Katie Knapp, PhD, Work-Learn Institute (WxL) University of Waterloo
The world of work has been rapidly changing for many years. The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated the unpredictable nature of the current employment landscape. Work-integrated learning (WIL) programs have been deeply affected, with many students shifting to remote work. Many questions have been raised about how these changes might impact WIL students. What have their experiences with remote work been like and how can we, as educators and WIL practitioners better prepare our students for remote work? These are exactly the kinds of questions that the research team at the Work-Learn Institute (WxL) at the University of Waterloo aim to tackle.
Our early research on this topic revealed that remote work presented both benefits and challenges to WIL students (Pretti et al., 2020). The challenges that students faced were related to socialization, productivity, and access to meaningful work. Students found that certain skills could be used to mitigate these challenges. The prioritization of communication skills could assist with the challenges associated with a lack of in-person interaction. Independence and initiative became vital, and organization and time management skills were especially crucial in the remote work context. Each of these skills helped students to combat concerns around decreased productivity. These insights can be used by educators and WIL practitioners to prepare students for upcoming remote work terms by highlighting the challenges that students are likely to face and the skills that will help them to be successful.
This is just one example of some of the cutting-edge research being conducted at the world’s only unit dedicated to research on WIL. In this article, we will provide an introduction to the Work-Learn Institute and identify recent research highlights that you may find useful in your work. We will also introduce you to some of the services that we offer and share potential opportunities for future collaborations.
An Introduction to the Work-Learn Institute (WxL)
WxL was originally founded in 2002 as the Waterloo Centre for the Advancement of Co-operative Education and was re-launched in 2020 as the Work-Learn Institute. The relaunch expanded the scope of our research beyond co-operative education to encompass all types of WIL and added innovation, knowledge mobilization and capacity building to WxL’s mandate. Over the last 20 years, our goal has remained the same, to strive for global impact by conducting research on the development of future talent through quality WIL programs. We are in a unique position to achieve this goal as the University of Waterloo has the largest co-operative education program of its kind in the world. This provides us with unparalleled access to the world’s largest database of co-op students along with a large network of over 7000 global employers. At WxL, we leverage the power of this data to address important research questions on the topics of WIL and the future of work.
WxL has adopted several approaches to the advancement of WIL research. We establish and promote quality standards for meaningful WIL programs, and we conduct and promote WIL research on a range of constantly evolving topics in response to stakeholder demands. We also serve as an innovation incubator. We test innovative new models of WIL ensuring the evolution and adaptation of WIL programs in response to the rapidly changing needs of students and employers, and the demands of the labour market. Finally, we act as thought leaders, sharing our insights with the international community of WIL practitioners and researchers. To this end, we have created and maintain the WIL Research Portal, an online database which houses a large library of published WIL research articles and resources in a single location. The portal also includes access to the archives of CEIA’s former journal, The Journal of Cooperative Education and Internships, providing over 50 years of WIL research insights.
WxL Research Highlights
Establishing Successful & Quality WIL Programs
One key area of focus for WxL is the quality of WIL programs and experiences. Increasingly, governments are calling for and providing additional funding to increase access to WIL for post-secondary students (Government of Canada, 2021). More WIL programs are likely to emerge to meet this growing need and in order to ensure desirable WIL outcomes, it is critical that we consider the quality of such programs for all stakeholders involved. To meet this need, WxL created the AAA★ WIL quality framework (McRae et al., 2018). Grounded in decades of research and experience in WIL, the framework offers guidance for those planning and administering WIL programs. It assists in the identification of gaps and offers best practices for ensuring the quality of such programs.
The framework highlights three key elements that are needed for a successful, quality WIL program. The aims of all stakeholders should be clearly articulated, the actions that will be used to accomplish those aims should be outlined, and the achievements of each stakeholder group should be evaluated. To this end, the framework offers a list of potential outcomes and measures that WIL practitioners can use in the evaluation of their WIL programs. The AAA★ framework will be useful both to those developing new WIL programs, and to those with extensive experience in WIL programming, as it outlines a suggested continuous improvement process. Using this framework, WIL practitioners can ensure that all stakeholders, including students, employers, educators, academic institutions, and governments are able to get the most out of their involvement in the WIL experience. If you are interested in using the AAA★ framework to build or evaluate your WIL program, please reach out to the WxL team for assistance.
To build on the components of a quality WIL experience highlighted in the AAA★ framework, the WxL team devotes much of its research focus to understanding additional elements that underlie successful WIL experiences. Such knowledge will allow for the development of further guidelines for improving WIL. One such element is the degree to which students find their WIL experience relevant, from their unique perspective, either to their academic program or their future career goals. The student-identified relevance of the WIL experience matters as it has been linked to work-term performance (Drewery et al., 2016) and satisfaction (Sharma et al., 1995). Given this, the WxL team recently set out to explore the building blocks of relevant work experiences using semi-structured interviews with co-operative education students (Drewery & Pretti, 2021). This work identified four building blocks of relevance for student work experiences:
- social integration
- an appropriate level of challenge
- alignment with the students’ field of work, and
- the acquisition of new knowledge and skills
The findings of this research study have important implications for educators, employers, and WIL practitioners striving to create relevant work experiences for students. If we consider the first building block of relevance, we learned that social integration is incredibly important for the creation of relevant work experiences. One way that WIL practitioners can contribute to creating a successful WIL experience is to encourage socialization. This might involve highlighting the importance of social integration to both students and employers. Students could be encouraged to be proactive in meeting new people at the organization, and employers should be encouraged to focus on the onboarding process and may consider implementing a mentorship program to encourage social integration. Such efforts are likely to enhance the relevance of a students’ work term, which in turn will have impacts on the success of the WIL experience.
