Dave McKay

Dave McKay (BMath '87)
Alumnus, Faculty of Mathematics
> President and CEO, Royal Bank of Canada

Like many of the students who choose the University of Waterloo today, I was attracted by its co-op program. When I first enrolled as a computer science major in the 1980s, I certainly had no idea I’d end up in banking, let alone eventually lead Canada’s largest financial institution. But Waterloo’s pioneering co-op program changed that. An initial co-op term as a coder at Royal Bank of Canada opened my eyes to a whole world of strategy, customer service and finance. I returned for five more co-op terms at the bank and never looked back.

Those six terms were so instrumental in shaping my career that today I have become a passionate advocate for the power of experiential and work-integrated learning. It’s why I helped launch a task force through the Business Council of Canada’s Business/Higher Education Roundtable (BHER) to investigate its use; it’s why experiential learning is at the core of RBC’s largest-ever community commitment: RBC Future Launch.

I don’t need to preach to the choir. Waterloo alumni know how co-op students who return from their placements are often more demanding and curious, pushing their peers and professors to look for more creative solutions. They have witnessed how co-op jobs have become a critical bridge for employers to outstanding schools like Waterloo. They know how work-integrated learning can act as an important social leveler, removing the reliance on personal networks for that critical first job and improving access for minority groups.

As Waterloo has demonstrated over the past 60 years, the arguments for work-integrated learning have always been compelling. Today, in my mind, they have become irrefutable.

Canada is at a historic crossroads. We have the largest generation of young people coming fully into the workforce at exactly the same time as the fourth industrial revolution – the age of artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things – is beginning to affect every job in the country.

As new research from RBC Economics shows, our country is on the brink of a skills revolution. More than one-quarter of Canadian jobs will be heavily disrupted by technology in the decade ahead. And fully half will go through a skills overhaul.

We certainly don’t see this as a cause for despair. Instead, we believe Canada is heading into an age of strong job growth, with new jobs demanding new skills; in particular, soft or foundational skills. Critical thinking and creativity, communication and collaboration – these will be the standout skills in the age of advanced technology.

Experiential learning will have a critical role to play.

In 2015, together with BHER, I issued a challenge that 100 per cent of Canadian undergrad students should be exposed to some form of meaningful experiential learning before graduation. Today, I remain more convinced of this need than ever. Certainly, we’re heading in the right direction, and the University of Waterloo is leading the way. Since the turn of the century, we’ve seen a surge in experiential learning, but the focus has been squarely on engineering, business and medical science; as a result, general arts students are being left behind.

As our research shows, business is already calling for more soft skills. That call is only going to get louder. A recent survey of Business Council of Canada members backed this up: it showed that 67 per cent of respondents identified collaboration and teamwork as a key skill for entry-level employees, with communication, problem-solving and people skills also in high demand.

If we’re going to move from a jobs economy to a skills economy, we will all have to hire, train, retrain and promote differently to help our future workforce develop portfolios of skills as the landscape of jobs changes. We’ll also need to start recognizing core skills and competencies rather than the job skills that will change faster than ever. Work-integrated learning will help us navigate through this transition.

RBC has clearly stated its intentions. Through RBC Future Launch, we are committing $500 million over 10 years to empower young Canadians by tackling every part of the problem: work experience, skills development and networking. We have several work-integrated learning initiatives planned, and recently started a “no résumé required” paid internship program, with selection based on skills, not work experience. However, RBC can only be a part of the solution. That's why we're working closely with schools, colleges, universities and various levels of government – and calling on every industry to join us.

More than 60 years ago, the University of Waterloo helped start a movement of which I was just one of thousands of lucky beneficiaries. I will never truly be able to estimate the benefits I received from those six terms as a co-op student. As we move to a skills-based economy, my hope is that 100 per cent of Canadian students will soon be able to say the same thing.