Mandatory Work Experience for Ontario Students Requires Employer Buy-in, Increased School Resources

Over the past few years we’ve seen a growing number of schools and businesses embracing the concept, partnering on a variety of interesting experiential programs for students — everything from research projects to traditional co-op placements. But what c

Mandatory Work Experience for Ontario Students Requires Employer Buy-in, Increased School Resources

Devin Grady, Chief Executive Officer; Cameron Ballantyne, Founding Partner; and Sandor Mezei, Chief Technology Officer

Call it what you like — co-op, work-integrated learning or just getting your hands dirty — learning on the job has been around in one form or another as long as there have been jobs and as long as there have been students.

But there is a growing movement to see that even more Canadian students and businesses benefit from work-integrated learning.

An expert panel struck by Ontario’s government to study the issue recommended last June that all high school, college and university students across the province be required to participate in mandatory work experience programs to “bridge the gap between the skills industries need and what the workforce offers.”

Shortly afterward the Business Council of Canada went a step further and called for corporate and academic leaders to set their sights on an ambitious target of collaborating to offer some form of work-integrated learning to all post-secondary students across the country.

In November, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance added thousands of student voices to the conversation, launching a social media campaign (#myWILis) that aims to increase work experience opportunities by highlighting individual students who have furthered their education by hands-on experience in the workplace.

Each of these groups has been convinced of the long-recognized value of combining the theoretical knowledge learned in the classroom with practical skills and understanding that can only be learned on the job.

Work-integrated learning is seen by employers and educators alike as an important piece of the puzzle in solving two significant problems — helping new graduates find rewarding jobs and ensuring there is a pool of prospective employees who are equipped with the right combination of skills and education required by employers for unfilled vacancies that can hold back their growth.

Over the past few years we’ve seen a growing number of schools and businesses embracing the concept, partnering on a variety of interesting experiential programs for students — everything from research projects to traditional co-op placements.

But what challenges do we need to overcome to get from where we are now to the Ontario government’s goal of introducing mandatory work experience for all high school and post secondary students?

Cost is undoubtedly the top barrier. Work-integrated learning is expensive for schools to administer. It takes time and resources to find the right fit between employers and students, requiring schools to foster existing relationships with employers and build new relationships. The task of tracking and recording student engagement can also require investments in IT resources.

In addition, the issue of workplace health and safety for students carrying out placements is complex and can dissuade some employers and post secondary schools from embracing work-integrated learning. Students on unpaid placements are covered by provincial and federal occupational health and safety legislation. It’s important to ensure students are safe while participating in any paid or unpaid work as part of their education, but we need greater clarity from the provincial government on the responsibilities and liabilities facing both employers and schools to ensure this issue doesn’t impede the expansion of work-integrated learning.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping students receive meaningful work experience that complements their studies. It will vary depending on the individual needs of each school, their business partners and the communities they serve. We need to encourage the participation of employers and schools of all sizes. Increased provincial funding is crucial to enable publicly funded high schools and post secondary schools to fully engage in this new initiative.


Not only are work experience programs costly to implement, but also they are labour-intensive to manage because of the large number of students and employers involved. Institutions will require appropriate administrative resources — including personnel and tools — to oversee these programs and ensure they align properly with the educational programs they offer.

We must also do more to educate employers — particularly small and medium-sized ones — about work-integrated learning and the benefits they can realize from implementing them in their workplaces. We need to help them understand that participation is a human resources investment that will ultimately help them recruit quality employees and become more competitive.

In addition, all parties involved in expanding work-integrated learning need much better data at their fingertips. We need higher quality labour market information to help schools and employers design the most effective offerings to enhance student learning and fill the skills gap. We also need better tools to capture data on work-integrated learning programs and track whether they are working as well as they should.

Currently, the data is hit and miss, giving only a partial picture of how many students participated in work experience initiatives and a limited understanding of the kinds of placements they completed. Better data is critical analyzing what makes certain work-integrated learning programs more successful and ensuring all employers and schools can model them.

None of these hurdles are insurmountable and it won’t be quick or simple to overcome them. However, helping students of all ages gain “real life experience” will undoubtedly improve their education, prepare them for work life and assist employers find talent with the right skills and therefore better position Canada to be more competitive in the global marketplace.