Work-integrated learning (WIL) — including co-ops, internships and practicums — is widespread in Canada; nearly half of postsecondary students complete WIL as part of their studies. Participation in WIL is associated with higher employment earnings and a higher likelihood of finding full-time work after graduation. Unfortunately, 35% of Canadian postsecondary students have missed out on WIL opportunities since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, opportunities that would have helped prepare them for the workforce. Post-pandemic investments in WIL programs aim to support students and new graduates. However, until attention is given to who can and cannot access these opportunities, we run the risk of excluding certain groups from valuable early work experience and from Ontario’s economic recovery.
Disruptions in WIL participation are likely to have far-reaching impacts on COVID-era graduates who are projected to experience long-term economic repercussions, including losses in earnings, lower wages and disrupted career paths. Students’ experiences of these repercussions may mirror the outcomes from Canada’s post-pandemic economic recovery, where high-income groups are protected from negative outcomes, while lower-income groups face additional disadvantages. Unpaid WIL opportunities favour wealthier students for whom unpaid work for extended periods is a more viable option. Low-income students or students with children may not be able to take on these WIL experiences at all, or may have to take on paid work to subsidize an unpaid WIL placement.
The pandemic saw the emergence of remote WIL opportunities which also favour wealthier students in urban settings since they require access to reliable internet and technology. This compounds an already inequitable distribution of work opportunities for students, particularly for those in rural and low-income communities where reliable and affordable internet access is an ongoing issue for many. Focusing only on increasing the amount of work opportunities available does not address the challenges around the equity of unpaid or remote WIL opportunities.
While the provincial and federal governments have made efforts to improve internet access, and provide financial support for students, other actions can be taken to address the current challenges faced by youth in the labour market. One strategy is the continuation of the recent modification to the federal Student Work Placement Program (SWPP) which allows more employers to access wage subsidies for student jobs. Other strategies could include the provision of technology bursaries to ensure all students have access to the equipment needed and flexibility around work term length or work hours to make opportunities more feasible for students who face barriers or have other responsibilities.
Understanding the baselines of access and inclusion in WIL opportunities, and how they may have changed over the course of the pandemic, is a component of HEQCO’s current work; we are investigating how employers and students have been affected by the pandemic and how they have adapted to remote WIL. The results of this work will provide institutions and government with the information necessary to ensure that WIL is more accessible and inclusive for all Ontarians. While there is no single solution that will solve every challenge faced by youth in the coming years, investments in paid and accessible WIL will help respond to continued unemployment, support student job-readiness, address barriers, and ultimately support Ontario’s future workforce.
Natalie Pilla is a researcher at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.