OTTAWA — The federal government is rolling out millions in new spending to help thousands of students heading back to campus find work placements during their studies.
The Liberals had promised to spend $73 million over four years on provided work-integrated learning opportunities with the money supposed to start flowing a year ago.
The spending was delayed until this academic year to sign funding deals with the employer groups that are going to provide spots to students.
The 2016 budget predicted the money would create up to 8,700 placements over four years, but Labour Minister Patty Hajdu announced Monday the funding will create up to 10,000 positions. It was the first in a series of federal back-to-school announcements.
Over half of undergraduates already have the opportunity to work as part of their studies by the time they graduate, but the hope from universities is to have 100 per cent coverage in the future, because schools see it as such a critical way for students to transition into the workforce, said Pari Johnston, vice-president, policy and public affairs at Universities Canada.
“Students are asking for it,” she said. “The demand is very high and we’ve seen a real increase in the number of co-ops being offered, which have more than doubled in recent years.”
Employers are asking for it too.
The government has been told by its economic advisory council that it needs to put more resources into what’s known as work-integrated learning because existing efforts are “insufficient to make real impact” in the “real gap” that exists in worker readiness.
Not all companies want to make the investment that some, like Siemens Canada, have made in work-integrated learning, which would only further delay closing the gap in worker readiness, said Tom Murad, head of Siemens Canada’s Engineering and Technology Academy.
Without deep funding, “you’re not going to see too many people going in that direction,” he said.
“They will do shortcuts, partial implementation, but those partial implementations are not going to give the same results and they may be self-defeating.”
A blunt October 2016 presentation for the economic advisory council’s sub-committee on education and training says companies believe the “majority of graduates are unprepared for the workforce” and that schools are “sometimes constrained by professional accreditation groups” that hinder changes to curriculum and training programs.
The presentation obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act suggests companies need to have a hand in shaping curriculum, without mentioning that the process is usually long and can get bogged down in debates.
The Liberals are keen to fund placements for undergraduate and graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields — known as “STEM” disciplines.
Those fields are typically ones that lend themselves well to work-integrated learning because of the need for students to apply their education in a real-world environment, said Murad.
The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations said this week it was happy to see the government provide opportunities to STEM and business students, but hoped the Liberals would expand the program to all academic disciplines.
Minutes from a Dec. 8, 2016 meeting of federal and provincial education officials showed interest in doing just that, but also creating similar opportunities at the high school level. In the ensuing months, Ontario promised to spend $190 million over three years so secondary and post-secondary students could get on-the-job learning.
“If provinces were to say to me, ‘Hey we really want the federal government engaged at a younger age’, I would not be opposed to exploring that, but I actually haven’t heard that request from the provinces yet,” Hajdu said in a recent interview.