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In a competitive labour market, Canadian employers are working harder and spending more to recruit and retain recent post-secondary graduates. That means greater collaboration with educational institutions and boosting investments in training, according to a report from the Business Council of Canada and Morneau Shepell.
“Things are happening so fast right now… in terms of the competition, in terms of products that are being developed — things are happening at a pitch we’ve never seen before, so that requires everybody to get up to speed and move quickly,” said Joe Blomeley, vice-president, public sector, at Morneau Shepell in Toronto.
“Expectations are high for the entire workforce.”
Partnering with post-secondary
More than four-fifths (83 per cent) of employers are participating in co-op programs and other forms of work-integrated learning initiatives that help them identify potential new employees — up from 76 per cent two years ago — found the survey of 95 large private sector employers.
“The challenges large firms are facing right now when it comes to disruption and new technologies, there’s just not a lot of time for a young person to get integrated and up to speed in terms of how a company works and how a particular industry works,” said Blomeley.
“It really drives home the importance of programs like co-op programs and other work-integrated learning platforms because those programs give young people that are about to leave post-secondary the opportunity to get their feet wet, and also gives employers the opportunity to test them out.”
It’s important to bring people early in their career to work with more experienced professionals, said Madeleine Barker, senior director of strategic workforce initiatives at RBC in Toronto.
“If you can get to that place, you will find the challenge of the status quo, everything from ‘Hey, why do we do this process this way?’ to ‘What if we completely reimagine the way we’re doing something?’” she said.
“It’s not to say every idea is a great idea, and not to say experienced professionals don’t have great ideas, but there is a kind of magic that can happen when you meld early-in-career, work-integrated learning talent with your more experienced team. And that is fundamentally the reason why employers are excited about this, is they see very clearly the benefits today, with ideas and innovation, (and) benefits to diversity in your workforce.”
In addition to work the Business Council is doing with its Business/Higher Education Roundtable, it’s nice to see the federal and provincial governments putting money and programming behind work-integrated learning (WIL), said Val Walker, vice-president of talent and skills at the Business Council of Canada in Ottawa.
“We this year are doing a project to make an actual business case to employers about why WIL is more than just your corporate social responsibility, why it’s more than just a summer job for students, that there’s an actual financial return on that investment both from a talent perspective but also from a business line perspective.”
The most popular programs are co-ops (72 per cent) and internships (60 per cent), followed by student mentorships (36 per cent), apprenticeships (32 per cent), curriculum or program development (28 per cent), applied research projects (25 per cent), classroom instruction (19 per cent) and hackathons (17 per cent).
“There’s an opportunity to infuse more work-based learning and experiential learning into post-secondary programs, so not just sending people out to co-op programs, but putting together projects within classes where they get to test out or to play with a particular real-world challenge, having them work in groups, having them interact with each other more often so they build those communication skills, they build those relationship skills that are needed to succeed in the workforce,” said Blomeley.
A hackathon lets employers quickly identify talented people with the skills they need, he said, “not just the tangible, hard skills that are required to succeed, but you also get to see how people work in a team environment and how they interact with each other and how they handle challenges, which goes to the human skills.”
In terms of job requirements, 70 per cent of respondents expect more from new graduates compared to five years ago. When it comes to strong skills possessed by grads, employers said these are basic numeracy and literacy (95.8 per cent agree), technical skills (95.7 per cent), adaptability (92.5 per cent) and professionalism (91.4 per cent).
Weaker areas are human skills (73.4 per cent) and basic business acumen (52.6 per cent).
“As young people are transitioning from school to work, the world of work that they’re entering is quite different than it was 10 years ago, and I think it will be even more different in the next five- to 10-year window, so that’s where the root of higher expectations comes from,” said Barker.
In evaluating and hiring candidates, the top skills employers look for in entry-level and mid-level hires are: collaboration/teamwork/interpersonal/relationship-building skills, communication skills, problem-solving skills, analytical capabilities, industry-specific knowledge and experience, problem-solving skills, and resiliency.
As for the last one, that’s new to the list, said Walker.
“That reflects I think the recognition from employers that they are putting more expectations on their hires and they’re going to need to be resilient and flexible and willing to roll with whatever comes along.”
But the problem is how to teach these traits, she said.
“You can’t teach them in a classroom, you have to get people to work on those skills by putting them in situations that maybe are a bit uncomfortable and helping teach them through (that). That’s the integrated part of work-integrated learning, you don’t just throw them into work environment and say, ‘Good luck’ but you provide that learning opportunity to ensure those placements are quality, and when the students go back to the classroom, they have a chance to talk about it.”
There is definitely a growing focus and a shared consensus that educational institutions need to do a better job in building resilience, communication and teamwork — not only through post-secondary programs but from kindergarten to Grade 12, said Barker.
“And there’s many, many players working on it.”
Boosts to training
Notably, investments in learning and development have increased over the past two years, according to the survey. Sixty-five per cent of employers plan to boost their investment over the next three years — considerably more than the 40 per cent in 2015.
Among those, 51.1 per cent plan to invest more than $1,000 per employee, compared to 46 per cent in 2016, and 29.5 per cent plan to invest $500 to $1,000 per employee, compared to 24 per cent in 2016.
“A big part of that is (employers have) realized they can’t leave everything to post-secondary institutions when it comes to training the future workforce. They also have to step up and make sure these employees are invested in and given the right kind of tools to succeed in challenging times,” said Blomeley.
Companies need to be competitive in terms of what they offer employees — meaning both new and existing employees — to retain and develop them, said Walker.
“They need to commit more to their employees on an annual basis to allow them to adapt their skills,” she said. “(Automation) will require people to adapt within their job, within their company, so that increased commitment to training allows employees to do that, to make those small pivots without having to suddenly switch careers or switch companies.”
The more we talk about matching skills and work versus people in jobs, the better it is for all of us, said Barker, along with putting a greater focus on foundational or human skills — and helping graduates see those skills in the work they’re doing.
“We’re starting to talk in a language that is more transparent so that young people can start to make those connections for themselves, and start to see where they’ve developed transferable skills.”
And there’s a growing commitment to solve these challenges, she said.
“(It’s about) the focus on collaboration, the realization this is not a problem that government or employers or post-secondary or K to 12 can solve on (their) own, it’s actually through partnerships with each other, as well as a commitment to involving youth in the process.”
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