Accessible Experiential Learning: The Key to Student Success in the Future of Work
By Lindsay Purchase
The robots are coming – or they’re already here, depending on which headline you read. However close we may or may not be to a working world that’s more Blade Runner than Office Space, uncertainty remains in the air. And perhaps nowhere are anxieties more acute about the ominous future of work than among secondary and post-secondary students. A 2017 report from the Brookfield Institute found only that only 44% of youth believe they are adequately prepared for the workforce (Lamb and Doyle, 2017). Meanwhile, colleges are simultaneously grappling with the question of how to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet (Frazee, 2018). While the future may be uncertain, a growing chorus of career services offices, employers, and post-secondary institutions are at least confident in this: experiential learning is key to helping students thrive amidst the turmoil.
“In its simplest form, experiential learning means learning from experience or learning by doing. Experiential education first immerses learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about the experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking” (Lewis and Williams, 1994, as cited by Schwartz, 2012). Across Canada and around the world, varying interpretations of experiential learning and its associated skill development reveal the challenges and benefits to students and employers.
Satisfying the Demand for Soft Skills
In the fall of 2018, a group of 25 organizations from across Canada representing students, businesses, and the post-secondary sector publicly urged the creation of a national work-integrated learning (WIL) strategy to prepare for an impending “skills revolution” (Business Higher Education Roundtable, 2018). WIL falls under the umbrella of experiential learning, which encompasses a range of activities from internships to lab work (Carleton University, n.d.). It gives students the opportunity to explore how well different employers and types of work align with their interests, values and skills.
The Royal Bank of Canada also issued a call for expanded experiential learning in its widely discussed “Humans Wanted” report (Royal Bank of Canada, 2018). In an analysis of 2.4 million expected job openings, the report found growing demand for skills such as critical thinking, coordination, social perceptiveness, active listening, and complex problem solving. These are the uniquely human “soft” skills that are seen as key to graduates’ resilience in the future of work (Marr, 2018). Many believe experiential learning is a gateway to developing those skills. Reports from the field shared by career professionals at CERIC’s Cannexus, Canada’s National Career Development Conference, in January 2019 support this idea.
In their Cannexus presentation, the University of Windsor’s Sydney Murray and Kerri Zold (2019) revealed that international students who participated in their experiential learning program reported skill development in the areas of oral and written communication, critical thinking, problem solving, and work ethic. Similarly, students at Memorial University who were part of its Career Experience Program said they acquired skills in time management, communication, research, and both team and independent work (Browne, 2019). These results strongly align with the top five skills employers said they were seeking in entry-level hires in the 2018 Business Council Skills Survey (Business Council of Canada, 2018).
Records and Reflections
While students may be able to develop relevant skills in experiential learning opportunities, the value of the skills is diminished if students cannot recognize or articulate them to potential employers. Those working in career services know keeping a record of and reflecting on these experiences is essential to bridging this gap. For instance, Wilfrid Laurier University’s Experience Record allows students to track their involvement in experiential learning, from clubs to co-ops to community service learning. The university validates the records so they can be used by students when applying to jobs or educational programs. The Experience Record also requires students to self-identify competencies that they have developed through experiential learning. This reflection process helps students understand and articulate the value of their experiences, as well as develop career management skills, considering how they might inform further career and educational aspirations.
“Students engage in many experiences throughout their time at college or university, but without reflection, we are not maximizing the learning potential that exists for them,” says Jan Basso , Assistant Vice-President: Experiential Learning & Career Development at Wilfrid Laurier University (personal communication, March 1, 2019). “As professionals, we need to help students translate these experiences into learning about their values, skill development, career exploration, and the application of course-based learning to practice.”
Who is Experiential Learning For?
One challenge with experiential learning is revealed when we consider who is included and excluded. Despite rising demand for experiential learning (Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, 2018), a 2018 poll from the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (2018) found 49% of students were unable to access paid work placements. In their Cannexus presentation on challenges and solutions in WIL, Ryerson University’s Roger Pizarro-Milian and Brian Robson highlighted barriers students can face in accessing these opportunities, including:
- Geography: Even when great opportunities arise, they may not be accessible for all students. What happens if a student can’t afford to move to a different city for a summer internship, for example?
- Focus on ‘fit’: Unconscious bias means hiring managers often hire people who are like them in terms of race, economic status, gender and other factors (Giles, 2018).
- GPA requirements: Eligibility for experiential learning opportunities is often determined by grade point average. This can exclude large numbers of students, including those who might benefit the most in terms of labour market outcomes.
Financial constraints are often interwoven with other barriers. A report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (2018) found students were concerned they would incur additional debt by participating in WIL “due to costs associated with relocating, commuting, work-related clothing or equipment, childcare or other family obligations” (p. 48). Wage subsidies can act as an equalizer in this realm. In the University of Alberta’s government-funded Graduate Student Internship Program, students are guaranteed to make a minimum of $25 an hour, with half of the rate paid by the university. Over 450 students have participated and 100% of surveyed employers said they would participate again (Spevak & McCrackin, 2019). When wage subsidies are unavailable, institutions should consider whether subsidies for transit, professional attire, or childcare could help broaden access.
Gateway to the Future
Many students are already benefiting from the skills development afforded by experiential learning. By broadening access and providing opportunities to reflect on learning, career centers, colleges, and employers can help students stride confidently into the future of work.
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Business Council of Canada. (2018). Navigating change: 2018 business council skills survey [PDF]. Retrieved from https://thebusinesscouncil.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Navigating-Change-2018-Skills-Survey-1.pdf
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Carleton University. (n.d.). Experiential Learning. Retrieved from https://carleton.ca/edc/teachingresources/?p=380
Frazee, G. (2018). How colleges are preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/making-sense/how-colleges-are-preparing-students-for-jobs-that-dont-exist-yet
Giles, K. (2018). Why you mistakenly hire people just like you. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/05/01/why-you-mistakenly-hire-people-just-like-you/#44df43213827
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Murray, S., & Zold, K. (2019). Kindling “Ignite”: A post-secondary experiential learning employment program [PDF]. Retrieved from https://cannexus.ca/download/sydney-murray-kerri-zold-kindling-ignite-a-post-secondary-experiential-learning-employment-program/
Royal Bank of Canada. (2018). Humans wanted [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.rbc.com/dms/enterprise/futurelaunch/_assets-custom/pdf/RBC-Future-Skills-Report-FINAL-Singles.pdf
Schwartz, M. (2012). Best practices in experiential learning [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.ryerson.ca/content/dam/lt/resources/handouts/ExperientialLearningReport.pdf
Spevak, A., & McCrackin, T. (2019). Graduate student internship program: Insights from four year pilot [PDF]. Retrieved from https://cannexus.ca/download/andrea-spevak-tyree-mccrackin-graduate-student-intership-porgram-insights-from-four-year-pilot/
Lindsay Purchase is the Content & Communications Editor for CERIC, a Canadian non-profit organization that works to advance career development. She oversees CERIC’s tri-annual magazine, Careering, and the CareerWise website, along with the CareerWise Weekly newsletter. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.