, and higher employment outcomes – including reduced risk of unemployment, lower likelihood of underemployment, and higher earnings. (See the studies from the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions, C.D. Howe Institute, and CEWIL Canada for more details.) One analysis of Swiss university graduates found that internships had a 17% positive impact on earnings one year after graduating and 15% five years after graduating. 

To be sure, there are nuances and mixed findings reflected in the research too. Gender, field of study, voluntary vs involuntary participation, the form of WIL, analytical strategies used to estimate impacts, and other factors play a role in the outcomes seen in the research. Still, the evidence strongly favours WIL as an effective means of enabling the success of students and putting them on a better trajectory for long-term success.

Current Profile of Work-Integrated Learning in Ontario and Challenges

The penetration of WIL programs has certainly grown to-date. This comes as a direct result of the efforts from many players in the ecosystem such as Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada (CEWIL Canada), Business + Higher Education Roundtable (BHER), and Mitacs. These organizations, among others, continue to partner with companies and post-secondary institutions, provide invaluable resources, and advocate for sound public policy to help improve student outcomes through WIL programming. Ongoing support also includes hundreds of millions of dollars provided by governments in support of WIL opportunities, including the Student Work Placement Program, Canada Summer Jobs program, and Co-operative Education Tax Credit in Ontario.

Still, looking at the data one can't help but feel that we aren't making the most of this lever. The latest data from 2023 demonstrates that only 45% of Ontario graduates from the class of 2020 participated in any form of work-integrated learning and only 40% of those participants reported that they were paid for their work (though some of this reflects the nature of the program itself). While the pandemic obviously posed unique challenges which could have affected the data, it’s worth noting that the results in a pre-pandemic study weren’t much different.

Even as they continue to expand their offerings, post-secondary institutions are hamstrung by notable barriers, including

  • Effective management of relationships with employers and community partners
  • Ensuring adequate student preparation
  • Managing internal relations and capacity

Limited uptake from employers is growing the demand and supply divide as more students look to take advantage of these opportunities. Many employers don't feel they have suitable work available for students; or even if they do, they may not have the resources to recruit, train, or supervise them. Other challenges expressed by employers include financial constraints and the inability to find quality students with the right skillsets.

Looking Ahead

Clearly there's work to be done to leverage the full power of WIL opportunities to enhance student outcomes. To further unpack the impact of WIL we need better (more granular, large sample size, etc.) and more consistent data of participation and outcomes. Active engagement and information exchange between post-secondary institutions, employers, and partners can help bring forth best practices and encourage collaboration to address common challenges.

WIL uptake can also be improved by rethinking what it means to be engaged in WIL programs. Recent years have seen new models of WIL emerge that can be further explored. Micro-internships, for instance, are short-term, paid work assignments that can range from 10 to 40 hours work and would allow companies to use talent on a short-term basis while providing invaluable experience for students. Other more traditional models can be reimagined. The apprenticeship model is typically associated with trades but is being used in other sectors as well. The Lassonde School of Engineering at York University developed the first fully work-integrated degree program in Canada, focused on digital technologies. Over the course of the four-year program, students earn a full-time salary while spending 20% of their time dedicated to academics.  

WIL is too important a workforce development policy lever to leave overlooked. Not only does it empower businesses to harness and build a pipeline of talent, but it also sets graduates on a path to enduring success.

  • Saad Usmani

    Saad Usmani

    Director of Economic Research and Workforce Development

    Saad Usmani is the Director of Economic Research and Workforce Development at the Toronto Region Board of Trade. Prior to the Board, Saad spent several years at prominent public policy think tanks in Ontario and most recently as a consultant in EY's Economic Advisory practice.  

    Saad's work supports the Board's efforts to improve business competitiveness and encourage broader economic growth in the region. This includes using data and research to better understand underlying business and economic conditions; advocating for policies and implementing initiatives that address our workforce needs; and developing approaches to best position key sectors and economic zones in the region for growth.