Back in June here in Ontario, the Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel released its final report. One of the recommendations was that every Ontario high school and university student should have at least one mandatory co-op experience (i.e., once in high school, once in university college). In a statement in the provincial legislature, the Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development Deb Matthews essentially said she liked the recommendation and would be working in the coming months to figure out how to put it into effect.
Now, I am in favour of greater experiential learning opportunities, but there are some problems with this recommendation. The good folks at HEQCO have already written about some of these; my concern is basically that good co-op and good internships cost a lot of money. Students in placements need to be overseen, taught, and mentored. They need to be given tasks which are both meaningful and correspond to actual student abilities (not easy to achieve for high school students in many workplaces). And they need to be paid – not just because it’s the law, but because business simply won’t put in the time on students unless they have skin in the game.
Simply put, the degree of culture shift required in business to provide these kinds of meaningful work-integrated learning experiences on a universal basis is massive. Depending on the expected length of these experiences, we could be talking about increasing opportunities by anything from tenfold to fifty-fold – we’re talking between 250,000 and 300,000 students per year having to be accommodated here. Not impossible, but not something that will happen overnight. If the government tries to rush into this – and by rush I mean anything on a shorter timescale than a decade or so – were going to have a real mess on our hands. Both businesses and educational institutions are going to need a lot of time to figure out how to make this work.
In this respect I would like to make a modest proposal to government: you first.
Seriously, if this is such a great idea, then the first to pioneer it should be the Government of Ontario to pioneer it. It’s the largest employer in the province, with something like 85,000 employees (or about 1.5% of the entire provincial workforce). If it can’t be a success at that level, why should it be a success anywhere else?
So here’s my idea. Since the Government of Ontario represents 1.5% of the workforce, it should immediately commit to bringing in at least 1.5% of the necessary cohort on work-integrated learning experiences next year. By my back-of-the-envelope reckoning, that’s 4,000 students or so (call it 145 students per ministry), half of which should be from high schools and half from post-secondary institutions.
Employers everywhere are going to need to know how a big, knowledge-intensive enterprise like the Government of Ontario can crafts meaningful paid experiences for that many individuals, and provides them with the necessary support, feedback and evaluation, with minimal loss of institutional productivity or adverse effects on institutional budgets. By being a pioneer, the Government can provide invaluable real-life advice to private and para-public sector employers about how to make this program work for everyone.
No? You don’t think it’ll happen?
Me neither. But it would dispel a lot of cynicism about this initiative.