Closing the "Need Experience to Get Experience" Gap
Work-integrated learning opportunities help students connect with employers.
It's a concern that's been whispered across high school cafeteria tables since the dawn of time, or at least since the dawn of the resumé — how do you get the job if you don't have job experience?
Fortunately, many colleges and universities have stepped up to provide that first employer connection — in fact the number and types of opportunities has exploded. Which raises another question: what's the difference between them?
Placement versus project
At Algonquin College, Jessica Brown, Academic Manager of Work-Integrated Learning, PLAR and Pathways is one of the friendly faces available to help students sort out their options. There, the general term for employer connections is "work-integrated learning" (WIL) and the experiences fall into two categories: "placement based" or "project based".
Placement-based learning, such has field placement, clinical placement and co-ops, involve students participating at a workplace. Co-ops are at least four months long, alternate with coursework terms, and are paid. Field and clinical placements include scheduled hours of activities that take place at a workplace; clinical specifically refers to the health care industry.
Other forms of placement based learning include community service learning, which provides volunteer experiential learning opportunities intended to enhance students' work and personal development by bringing them together with community partners to address local public social issues and community needs.
Learning enterprises combine real clients with simulated workplace environments that are created on an Algonquin campus or learning environment. The Salon, Spa and Boutique, for instance, is a fully functioning enterprise that is student powered, offering hair and esthetic services with the latest industry knowledge, supervised by industry certified instructors.
As for project based learning, options include applied research, or project based learning where students engage with employers to solve problems and complete projects. For instance, computer engineering students engage in a project to create an app for a business in return for mentorship.
With co-op offerings expanding, some programs today feature two or three placements over the course of a program. These allow students to try out different workplaces, another important advantage. "Sometimes these experiences help students decide what they don't want as much as what they do," says Brown, adding that planning co-op work-terms strategically can be a good way to test what you like.
Bring your questions
Since terminology and policies differ, most colleges and universities have resources to help you sort through the details, from program coordinators to placement offices. Brown suggests that some good questions to ask them might include:
- How long or how many hours is the opportunity?
- Is the opportunity optional or mandatory for your program?
- Does everyone have access to the opportunity, or do you or need certain qualifications? (Some require a minimum GPA, and some clinical placements can require medical tests or criminal record checks.)
She also advises asking for statistics on how many students get job offers from their work placements, something programs are starting to track. "The whole reason why there are so many opportunities now is because of the need to help students make the transition from school to workplace," says Brown.