Education + Experience = Employment
Work Integrated Learning (WIL) is the umbrella term for applying academic learning in a professional environment—through an internship, co-op, service learning or even a hackathon.
WIL is currently a hot topic across many postsecondary campuses. As such, many institutions are working towards clearer nomenclatures and improved student participation in these programs, including Western University, which struck a task force and put forward a set of definitions (which can be found here).
At Western Continuing Studies, all of our post-degree diploma students progress through WIL offerings, which have high employment outcomes that support our ability to promote our diplomas and recruit new incoming cohorts. Our 2018 class has a 91% in industry employment rate one year after graduation. I’d like to share a few strategies and methods that have led our success.
Western Continuing Studies offers seven post-degree diploma programs. All seven include a WIL component, which we call a practicum. All diploma students require a related undergraduate university degree before being offered admittance into these competitive programs. The students are full-time Western University students, and their practicum (and other diploma course grades) appear on their official Western transcript. These diplomas vary widely in their focus. We have a diploma for Pedorthics (Canada’s only such program, and the only educational path to become a registered Canadian Pedorthist), Occupational Health and Safety Management, Clinical Trials Management, Marketing, Public Relations, Human Resources and Not-for-Profit Management. Critically, we ensure that each of our diplomas is responsive to the current labor market. This is one of our success factors: We are training students in areas that require skilled labor and where there is a healthy need for employees.
For all of our diplomas, the students are provided with career development support throughout their academic career, long before they venture to their practicum. This support is mandatory and tied to participation marks in the practicum course. Even if the students don’t see the value of a resume workshop at the outset, they generally are very interested in maintaining their grade point average. This career support takes the form of workshops, individual support such as mock interviews, and mandatory resume drafts and revisions. All our diploma students leave the program with a professional, up-to-date resume, and coaching on the job application process, including interview preparation. We feel this improves student confidence and puts them one step ahead of other candidates.
The selection process for practicum sites mirrors a traditional job process. Postings are solicited from interested organizations, and each student cohort applies competitively to the postings. This provides the students with application and interview experience. Additionally, as most students will also receive multiple offers of practicums, they also have the enviable practice of juggling multiple offers and declining in a professional manner. They are coached throughout the process to ensure they are maximizing their network and maintaining a strong professional brand.
Once the student is on site in their practicum, they are required to complete a learning contract and set six personal learning goals. We feel that this structure around the practicum aids both the student and on-site supervisor. These goals are set, in collaboration with their supervisor, to reflect what the student wants to learn or achieve and what the supervisor would like to see the student accomplish. The goals might focus on skills essential for the industry, or a skill the student possesses that they would like to further refine.
In addition to allowing the student to specifically design the competencies they’d like to put on their resume, the goal-setting process also provides a useful structure to the placement. The students have a roadmap to fall back upon if they ever feel out of place or unsure of what they should be doing during their practicum. The supervisor’s assessment of these goals constitutes 50% of the student’s grade, so there is also a clear reward and motivation for the students to achieve their goals. Since the supervisor is grading the student, there is also a strong reason for the student to ensure that the supervisor— not just the practicum coordinator—is happy with their output. This creates an environment where students are motivated to achieve their goals, are connected to their site, and are compelled to make sure their supervisor is clear on their progress and achievements (since they’ll be marking them!). This creates a symbiotic connection between the student and supervisor. The student also is required to create a weekly reflective learning journal, which is also marked by their site supervisor. This is another avenue to support the student in their relationship with their supervisor. Students can use the learning journal to ask questions, to reflect on tasks that didn’t go well, and to provide their supervisor a glimpse into their experience. We find this creates a richer mentorship experience between the supervisor and student.
Each student supervisor is contacted for a halfway point site check-in. For most calls and visits, it’s an opportunity to hear about the fantastic progress the student is making and the value they’re adding to the organization. For some placements that aren’t going as well, this is an opportunity for the site to provide constructive criticism. This feedback is then taken back to the student for further one-on-one coaching, to endeavor to turn around the experience and hopefully arrive at a more positive outcome. The students are in a required educational component of their diploma—and this is communicated to all site supervisors at the outset. This provides latitude for mistakes that the student might not be afforded in a real-world job.
Western Continuing Studies remains in contact throughout the practicum, and students are encouraged repeatedly to reach out if there are any issues or questions. This helps our team navigate situations in the case of unforeseen issues. Practicum supervisors are like having hundreds of remote instructors. It’s important to keep in touch and be available to both the students and supervisors to ensure that expectations and outcomes are in alignment. Sometimes the situation cannot be effectively resolved, and our team works with the site and student to ensure a good learning outcome and the completion of the diploma requirements. This can look like removing the student from the site (at the request of student or supervisor) and moving the student off-cycle so they complete their diploma outside of their cohort, at a new site. This requires flexibility from both practicum coordination and our admissions officer. Being nimble while keeping good learning outcomes for each student top of mind, allows us to flex our timelines and work with students individually.
All of these factors come together to provide our students with a high in-industry employment percentage, which in turn make them strong ambassadors for our programs. In fact, we have numerous former students who now regularly host students themselves. The student’s experience is the best recruitment tool of all.
Author Perspective: Administrator