Experiential learning at work

High school co-op programs give employers opportunity to engage future workers
By Jon Hamovitch and Tom Flanagan
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/19/2009

Before the global recession hit, major labour force developments were threatening Canadian employers’ abilities to recruit and retain the workers needed for organizations to grow and thrive.

In the new economic reality, these looming challenges may have been temporarily overshadowed, but it would be a mistake to think they have disappeared altogether. Canada’s workforce continues to age towards retirement at an alarming rate, with workers aged 55 to 64 expected to constitute nearly one-half of the country’s labour force by as early as 2015. And the nature of work itself continues to become more complex — by 2016, 70 per cent of all jobs are expected to require post-secondary education, according to a 2007 report by the Canadian Council on Learning.

There are steps organizations of every size can and should take to develop the next generation of workers. Experiential learning programs, such as co-operative education, job shadowing, mentoring and youth apprenticeship programs, are not new but offer new value during a market downturn. As cost-effective alternatives for recruiting, retaining and training young workers, these programs provide employers with an early opportunity to engage future workers, expose them to unfamiliar career options and help them acquire essential workplace skills and experience.

Ultimately, experiential learning gives students first-hand exposure to different jobs to help them determine important life considerations: career goals and aspirations; post-secondary education and training; and options for full-time employment.

There is an experiential learning solution for every business environment, ranging from 15-minute classroom visits to formal placements, such as co-op and the youth apprenticeship programs. As an example, Partners in Experiential Learning gives co-op students from 39 London, Ont.-area high schools a chance to receive hands-on training and experience in advanced laboratories in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. Students also have the opportunity to attend seminars and lectures and participate in writing research papers.

The knowledge, skills and experience these students develop makes them highly employable. When choosing candidates for summer internships, many university faculty members prefer students who have completed the program over other undergraduates.

In Ontario, the provincial government has taken steps to expand the number and quality of these opportunities. All school boards in the province are required to offer school-work programs to interested students, and high school students can now include up to two co-op credits as part of the 18 mandatory credits for their secondary school diploma.

Ontario’s Ministry of Education has also introduced the Specialist High Skills Majors program, which offers high school students the option to graduate with a diploma and a specialty in the theory and practical training relevant to a particular industry sector, such as: forestry; mining; information and communications technology; arts and culture; and business.

The program also provides students with seven sector-recognized certifications and training, including: health and safety; fall protection; scaffold safety; chainsaw safety; and personal protective equipment in construction. These certifications give students a particular competitive advantage when they are entering the workforce, as certification processes are often expensive and generally paid for by employers.

For the last decade in Ontario, the Passport to Prosperity initiative has supported educators and employers in creating experiential learning opportunities for high school students. Administered in partnership with the provincial government, business leaders, educators and local training boards and business-education councils, the initiative is delivered by co-ordinators across the province.

A website (www.employerregistry.ca) allows employers to register interest in providing experiential learning programs — and, to date, more than 1,000 employers have done so.

Jon Hamovitch and Tom Flanagan are co-chairs of the Provincial Partnership Council, comprising leaders from business, industry, education and government who oversee the Passport to Prosperity initiative to expand experiential learning opportunities for Ontario high school students. For more information, visit www.class2careers.com or call (416) 440-5110.

Why get involved?

Benefits for employers

Competition for quality employees starts before they enter the workforce. Companies that build student relationships early will be rewarded with future employees who understand their needs. There are opportunities available to fit any employer’s needs, big or small, such as career talks, job shadowing or project-based learning. And students look to employers for a chance to prove themselves in real-life work settings. Here are some advantages:

Builds the talent pool

• Increases the number of better-trained, better-prepared workers.

• Provides the skilled workers needed for today’s competitive market.

• Attracts youth to industry sectors facing skill shortages.

• Brings fresh, new ideas and perspectives into the workplace.

• Builds the leadership and interpersonal skills of a company’s existing team.

Makes economic sense

• Cost-efficient, effective means of training a future workforce.

• Cost-efficient, low-risk method of recruiting.

• Builds company’s reputation as an “employer of choice.”

• Enhances curriculum when employers and schools work together to integrate classroom and workplace learning.

• Economic development and growth flourish with a well-trained, skilled labour force.

Source: Passport to Prosperity

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