Equipping today’s learners for tomorrow’s work
Thought leader on work-integrated learning leads a global conversation on how to prepare students for the future of work
Thought leader on work-integrated learning leads a global conversation on how to prepare students for the future of workBy University Relations
Norah McRae is leading a global conversation on the future of talent and lifelong learning.
McRae, who is associate provost, co-operative and experiential education at the University of Waterloo, has built a distinguished career as an educator, researcher, scholar and leader.
Her visionary insight into transformative learning through experiential education is a wake-up call for post-secondary institutions to shake off complacency and equip and empower today’s learners for a constantly volatile, uncertain and complex future.
Today, the need for a resilient and skilled workforce is more important than ever before. With all sectors adapting at rapid speed in response to COVID-19, many organizations are now looking to quickly pivot their businesses to online models. However, the technical and digital skills needed to do this work are not always readily available. Under McRae’s leadership, the University of Waterloo has partnered with industry experts to extend its experiential education opportunities by equipping students with digital skills that employers are looking for to help transform businesses and workplaces.
“When we talk about the future of work, talent is one of the big things that industries talk about, especially with demographic shifts and the aging population. It’s all about getting the right people in the jobs who can adapt, and help their workplaces adapt, to the challenges of the future of business,” McRae says.
McRae’s thought leadership has been acclaimed the world over. She recently won The Dean Herman Schneider Award from the Co-operative Education and Internship Association for her significant contributions towards the advancement of of co-operative education. In 2017, she was awarded the Donald McLaren Jr. Academic Award from the World Association for professional achievement in co-operative and work-integrated education. In 2016, she was awarded the Albert S. Barber award from Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada (CEWIL Canada), formerly Canadian Association for Co-operative Education (CAFCE), for outstanding contribution to the field of co-operative education in Canada and was co-recipient of the BCCIE Award for Outstanding Program in International Education.
At what could have been the pinnacle of her career at the University of Victoria, McRae made the bold decision in 2018 to push her own boundaries and come to the University of Waterloo, an institution that offered her an expansive platform to amplify her vision for the future of talent within a complex world.
With an internationally renowned co-operative education program at the heart of her portfolio, Waterloo provided an unprecedented opportunity to better understand and meet the talent needs of industry by leveraging an employer network of over 7,000 organizations in over 65 countries around the world.
The University of Waterloo is also a global leader in analyzing rich data and studying how to create high quality work-integrated learning experiences. As other educational institutions follow in Waterloo’s footsteps, it is important to make sure that co-op and work-integrated learning experiences remain high quality, McRae says. She recently co-authored a white paper providing a framework for quality in work-integrated learning.
The vision for quality extends beyond the intensive Waterloo co-operative education. While approximately 72 per cent of University of Waterloo undergraduate students are in co-op programs, McRae says the University also has a program called EDGE which enables the other 28 per cent to integrate learning with other types of experiences, such as community work, and align those experiences with work-integrated learning outcomes and career development.
The richness of Waterloo’s diverse student work experiences is a perfect backdrop to McRae’s relentless pursuit of creating meaningful experiences that have the impact and intensity to build adaptive resilience in students and future employees. This resilience coupled with a student’s increasing self-awareness through reflection creates a compelling formula for sustained lifelong learning and career success long after students have graduated. As Waterloo has demonstrated for over sixty years, its graduates are indeed future-proven.
McRae says that the University of Waterloo’s experience in co-operative education clearly shows that work-integrated learning can truly be “win-win” for students and employers — for every $1 a business invests in a Waterloo co-op student, there is a $2 economic gain. “We started in 1957 with the idea that work and learning do not need to be mutually exclusive. If it is well-organized, well-integrated and supported, as it is here, then everyone benefits,” she says.
Waterloo’s pragmatic beginning saw local entrepreneurs and academics partner to create a novel and yet-untested educational model that integrated work with academic excellence. Today, it shines as a beacon for the future of post-secondary education.
So, what’s next for McRae and Waterloo?
McRae aspires to develop learning-integrated work programs that equip and empower professionals to develop their knowledge and their skills to readily keep pace with a changing world of work. With its commitment to lifelong learning, Waterloo is poised to play a key role in building a sustainable talent pipeline to propel Canadian innovation on the global stage.