Work-integrated learning: a way to cultivate leadership through education

By Karima Ramji, Manager International Programs, University of Victoria

Every year, thousands of energetic, passionate students flock from university campuses to the ever-shifting world of work. But career prospects are changing—in a year-long cross-Canada research study published in 2018, RBC found that over 25% of Canadian jobs will be disrupted by technology in the coming decade, and 50% of jobs will require a different set of skills than are needed today. We’re wading into a landscape where there are lots of jobs but not enough skills.

Moving from credentials to skill development

So how can we adapt educational approaches to support youth in these times? RBC has identified multiple calls to action, which include:
• Encouraging employers to hire based on core skills instead of credentials
• Challenging post-secondary institutions to provide all undergraduate students with meaningful work-integrated learning placements
• Recognizing, as a nation, that the coming skills revolution will be critical to the future of Canada

K17 co-op students at WD.

Canadian institutions are no strangers to the educational model of developing students’ competencies; through programs like co-operative education, hands-on skill development has been a key ingredient of the Canadian post-secondary landscape since 1957. Through co-op, students put their skills into practice with paid hands-on learning in a range of workplaces.

Canadian post-secondaries have recently embraced other forms work-integrated learning (WIL) to offer students more opportunities to develop key skills in a hands-on environment.

WIL in action at the University of Victoria (UVic)

At UVic, students completed over 4,000 co-op education work terms last year alone, including 360 outside of Canada and many placements in Thailand. UVic’s partnership with Western Digital Thailand has set the stage for other Thai employers to engage with co-operative education and WIL programs.

For Lexi Mills, a UVic co-op student who worked with Western Digital Thailand for her co-op work term, her WIL experience helped set her up for success after graduation. “We are entering a job market that is rapidly evolving into a gig-economy: a labour market based on contracts and freelance work. We grew up being asked what we wanted to be when we grew up; it’s bizarre to think that nowadays, the more accurate question to pose in the classroom will be: What profession(s) would you like to be?”

Using hands-on work-integrated learning to prepare tomorrow’s leaders

What will the 21st-century skill set look like? The RBC study identified foundational skills such as critical thinking, coordination, social perceptiveness, active listening and complex problem solving as some of the most in-demand skills for future work. Global competencies like cultural awareness, adaptability, judgment and decision making are another set that will be critical.

So, how does WIL help youth prepare for a skill-based economy? By providing the means for students to develop their competencies in a real-world setting. Another major advantage of WIL is the employers—as mentors, they support students’ learning while also cultivating ongoing evolution within the workplace. They are critical in helping shape the resilient, skilled leaders of tomorrow.

With the predicted shift to a skill-based economy where competencies and core skill sets may become more valued than credentials, WIL is well positioned to prepare students to excel in this new world of work.


(Reference: RBC, 2018; Human Wanted: How Canadian youth can thrive in the age of disruption: