Perks of WIL partnerships

In our most recent issue of Insight newsletter, we explored how supporting the professional development of your current employees can boost retention and resiliency in your organization. One way to do this is through work-integrated learning (WIL) programs – hiring co-op students provides new leadership opportunities for your workers, while getting fresh perspectives from the next generation of talent. We also know that co-op provides direct access to lifelong learning talent and opportunities to build organizational commitment, but students don’t always land co-op jobs within their desired field. Since alignment with their field of study is a building block of relevant WIL experiences, it’s critical to understand how you can provide a meaningful work experience for students in roles not directly related to their career goals or academics, while ensuring that your organization also benefits from the work term.

Here at Waterloo, we’ve seen these factors play out in real time over the last two years in the form of our online learning assistant (OLA) program. The OLA program was rapidly developed in time for the beginning of spring term in May 2020 – pairing instructors with co-op students to support the transition to virtual and hybrid learning, with the dual benefit of providing much needed co-op jobs during the early days of the pandemic. The Work-Learn Institute held a magnifying glass up to the OLA program to examine the outcomes for employers, students, and the work they were both performing. The unexpected outcomes of the program taught us a lot about what makes a successful WIL experience, and how you can set up your WIL program for success.

It takes two

supervisor listening to student

Employers and students are both responsible for contributing to a successful WIL experience but it starts with the supervisor! When a supervisor begins the working relationship in a positive, helpful, and encouraging way, the student is more likely to reciprocate and contribute positively to the relationship. Properly nurtured, these reciprocal relationships are characterized by mutual respect, trust, and diminished hierarchies. The resulting partnership fosters empowerment and increased motivation for both the supervisor and student. Research shows that these positive, productive, and reciprocal partnerships lead to increased job satisfaction, performance, retention, and organizational commitment.

Win, win

OLA program instructors and students both found themselves in unfamiliar territory – many instructors were supervising WIL students for the first time, students were suddenly on the other side of learning, and the role lacked an obvious connection to student career goals or academics. The purpose of the OLA program was to provide instructors with support during the rapid transition to online learning and assistance with technology issues, but when both the supervisor and student invested in their partnership, unexpected but beneficial outcomes emerged:

  • Supervisors gained new insights into the perspective of their audience or (customers), influencing how they approached their work, and leading to innovative changes.
  • Students became co-creators, directly impacting course design, development, content, delivery, and curriculum, learning new skills as result.
  • Supervisors experienced productivity and efficiency gains – having support with their workload allowed them to focus more on the quality of their work.
  • Students learned and developed technical and transferable skills through their roles, additional project work, and professional development opportunities.

When you provide that investment in the co-op students, it really does increase the calibre of the products that are produced by the end of the experience.

Recipe for success

Not every WIL partnership will exceed your expectations. When we looked at the OLA program, a pattern of behaviours emerged that resulted in these additional benefits, and it all comes down to one thing – mindset! Having a reciprocal mindset will help improve your future WIL partnerships.

About half of the supervisors demonstrated a reciprocal mindset - viewing their co-op student as more of a colleague, and about half of the students demonstrated a lifelong learning mindset. Combined, these mindsets were more likely to support the building of reciprocal partnerships, help the students find relevance in their work, and enable transformative results in the organization. What do these mindset behaviours look like?

Supervisors with reciprocal mindsets want to ensure that their students are benefiting from the work experience as much as they are. They demonstrate this by investing in their students through:

  • Empowering their students
  • Providing necessary and additional support to accomplish their work
  • Ensuring the work includes learning opportunities or making time for supplemental professional development
  • Helping the students create meaning and relevance in their jobs

Students identified some specific behaviours in their supervisors that helped them find relevance in the work they were doing, which you can easily apply in any WIL program.

  1. Give students flexibility in deciding what to work on and how to get it done, and ownership of their project work. Providing additional autonomy and responsibility, and being open to new ideas or suggestions, builds mutual trust and respect.
  2. Think outside the job description and make room for task customization. Allow students to choose their own adventure by growing their skills and knowledge in areas of interest, taking on extra tasks or responsibilities, or providing them with supplemental professional development or learning opportunities. This demonstrates a willingness to invest in the student, and they’ll be more likely to return the favour!
  3. Build socialization into onboarding processes. Making time to build personal connections and find common interests increases motivation and may lead to workplace friendships! Ensure there is frequent two-way communication with students and be open and accepting in those communications. Offer networking opportunities with other students and full-time staff to enable knowledge transfer and foster organizational commitment.

Interestingly, these behaviours also contribute to a more inclusive and accessible workplace – neurodivergent students often excel when they can focus on work they’re interested in and are given the freedom to work in their preferred style!

Students with lifelong learning mindsets:

  1. Demonstrate initiative and self-empowerment, by taking on or asking for tasks to work on and are willing to share their ideas for improvement.
  2. Display a learning orientation. Find out what they’re eager to learn, and they’ve taken what they’ve learned and applied it in other experiences.

Watch the recording of our recent Future-ready workforce series to learn more about lifelong learners, how to identify them, and how they can benefit your organization.

Get organized

What can your organization do to support and encourage these mindsets and productive WIL partnerships?

  • Ensure you have the necessary support and resources for your WIL program and supervisors, including the time needed to do it right.
  • Establish clarity around what WIL students can or cannot work on so that the supervisor and student can both be flexible within those boundaries.
  • Provide your WIL supervisors with training on the features of reciprocal partnerships and the benefits of reducing power imbalances.

Building reciprocal partnerships takes time and effort, and, yes, there may be an initial drop in productivity, but the more you put into the relationship, the more you will gain from it. As one of the OLA supervisors noted, “When you provide that investment in the co-op students, it really does increase the calibre of the products that are produced by the end of the experience.”