By: Namish Modi  

When COVID-19 hit, University of Waterloo Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) focused on two key questions: How can students continue to pursue opportunities? What training do they need to remain successful in those opportunities?

“It was a really challenging time for our students, we were quite concerned about finding co-op work terms for them, especially in those early days of the pandemic where there was so much uncertainty and so many jobs being lost,” says Anne Fannon, director of Waterloo’s Work-Learn Institute (WxL). Fannon, who was director of CEE’s Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) Programs when the global pandemic began, recently took part in Reskilling and Upskilling for the Future of Work, a roundtable hosted by Human Resources Director (HRD) Canada. HRD is an online publication for Human Relations professionals.

During the roundtable, Fannon described the resources Waterloo created for students and employers about best practices and strategies for working remotely. The WxL team recognized that because of the pandemic, many businesses needed an influx of talent to help them move to online. Students were an asset.

Waterloo and industry partners collaborated to create and launch a package of Digital Skills Fundamentals courses. The online courses help students to “very quickly gain some of those skills that would be really critical in helping businesses go online,” said Fannon. Hundreds of Waterloo co-op students used their digital skills to help the faculties move courses from in-person to online. Many students participated in the Digital Mainstreet initiative to help local businesses, including retail stores and restaurants, with their digital transformation.

"From our side, what we learned is we can really quickly upskill our students with some of those in- demand competencies, to help meet the changing and emerging needs of the labour force", says Fannon.

In addition to the existing Waterloo Professional Development Program (WATPD), which are mandatory human-centric skills courses for co-op students, upskilling opportunities are highlighted in Waterloo’s Future Ready Talent Framework (FRTF). The FRTF highlights core competencies that help, students, employers, and staff understand how to be successful as the future work of changes.

Preparing for post-pandemic world

“The pandemic accelerated the workforce trends that we already knew were coming including the advances in technology, the need for skill agility and transferability, and the ability to support diverse and inclusive culture in the workplace,” says Fannon.

She adds that traditional forms of training may not be agile enough to meet rapidly changing skill needs. Waterloo has supplemented traditional skills training in new and innovative ways with its programs throughout COVID.

Fannon says that students must develop an ability to take initiative and fill skill gaps in the workforce. “We’ve done a number of studies on the lifelong learning mindset,” Fannon says. “So far, the data suggests that participation in work-integrated learning helps students develop such a mindset. But we still don’t fully understand the conditions that contribute to a lifelong learning mindset.”

In the months ahead, the WxL is going to be diving into that topic through continued research. They will also be thinking about how employers can attract, retain, and convert emerging talent as the work force faces the challenges of post-pandemic recovery.

On November 17, the WxL hosted an event focused on upskilling as part of the Future Ready Workforce Series.