Co-ops and internships

Our position

The next generation of Canada’s entrepreneurs, researchers and innovators require a broad set of skills to succeed in and contribute to the global economy. To meet this need, universities are equipping students with career-boosting learning experiences, such as paid co-ops and internships, research projects and mentorship programs.

But more needs to be done. Universities support the call by the Canadian Business/Higher Education Roundtable for access to work-integrated learning for 100 percent of Canadian postsecondary students.

“Work-integrated learning also improves economic access for minority groups, especially Indigenous Canadians and new Canadians… It’s a social leveller.”

The value of work-integrated learning


David McKay, president and CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada:

I was significantly impacted by my co-op experience, my work integrated learning experience, as a math student at the University of Waterloo. It allowed me to join the great institution that I’ve had the honour of working for for 30 years, at RBC. But it also helped me find my way. I went back to that class after every work term, and I learned differently. I had learned things in those four months. And when a professor – the sage on stage, as we call them today – tried to teach me, I said well, that’s not exactly how it works out there. And yeah, that’s the theory, but no one puts it into practice that way. And I was a lot more critical of how I was being taught, the content I was being taught, and that just grew year over year.

So the benefits of work integrated learning are as co-op students vastly improve the classroom. They teach each other. It levels the playing field. It democratizes access to jobs. Work integrated learning improves economic access for minority groups. So I often I see that first job goes – those great jobs go to someone who knows someone in society, who already has pull and influence. And new immigrants trying to break in, Indigenous people trying to break into those big jobs, don’t have a chance. Co-op and integrated learning levels the playing field. Work integrated learning helps build networks. Doing two, three, four co-ops, you build a network, you meet customers, you interview for the job over time. You build credibility and confidence in yourself, and you’re a completely different person when you enter the workforce. There’s so many powerful benefits inside the classroom, outside the classroom. It helps us get a much greater return on our investment in our students and our taxpayer dollars.

What’s RBC’s role? We’re kind of a unique organization. We’re Canada’s largest company. We have 80,000 employees. We have the budgets to hire, as I went through the numbers, a number of co-ops. But we have to challenge ourselves to use our co-ops and our summer students and our internships a lot better than we have. First, I think we need to set an audacious goal. Why shouldn’t 100 percent of graduating students have access to work integrated learning? Everybody should have access to an internship, apprenticeship, co-op in this country. It’s going to make us better. So with that goal in mind, how do we get there? We do need more government funding. We need tax change. There are tax credits, obviously, but I couldn’t think of a better way to spend some of our infrastructure dollars that we’re targeting for mass transit or other things that the taxpayer can see physically on your campuses to create opportunities for them to innovate, to learn, to continue the dialogue as students when they’re – to help fund some of these apprenticeships to get our students into the workplace. It will pay back multiples to the government. I can’t think of a better investment for our government to make than in the youth. They will get that back ten times over.

Businesses need to invest more in developing co-op programs. RBC needs to do more, our sector needs to do more, other sectors need to do more. We need to find a way to encourage small businesses and commercial businesses to be a big part of this. It can’t just be large corporations. Universities need to do a better job of marketing their co-op strength. It’s an incredible asset. It takes decades to build a core co-op program – as Ferridan (ph) knows,  more than decades; 20, 30 years – but it’s a great investment. We need real-time labour market information systems, something that LinkedIn’s talking about, trying to source every job in the world, just create a map. High school students are crying for it. University students are crying for it. Where are jobs going? How should I think about my curriculum and how it feeds into that labour market? How is it changing over time? What insights can we provide?

We have very little. We’re flying blind right now. We are competing in a very sharp-elbow, difficult world, where the world wants to take our jobs, they want to take our prosperity for themselves. And I fundamentally believe that our universities are essential in helping us compete and producing the next generation of leaders that’s going to maintain our prosperity and our competitiveness across the country. And what I offer is my commitment as a leader of RBC to be out in front, to lead by example – financially to lead by example; publicly to say work integrated learning can be that bridge that I believe will create decades of prosperity for Canada if we get it right.

By the numbers

  • 80%
    of employers

    Four out of five employers surveyed say co-op and internship students are a source of new talent and potential future employees.

    Source: Leger Marketing employer survey for Universities Canada, 2014.
  • 55%
    of undergraduates

    More than half of today’s undergraduates benefit from experiential learning – such as co-ops, internships and service learning – as part of their university education.

    Source: Canadian University Survey Consortium, Graduating University Student Survey, 2015.
  • 25%
    growth in co-ops

    Enrolment in co-op programs at universities has jumped by 25 percent in recent years, from 53,000 students in 2006 to 65,000 students in 2013.

    Source: Based on data from the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education, 2006-2013.

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