How to leverage the creativity and energy of students for your company's next project

Reach out to the school of your choice, and you will find lots of opportunities to inject creativity into your organization and give students valuable real-life experience


Q: We know we need some fresh ideas in our organization. What can we do?

A: There is a really powerful, underused resource that you can tap into: students! A lot of people underestimate the abilities of students and miss out on a wealth of creativity.

Q: How can I get anything of value from students that are still learning?

A:  This is a common concern. Ironically while some students feel any free work they do for companies is exploitative, many employers that get involved with student projects are thinking of it from an entirely opposite perspective: as a community service to help students. They are especially worried about the time “wasted” having to deal with a student team in need  of constant supervision. They are usually surprised and delighted at the end to see  how much value the students gave to their organization – fresh ideas and perspective, creativity, tangible cost savings and new revenue opportunities identified.  They usually also bring excellent, current technology expertise even if  they are still learning the ropes in the business world. Students learn the best way there is to learn – by doing real life projects – and companies get an often badly needed creativity injection.

Q: How can I minimize the time it takes to manage a student project?

A: The most important part is for the student or student team to draft a clear terms of reference document early in the project that you have reviewed and approved.  Once that is complete, the students can do most of the work with limited involvement from you. They might need to ask you for some additional information along the way, but they can designate a single point of contact and use a project site for smooth communication.

Q: Do I have to pay them?

A: This is an important question. If you have someone doing work for you who is not part of a formal education process in a public or private post-secondary institution, then you need to pay them to comply with B.C.’s Employment Standards Act. For example, one of the hottest Canadian technology companies, HootSuite, offered probably one of the best social media internship experiences on the planet.  Nevertheless, it turned out that the work being done fell under the definition of paid work and the company paid back wages to the unpaid interns affected. If your student work is not part of a school practicum or curriculum then you need to pay.

Q: How do I ensure a successful project?

A: Brent Calvert is the head  of Capilano University’s Interactive Design program and has helped organize hundreds of industry projects. He believes the most important part is to have the students work directly with the client in interdisciplinary teams and treat the project like a real job, with the same level of professionalism. The instructor plays a facilitating role, but the company contact is the ultimate client. Not surprisingly almost all of his programs’ grads find good, well-paying tech jobs shortly after graduation.

Q: Can my non-profit organization get help from students?

A: Definitely! Jeff Balin, manager of UBC’s Master of Management and MBA Careers programs, sees lots of inspiring student projects through the innovative Community Business Project program. From December to May, students engage in collaborative project work with socially or environmentally minded organizations, non-profits and charities in the Vancouver area. Students receive academic credit, and they get an invaluable opportunity to apply their  ideas and skills working on areas such as business planning, market expansion, community planning and sustainability initiatives. The community benefits from great talent and faculty mentoring of the student teams. It’s truly win-win on multiple levels.

Q: What schools offer practicums?

A: Most local schools have practicum programs and ways you can engage students on projects for your organization. BCIT is well known for its industry projects. Capilano University has an innovative talent sourcing service to connect students with organizations looking to solve real-world challenges (disclosure: the author teaches at BCIT and Capilano University and is associated with this service).

Reach out to the school of your choice, and you will find lots of opportunities to inject creativity into your organization and give students valuable real-life experience. The next time someone asks if you would be interested in having some students work on a practicum or class project, instead of saying “No thanks, I’m too busy,” we encourage you to take the plunge. You won’t be disappointed. •