By: Namish Modi (he/him)

Speakers highlighted the variety of ways in which employers can engage with emerging talent at the recent Employer Impact Conference. Whether through job postings, with sustainability and equity, diversity, inclusion and anti-racism (EDI-R), or through other business practices, talent is evolving and so too must organizations that want to be future-proof.

Hosted by the University of Waterloo's Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) unit, the inaugural Employer Impact Conference focused on “The Talent Evolution.” The half-day conference included eight virtual sessions and attracted more than 1,000 registrants including employers, students and industry experts. Throughout the conference, CEE provided valuable research-backed insights into engaging with future talent.

Sixty-five years ago, Waterloo began its journey to establish ourselves as leaders in co-operative education and work-integrated learning. Today, we continue to provide our employers and partners with thought leadership and the inspiration they need to build a sustainable talent strategy.


The conference showcased the breadth of the programming and future-proofing strategies CEE provides to employers and students. Michael Steele (BASC ’81), philanthropist and former Waterloo co-op student, was the conference’s keynote speaker and exemplifies the power of co-operative education.

“The ability to work my educational profession into job experience was very important for me,” says Steele. As the founder of the The Steele Family Foundation, Steele now helps support students in becoming changemakers through work experience in the non-profit sector.

Steele talked about the importance of continuity and career planning through programs like co-operative education. He highlighted the importance of giving back to the next generation of talent including plans for the World Impact Scholarship & Education (WISE) program.

How can employers make a difference? Here are key insights to get ahead of evolving talent:

1. Attracting next-gen talent starts with a job description.

The workforce has changed dramatically and tech-savvy co-op students are in high demand to help organizations adjust to digital transformations. How can organizations attract in-demand students?

According to research from Waterloo’s Work-Learn Institute (WxL), the following keywords in job descriptions can make a difference:

  • company culture
  • programming languages
  • food and games
  • compensation
  • values and career development

paper with a checklist and pen in front of a gear

Arminder Bassi, third-year Arts student, shared that a descriptive, specific and accurate job title helps attract her to job postings. Stephanie Kears (BA ’20), account coordinator at CEE, emphasized that students are attracted to roles that provide meaningful learning opportunities.
“Job descriptions are a small piece of that, but it’s your first chance to connect with students and find that fit,” says Kears. “Speaking to a holistic experience rather than just job duties, will help find students who are ready to surprise you.”

2. Onboarding is important for talent retention.

“The goal of onboarding is to take an outsider and turn them into an insider,” says Anne Fannon, Work-Learn Institute director. Through a survey of 700 students, the following factors were identified as important when onboarding:

  • personalized welcomes
  • job training
  • connecting with expert colleagues
  • collaborative work
  • contact information for colleagues
  • one-on-one time with manager

two hands shaking in front of 3 people

Nevetha Kugathas, co-op research assistant at WxL, found that being paired with an onboarding buddy helped her feel comfortable. “A welcome message goes a long way,” she says. “Socializing with full-time staff is equally important for networking opportunities and opportunities for growth.” 

3. Key competencies help navigate the future of work and learning.

The Future Ready Talent Framework (FRTF), a research-backed tool created by CEE, helps students, employers and educators understand the key competencies needed to navigate the future of work and learning. The FRTF helps:

  • employers find a common language for communication of role requirements
  • students set goals for ongoing development
  • focus on future-ready skills and the need for lifelong learning

gear connected to a speech bubble, graph and profile

Ingrid Kaffka (BA ’23), encourages employers to write job postings that tie in the FRTF. The transparency helps students understand the core competencies they can develop.

4. Sustainability provides meaning at work.

Generation Z, those born between 1994-2006, want purpose-driven companies and brands. Advancing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their work terms is an important way to provide meaning. In 2022, CEE leaders co-authored research centered around how Waterloo co-op students help to advance the SDGs.

As Priyanka Lloyd, executive director of Green Economy Canada, shared at the conference, “Becoming more sustainable is the right thing to do; it’s a better way of doing business.” Taking meaningful action on sustainability can help attract and retain top talent, boost productivity and reduce turnover costs.

hand holding buildings next to a world globe

“Survey after survey show that millennials and Gen Z make up most of the workforce. They want to work for a purpose beyond a pay cheque,” says Lloyd. Actions organizations can take include:

  • linking compensation to sustainability performance
  • establishing goals and publicly disclosing performance
  • providing ethics training and ethical tax policy
  • collaborating with industry peers such as Indigenous experts

5. Inclusion and belonging are essential.

Gen Z will be the most diverse talent to ever hit the workforce. Inclusion and belonging through the lens of EDI-R and Indigenous Relations (IR) provide vital success for the future.

David Markin, manager of algorithms and analytics at Lumentum, shared his own journey as well as the organization’s journey over the past four years. “Companies that embrace an inclusive and diverse workforce, actually outperform other companies,” says Markin.

person in wheelchair

“If you can make one person feel part of the Lumentum family every day that you’re at work, you’re going to impact a lot of employees and make a big difference.”

Lumentum, the 2021 recipient of the Employer Impact Award in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, values the perspective co-op students bring in shaping initiatives around diversity, inclusion and belonging. The company highlighted the following initiatives they’ve implemented:

  • gender pay reviews
  • lunch and learn sessions
  • unconscious bias training
  • gender-neutral job postings
  • cultural communications
  • diversity, inclusion and belonging student scholarships