Students bring skills, energy and new ideas to the workplace

Businesses that continue their commitment to foster student talent see benefits

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Despite COVID-related disruptions this year, businesses across BC have found ways to continue supporting student talent by bringing post-secondary students into their workplaces. 

During a recent webinar series hosted by the Association for Co-operative Education and Work-integrated Learning BC/Yukon (ACE-WIL), panelists from small and medium-sized businesses shared their process for working with students, and how government funding helped them to expand their hiring, and bring tangible benefits to their organization.  

“Most of us worked while we were at college or university,” recalls Jennie Nilsson, president of ACE-WIL. “The difference with work-integrated learning, or WIL, is that the work component is integral to the academic program. So, to graduate, the students must complete work placements that meet specific standards relevant to their field of study.” 

Nilsson explained the nine different types of WIL; co-operative education, practicums, internships and apprenticeships are the most familiar. WIL also includes applied research projects, field placements, student-led entrepreneurship, community-based service learning, and other work experience related to the student’s field of study. 

“There are multiple ways that an organization can work with a WIL student,” explains Nilsson.

“Placements can range from a few weeks, to four months, eight months or even longer. Opportunities can be paid, unpaid, full-time or part-time. Staff at your local post-secondary institutions can help recommend options for your situation.” 

Most of the business panelists at the webinars had experience working with WIL students prior to the pandemic. 

“We have a robust program where we recruit two or three co-op students who start each January and are with us for eight months,” explains Jordin Brotzel, Coordinator, Regional Human Capital, with MNP at their Kelowna branch. 

“We give them the chance to see if public practice accounting is the right fit, which helps them decide their next career steps. We benefit by identifying quality candidates to bring onboard once they’re done their degree, and sometimes make an offer two years before they graduate. We’ve gotten to know them, and they already understand the work and our culture.”

Samantha Ng, HR Generalist with Safe Software in Surrey, follows a similar process. She recruits about 30 students every year for four-month co-op terms, extending to eight months for the most suitable ones. “About 25% of our staff are prior co-op students; it’s part of our organizational culture. Our CEO was a co-op student, I was a co-op student. We understand the benefits from both sides,” Ng says. 

One big win is with staff retention. 

“The industry standard is two to three years for technology workers. We’re seeing retention rates of six to seven years. This is our talent pipeline. We’re able to recruit and invest in people that fit with our organization and they’re happy to stick around,” Ng adds.

 Stefan Fletcher, CEO of RebalanceMD in Victoria, hires students across a variety of WIL types: co-ops, internships and practicums in medical, nursing, physiotherapy, kinesiology and other fields. 

“We’ve made a deliberate business decision to build future talent. We’re able to give the students a broad look at an integrated professional practice and an experience of our culture. During the pandemic, their time with us has been different than in years past, however students have been integral in helping us ramp up our virtual services for clients,” Fletcher explains. 

New and more flexible funding opportunities offered by the federal and provincial governments have also opened doors to for some businesses to recruit student. 

Doug Buchanan, co-founder of Yalty Software, was just kicking off his start-up earlier in 2020, when COVID-19 hit and some investors pulled back. Doug actively pursued funding opportunities and with diligence and persistence, has been able to bring on six fully funded WIL students and four recent grads in 2020. 

“We wouldn’t have been able to progress as far as we have this year without the WIL students, who are all working virtually due to COVID-19. We’re already hiring for our next students who will start in January,” says Buchanan.

Zameena Dadani, Director of Communications & Strategic Initiatives with Westcoast Family Centres in Metro Vancouver, says her organization onboards about three or four co-op students each year. However, with the COVID-19 recovery funding, they’ve been able to hire nine students in 2020. 

“Having students on board to help us pivot to remote work and to tackle back-burner projects is a huge benefit. The ideas and skills the students bring are invaluable, and it’s particularly energizing for those who are mentoring the students,” says Dadani. 

Kevin Tucker, an HR consultant based in Kelowna, says that during 2020 he’s helped tech businesses bring on their first WIL student. “For several of my clients, WIL students provide an opportunity for aspiring managers to tackle people management for the first time. As well, building a close relationship with the post-secondary institutions is key. Not only can they assist with much of the student support, it’s also a great way for a new business to make connections in the community,” Tucker adds. 

“It’s been exciting to see how businesses have been able to quickly adapt during this challenging year,” says Nilsson. “Their commitment to building strong future talent is impressive.”