Exploring the Future of Work
In addition to our ongoing research focusing on enhancing the quality and success of WIL experiences, the focus of our work is constantly evolving in response to the changing WIL landscape and the future of work. As we face a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous labour market, WIL programs can be used to prepare the next generation of talent for the challenging future that lies ahead (Stevens et al., 2020). Much of our research explores the development of talent through WIL programs. An important early step in this process is to identify the competencies that will be important for the future of work. Although many competency frameworks have been developed, they have not focused specifically on competencies that are relevant for WIL stakeholders to be successful in the future of work. To fill this gap, our research team developed the Future Ready Talent Framework (FRTF; Pretti et al., 2021), an evidence-based tool that helps students, employers and educators understand the crucial competencies that will be in demand in the future workplace.
A thorough search of relevant literatures elicited 46 existing frameworks identifying 29 unique competencies. An examination of these competencies by our research team and a talent development expert led to the creation of the FRTF, consisting of 12 competencies grouped into 4 clusters. The clusters are: expand and transfer expertise, develop self, build relationships, and design and deliver solutions. For additional context, we offer a summary of the develop self cluster. This cluster demonstrates the importance of focusing on and developing oneself. In the future of work, subject matter expertise will not be sufficient for success. The three competencies that make up this cluster include self-management, self-assessment, and lifelong learning and career development. Employees of the future will need to understand that learning does not stop post-graduation. Learning opportunities will need to be sought throughout the lifespan as the importance of upskilling and reskilling grows in the future of work. Supporting the importance of this competency, research from WxL has demonstrated a link between the development of a lifelong learning mindset and both job performance (Drewery et al., 2017) and career success (Drewery et al., 2020). We encourage you to examine each cluster of the FRTF in more depth.
Following its development, the FRTF was validated with WIL stakeholders and behavioural examples of each competency were identified (Pretti et al., 2021). WIL programs are vitally important as they offer students the opportunity to develop and demonstrate these FRTF competencies. An understanding of these competencies can help students to identify what employers are seeking in future talent. They can assess their own skills using the framework and can use that information to market themselves to prospective employers. For employers, the FRTF can assist in the identification, recruitment and retaining of talent that is prepared to face the uncertain future of work. Employers can also use the FRTF as a tool of assessment for work-term students. In fact, the University of Waterloo has incorporated the FRTF into student performance evaluations that employers complete for co-op students each term. Finally, for educators and WIL practitioners, the FRTF can be used to support students. It can be integrated into the curriculum as a part of WIL preparation and training to ensure that students understand the competencies that are important for the future of work.
Future Directions and Opportunities for Collaboration
In addition to continuing our current research programs described above, WxL also has plans to tackle topics around talent and employability. Programs of research are being established to explore how WIL contributes to the development of talent for a complex future and how employers are using WIL programs to access that talent. When it comes to employability, our future work hopes to tackle questions around how students handle the transition into meaningful jobs and careers following their WIL experiences.
As well as our research, we also offer a range of services to employers, organizations, and WIL practitioners. We offer customizable workshops that can be delivered on a range of WIL topics. We are available to partner with employers and organizations to offer custom WIL workplace research to help you explore questions you may have about your own WIL program. We also conduct WIL program evaluations guided by our AAA framework. Our external perspective can assist in the identification of program strengths and areas of improvement in your WIL program.
We are always happy to connect to explore possible research collaborations with other members of the WIL community and we also offer an international visiting scholars program. Please email us at [email protected] to find out more about collaboration opportunities. You can learn more about our ongoing research and services at the WxL website and follow us for updates on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Drewery, D., Nevison, C., Pretti, T. J., & Pennaforte, A. (2017). Lifelong learning characteristics, adjustment and extra-role performance in cooperative education. Journal of Education and Work, 30(3), 299-313.
Drewery, D., & Pretti, T. J. (2021). The building blocks of relevant work experiences. International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning, 22(2), 241-251.
Drewery, D., Pretti, T. J., & Barclay, S. (2016). Examining the effects of perceived relevance and work-related subjective well-being on individual performance for co-op students. Asia-Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education, 17(2), 119-134.
Drewery, D. W., Sproule, R., & Pretti, T. J. (2020). Lifelong learning mindset and career success: Evidence from the field of accounting and finance. Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, 10(3), 567-580.
Government of Canada. (2021). Budget 2021 – Young Canadians. https://www.canada.ca/en/department-finance/news/2021/04/young-canadians.html
McRae, N., Pretti, T. J., & Church, D. (2018). Work-integrated learning quality framework, AAA [White paper]. University of Waterloo. https://uwaterloo.ca/work-learn-institute/sites/ca.work-learn-institute/files/uploads/files/wil_quality_framework_-_aaa_-_for_posting.pdf
Pretti, T. J., Etmanski, B., & Drewery, D. W. (2021). Development and validation of a future ready talent framework. International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning, 22(3), 369-383.
Pretti, T. J., Etmanski, B., & Durston, A. (2020). Remote work-integrated learning experiences: Student perceptions. International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning, 21(4), 401-414.
Sharma, L. A., Mannell, R. C., & Rowe, P. M. (1995). The relationship between education-related work experiences and career expectations. Journal of Cooperative Education, 30(1), 39-47.
Stevens, T., Pretti, T. J., & McRae, N. (2020). Preparing for the future of work through work-integrated learning [White paper]. University of Waterloo. https://publications.uwaterloo.ca/future-of-work-through-work-integrated-learning/welcome/
About Katie Knapp, PhD
Katie Knapp is a Research Coordinator with the Work-Learn Institute (WxL) at the University of Waterloo. Her research at WxL explores a wide range of topics related to work-integrated learning and the future of work. Katie has over eight years of experience working in higher education and holds an MSc in Neuroscience from Western University, Canada and a PhD in Psychology from Massey University, New Zealand.