Working on purpose

judene prettiLike so many girls who love mathematics, Judene Pretti (BMath ’97, MMSc ’09, PhD ’19) wanted to be a high school teacher. She studied math at the University of Waterloo and even went on to obtain a teaching degree.

But Pretti took a different path and is now the director of the University’s new Work-Learn Institute, the world’s only research unit of its kind dedicated to examining work-integrated learning programs.

While it may seem like a stretch from her original career plans, Pretti says the two paths share a common thread: “My personal value system is all about helping people. That core theme of being an educator and supporting the development of students is foundational to the role I am in right now.”

Finding purposeful work can be elusive at the best of times. During a global pandemic, when so many people are experiencing enormous loss, it can also feel like a luxury. But Pretti says your core values may be the only constant in a future of profound change. “The importance of thinking about purpose­ – thinking about what drives you and what you’re good at – is a much more future-friendly approach to careers than having one path in mind,” Pretti says.

My personal value system is all about helping people ... supporting the development of students is foundational to the role I am in right now.


Norah McRae, associate provost, Co-operative and Experiential Education, says Pretti’s leadership of the Work-Learn Institute comes at a vital time. “The value of data-driven decision-making is critical in shaping the future direction of all the student programming within our unit. We have the greatest young talent database in the world to fuel our research into work-integrated learning,” McRae says.

Waterloo's Future Ready Talent Framework

Becoming more self-aware of one’s values is part of developing self. It’s one of the four clusters of competencies in Waterloo’s new Future Ready Talent Framework, a research-backed tool developed by the Work-Learn Institute to help students, employers and educators understand the key competencies they’ll need to navigate the future of work and learning.

The three others are building relationships, expanding and transferring expertise, and designing and delivering solutions. Building relationships, one of the core outcomes of co-op, explicitly includes intercultural effectiveness within the framework. “That’s not just an awareness of other cultures,” Pretti says. “It’s about embracing values and behaviours that are consistent with an appreciation for equity and inclusion.”

Expanding expertise is the foundation of post-secondary education. The new framework contains a broader imperative to embrace the reality of lifelong learning. The last of the four competencies, designing and delivering solutions, captures the ideas of creativity and an innovation mindset. “An innovation mindset is a critical skill whether you start your own business or not. It’s obviously tied to entrepreneurship but all organizations that want to be successful are going to have to adapt and innovate,” Pretti says. “Those skills are going to be critically important no matter which paths students take.”

norah mcraeMcRae says the University needs to develop students’ skills and talents to withstand the challenges they will face in an ever-uncertain world. “Working together with our Centre for Career Action and co-operative education and work-integrated learning units, Judene’s team will be instrumental in helping our employers, our students and our institution understand and respond to the complexity of today’s workplace,” McRae adds.

Pretti says the Future Ready Talent Framework will be built into the interactions Waterloo’s Co-operative and Experiential Education services has with students: conversations about careers, workshops, professional development courses and work-term consultations. On the employer side, the four clusters of competencies will be part of student-performance evaluations for co-op work terms starting in 2021.

Students and employers working together

“We want students and employers to know these skillsets and understand the language so everyone is singing from the same song sheet,” Pretti says.

The framework will help employers create quality work-integrated learning experiences to attract the kind of talent that will be successful in the future. “It’s a very broad look at the future,” Pretti says. “We’re looking at how quality programs are designed from an employer and student perspective.”

Pretti, who began working at the University more than 20 years ago as a co-op student and then a computer science instructional support co-ordinator, says she could never have imagined where she would be when she started her math studies at Waterloo. “I have been really fortunate to work at a university that has given me these opportunities to contribute in a way that is meaningful to me.”