Ontario considers mandatory work experience programs for all students

TORONTO – All Ontario high school, college and university students will have to participate in work co-op programs if the government keeps its promise to implement the recommendations from a panel of business and education experts.

The “highly skilled workforce expert panel” was set up last December to develop an integrated strategy to better link the education system with the future job needs of the province’s economy.

The panel recommends better partnerships between educators and employers to “bridge the gap between the skills industries need and what the workforce offers,” and suggests all students get “experiential learning” or work co-op placements.

“I completely support this recommendation because I believe that young people need to have experiential learning opportunities, both in the elementary and secondary panels, and in the post-secondary education panel,” said Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Former education minister Sean Conway, who headed the expert panel, said Ontario introduced the idea of university co-op programs to the world, and must expand it.

“There needs to be specific targets so that all high school students have at least one work experiential learning opportunity before they graduate the Kindergarten-to-Grade 12 system,” he said. “And all students in post secondary education need to have at least one experiential learning opportunity before they graduate.”

David Billson, president and CEO of Ellipsis Digital in London, Ont., said the region’s technology and digital media sector “is starved for well-trained talent,” and companies are having trouble recruiting new employees.

“One of the hardest things for me as a business owner is to know that our unemployment rate is hovering around seven per cent in the region, when our local technology firms have between 400 to 1,000 open jobs,” said Billson. “Helping us to be able to fill our talent gap will aid in ensuring a bright future for our sector.”

Ontario has to compete with American jurisdictions where there are tens of thousands of high-tech jobs going unfilled because of a lack of skilled workers, warned Conway.

“The problem that we face is also an opportunity, but it’s faced by others not very far away,” he said.

Some parents don’t want their kids to take a co-op course because they think it takes time away from other academic pursuits, and the government needs to help convince them that work experience is crucial to help students succeed, said Wynne.

“Getting this right is critical to the future success of our province and our economy,” she said. “And, yes, it’s crucial to the success of the individuals and the families involved, but that’s in the context of success for the province.”

Important labour market information is not as accessible as it should be, added Wynne.

“(It recommends) giving employers and job seekers better access to critical information such as where the jobs are and which skills employers are looking for,” she said.

The panel agreed that educators and employers need better information on the labour market, and the more local the data the better, added Conway.

“We don’t have enough understanding locally, regionally or sectorally on the specific nature of the demand pull of the local and regional economy,” he said.

Advanced Education and Skills Development Minister Deb Matthews called the expert panel’s report “an aspirational document” that will help build an education system that reflects the needs of Ontario employers, and promised to act on its recommendations.

“We’re saying we want to see 100 per cent of students graduating from high school and everyone graduating from a post secondary institution having that work integrated learning opportunity,” she said.

“We now have a clear plan of action. We have goals, we have milestones and we have expert advice from all over Ontario on how to proceed.”

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