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Experiential learning — helping Canadians develop talent for innovation

February 13, 2020
By: 
Gail Bowkett
Director of Innovation Policy
Mitacs

Canada has many competitive advantages, not least of which are our world-class researchers and universities that continue to be leading destinations for international talent. Yet despite these advantages, concerns persist about Canada’s lagging competitiveness, underwhelming productivity, and untapped innovation potential in today’s rapidly changing global economy.

Fortunately, there is growing recognition that leveraging our highly educated university graduates in support of innovation and productivity is smart policy, and that doing so can help ensure that Canadians reap the full social and economic benefits of their significant investments in research and higher learning.

For example, the Government of Canada recently created the Future Skills Centre, expanded the Student Work Placement Program, and funded a national matching platform to help expand experiential learning opportunities. In its 2019 budget, the federal government expressed a desire to ensure that, within 10 years, every post-secondary student who wants a work-integrated learning opportunity gets one.

Thanks to strong government and business support, Mitacs has been able to triple its research internships in five years, going from about 3,000 in 2013 to about 9,000 by 2018. And the consistently positive user feedback we’ve seen demonstrates that this expansion need not occur at the expense of quality.

Universities have also been hard at work ramping up professional development programming that complements traditional academic programs. We heard several such examples during a special symposium on Future Skills and Talent Development at the 2019 Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC). For instance, our co-speaker Nana Lee from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto shared her experience of helping hundreds of biomedical students develop the skills they will need to achieve rewarding careers, often through quality experiential learning opportunities, where students learn how to interact with and navigate through professional settings outside the university. 

It is a promising sign that so many policy makers, educators, and employers are embracing experiential learning on a large scale. But while our discussions at CSPC 2019 concluded that experiential learning works — in fact, it works extremely well to help students connect their academic experiences to the workplace — we also agreed that there remains tremendous scope to use these opportunities to help students gain the skills the Canadian economy needs.

We know the Mitacs model of experiential learning works, because both employers and students express consistently high levels of satisfaction. We regularly survey both employers and interns involved in our programs, and employers are consistent in affirming that their interns bring valuable skills into the workplace and develop additional competitive market skill sets while there. And on the intern side, a large majority would recommend internships within industry to their peers. Most interns report improvements in professional skills development, employment outcomes, and career progression, as well as increased interest in pursuing research careers in the private sector.

These successes suggest that recent government investments to expand experiential learning opportunities are putting Canada on the right track, but it’s also clear the work is far from done. Demand for experiential learning among both students and employers is still growing. And the better we understand the benefits of experiential learning, the more evident it becomes that these opportunities not only contribute to the skills development and career trajectory of our graduates, but also to the competitiveness of Canadian businesses.

Organizations supporting experiential learning, like Mitacs, universities and others, are working to meet demand, reach more people and firms, and ensure that students are building the right skills to navigate their professional careers. It is up to all of us to make sure that we are maximizing the benefits of these experiences for both students and employers.

The better we become at providing high-quality experiences, the better we will position Canada to take full advantage of the academic training and technical knowledge of our graduates. Achieving this worthwhile goal will require long-term commitment, as well as greater coordination and information sharing among the partners involved in providing these opportunities.