Feds move to close skills gap

Work-integrated program offers incentives to hire students
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/13/2017
B.C. Grads
Graduates leave the congregation ceremony at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., in 2015. Credit: Mr. Nikon (Shutterstock)

Employers looking to hire post-secondary students now have an extra incentive to do so, thanks to a new federal program that launched in August.

The Student Work-Integrated Learning Program will provide eligible employers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and business sectors — including small and medium-sized businesses — with payroll subsidies of up to 50 per cent of the overall wage cost, at up to $5,000 per placement.

A slightly higher subsidy of $7,000 is available for employers that reach out to first-year students and under-represented groups such as women in traditionally male sectors, Indigenous students, and people with disabilities.

The government hopes the $73-million program will create 10,000 internship positions over the next four years, on top of 50,000 the government hopes to initiate through its previously announced five-year, $221-million partnership with Mitacs — a non-profit, post-secondary training program regulator.

The goal is to have employers and post-secondary institutions work together to help students become job-ready and develop the full complement of skills today’s organizations are seeking, according to Matt Pascuzzo, press secretary for Canadian Employment Minister Patty Hajdu.

“Canadian youth have more formal education than ever, yet many complete their studies with a lack of job-ready skills or hands-on experience,” he said.

“Employers in various sectors have reported that they are struggling to find workers with the right skills, which is negatively impacting Canada’s economic growth and prosperity.”

Post-secondary institutions have said they want to ensure graduates have the appropriate skill set employers are looking for, said Pascuzzo.

“Our government wants to ensure that students have paid work experience while they study so they are better able to find and keep good jobs.”

Work-integrated learning consists of opportunities such as internships, apprenticeships and co-operative placements. These programs give students critical hands-on experience in the workplace, he said.

“Our government has listened to students, to post-secondary education institutions and to employers who have told us that graduates are not always coming out of school with the real-life experience they need to succeed in their careers,” said Pascuzzo.

“This program will help to ensure post-secondary students develop work-ready and entrepreneurial business skills required to secure meaningful employment in high-demand occupations in STEM and business fields.”

Bridging the gap

The work-integration program should serve as a carrot for employers, and a good step in the journey to bridging the perceived skills gap in Canada, said Michael McDonald, executive director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations in Ottawa.

“The federal government can play an important role in being able to promote work-integrated learning opportunities for students,” he said, adding he hopes the program will extend past the STEM and business fields to include others.

But a recommitment to training by employers would also be beneficial for students’ successful transition to the workplace, said McDonald.

“Canadian firms have demonstrated over the last 20 years both the commitment of wanting to foster a lot of young talent, but also taking some steps such as significant cutbacks in internal training and formalized training opportunities, which somewhat undermines their commitment to saying, ‘I want to be able to develop and foster talent from Canadian markets,’” he said. “For us, we think this is a multi-faceted program.”

Government support in the form of wage subsidies could prove to be an eye-opening experience for employers, said Anne-Marie Fannon, president of the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education (CAFCE) in Waterloo, Ont.

The federal program should “make it easier for employers to bring in students so that they can really see the benefits,” she said, adding a lack of funding and resources are typical barriers for employers looking to accommodate students.

“If we want to look at things at a national agenda, then the federal government has to be involved. Canada is behind some other countries in terms of having a national strategy for work-integrated learning.”

“The $5,000 or $7,000 might open the door for an employer to bring in a student but we don’t want this to be a flash in the pan,” said Fannon. “If we are really able to make this easy for employers, for them to see the return on investment and to consider student talent as an ongoing integral component of their workforce, then we get that systemic change.”

Achieving long-term change

It’s not easy to find remedies for the skills gap between the education system and workplaces, as the rapidly shifting economy makes it near-impossible for first-year students to know what labour outcomes will be by the time they graduate, said McDonald.

“Part of the struggle is obviously the differences between what is in demand at a specific time and those who are coming out,” he said.

“The ability to predict that is something that neither business nor government nor students are going to have the capacity to be completely prescient about their abilities to integrate into what’s going to be an in-demand job field in four years.”

Regardless, it will be up to post-secondary institutions, private sector business and government to drum up the ultimate, long-term solution, said McDonald.

But putting undue pressure on employers to accept young workers with inappropriate skill sets is not the answer, said Royce Mendes, an economist at CIBC in Toronto and author of Education and Employability: Can We Close the Gap?

“It’s difficult to ask employers to change what they’re looking for,” he said. “They’re running private businesses for the sake of profits for their shareholders. They’re going to be looking for specific skill sets and I think the education system is what needs to mould to be able to provide those types of candidates to these private businesses.”

Still, it’s crucial that employers are part of the solution, said McDonald.

“We do understand that this does pose challenges for businesses as well, who are in an experience where they’re finding talent able to step in quickly and adapt to their environment fast,” he said.

“But we think that being able to play a positive, constructive role in the partnership is something that for everybody will be beneficial.”

This facilitates their integration with private sector businesses, said McDonald.

“It’s a strong setup for how private sector firms should engage with students. We’re strong, strong supporters of paid compensation positions  that get them in the door, get them to understand the workplace culture, get the workplace expectations, but also making sure that they’re supported through that time.”

Advice for employers

Organizations that have not previously participated in student work placements will receive guidance and support on program implementation from supporting delivery partners, said Pascuzzo.

“Employers are encouraged to partner with post-secondary education institutions who are delivering STEM and business programs to provide students in these programs.”

Organizations like CAFCE are aiming to create toolkits for employers that share best practices and create sustainable opportunities, said Fannon.

The hope is that employers once again view students as a powerful talent pipeline, she said.

“We all need to hire junior students because they can bring great value into the workplace,” said Fannon.

“They have skills but those foundational experiences for our students help make them better prepared for subsequent work experiences, both while they’re in school and after they graduate. We can’t all just hire the fourth-year student that has had six work terms.”

Sometimes, the return on investment with a junior student is their questions, perspectives and fresh take on how things are done, she said.

“By bringing in students from across the different levels, we can really build a lot of student talent and help address that skills gap so they are coming out of university and college ready to run.”

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