Why are co-op and work-integrated learning opportunities more valuable than ever?
In Take 5, Sheridan's thought leaders share their expert insight on a timely and topical issue. Learn from some of our innovative leaders and change agents as they reflect on questions that are top-of-mind for the Sheridan community.
Earlier this month, Creative Writing & Publishing degree student Tamara Thompson became the seventh Sheridan student in the last nine years to be recognized with a National Student of the Year Award from Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada (CEWIL Canada). In this installment of Take 5, Matthew Rempel, Sheridan’s Director of Career-Integrated Learning and the President-Elect of CEWIL Canada, discusses Sheridan’s successful approach to co-operative education (co-op) and work-integrated learning (WIL), the growing popularity of experiential learning and how it continues to evolve.
1. How has co-op and WIL evolved over the years, and where do you see it going in the next five years?
The value of WIL being embedded in curriculum, irrespective of discipline, has risen dramatically in the last five to 10 years. Here at Sheridan, all of our degree-level programs — whether they’re in business, the arts or applied sciences and technology — include work-integrated learning experiences. And as the skills narrative and graduate employability has increased, so has the appetite for the university model to participate in work-integrated learning, which has generated massive growth in WIL programming across Canada in all institutions.
As a mirror image to that, we’re also seeing massive increases in interest from employers and community partners to start including more students in their workforce. So as the supply of students has increased, so has the demand from employers and community partners, which has led to government interventions and funding and policy positions that further help the ecosystem to continue to thrive and grow. Frankly, Canada has one of the most successful WIL infrastructures in the world and is well-positioned to continue as a global leader.
Over the next five years, I think we’ll continue to see even more growth in the cohesion between industry and students and curriculum, which is the ultimate intent of WIL programming. The pandemic has taught all of us that remote working can be successful, and the globalization of the workforce could open up even more WIL opportunities for students.
Here at Sheridan, we’re already setting the students up to thrive in that global economy, teaching them the skills they need to be part of the solution. And I think that’s rather exciting.
2. Many of the benefits students and employers reap from co-op and WIL programming are readily apparent, including hands-on experience, networking, resume-building, infusion of fresh thinking and early talent acquisition. Is there a benefit of co-op and WIL that might surprise people?
Something I didn’t fully appreciate about WIL until I started my career was that it helps students realize what they don’t like, and that’s a really good learning lesson.
For example, a student might do three co-op work terms over the course of their academic credential. Let’s say one of them is working for a gigantic, multi-national organization; one of them is working with a SME (small and medium-sized enterprise); and one is working for an entrepreneur.
By the time they graduate, that student will have a sense of all three of those different working environments and where their natural preferences lie. Having that knowledge base prior to looking for the first job of your career is incredibly valuable, and being able to gain that in a risk-free environment like a co-op is amazing.
3. Not only have Sheridan co-op and WIL students been nationally recognized in seven of the last nine years, they’ve also accounted for six of the last eight Experience and Work-Integrated Learning Ontario (EWO) College Co-op Student of the Year Award winners. What makes Sheridan co-op and WIL students so successful?
First and foremost, our students are amazing, they are motivated, and they do incredible things all the time. Our programs here at Sheridan are exceptional as well. We have a broad range of amazing Faculty partners, program areas and co-op and internship opportunities that allow our students to really shine.
I also think some of that success can be attributed to the fact that we have a very large co-op and internship operation. Sheridan has been doing co-op for more than 30 years, so we have deep-rooted, loyal and committed employer partners who come to us not only to access our student talent but also to create amazing opportunities. Then we have a group of people in our co-op department whose role is to make sure they’re constantly meeting with new employers and describing how incredible our student talent can be in the workforce. It’s a really mature system that has become a model for how to have co-op and work-integrated learning work really well.
Finally, our Career-Integrated Learning department invests a fair amount of time and energy in identifying our shining star students, because we firmly believe that these students should be celebrated and recognized for the great things they’re doing. We have an internal process that looks at student award applications and ensures that our best and most deserving students have a chance to be recognized by both the national and provincial associations.
4. Has the success of Sheridan’s co-op and WIL programming had a snowball effect in creating more and better opportunities for future students?
Absolutely. What I think is the coolest snowball effect is that we have all of these students who do their co-ops, then become incredibly successful people in their careers and remember the value of their co-op or WIL experience. So there’s a strong sense of loyalty and appreciation among employers who are Sheridan grads and end up coming back to Sheridan to support our students.
Our students are also trailblazers. Every time they demonstrate their value to an employer, they open the door for the next student. Historically, there have been certain employers who always favoured hiring university students over polytechnic or college students, but what we’ve seen is that the students themselves are changing that. They’re making employers value and appreciate everything that a Sheridan education offers and how great our students are.
5. How has Sheridan adapted its co-op and WIL programming to overcome challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic?
We recognized very quickly that we had to be proactive in finding ways to provide students with choices. We knew many students would not want to be physically in the world of work during the pandemic, some might be interested in being part of the solution to challenges created by the pandemic, and some needed other types of assistance that would enable them to learn, earn and work.
Part of our response was the creation of our Virtual Internship Program (VIP), which featured multiple streams that our degree students could choose from. Options included performing remote work for an employer; working on facilitated projects — such as applied research — in concert with their Faculty; or collaborating with peers and community partners on interdisciplinary projects that could resolve real-world issues related to the pandemic, such as helping elders stay connected through technology or re-imagining education for young learners. Not only did our students really appreciate the VIP, they also learned so much about working remotely, working in teams and solving real-world problems.
Our team also firmly believes that students should be earning while learning. We advocated on their collective behalf to a range of funding sources, both internally and externally, to enable wages for students participating in the VIP. It became such a win-win in helping our students, our economy and our community achieve their goals.
Matthew Rempel is Sheridan’s Director of Career-Integrated Learning and has been leading co-op and career education at Sheridan for over six years. He has an Economics degree from Queen’s University, earned his MBA in Business at Athabasca University and completed a Doctor of Education specializing in leadership in post-secondary at the University of Calgary. Matthew has also served as Acting President of CEWIL Canada for the past two years and will become the association’s President in November 2021.
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