As the COVID-19 pandemic began disrupting daily life in March 2020, one of the many things upended by the chaos was the hiring cycle of post-secondary students pursuing opportunities for work-integrated-learning experiences, or WIL.
Social-distancing requirements and a widespread switch to work-from-home meant on-site internships were suddenly off the table for a large swathe of students. And with the economy in freefall, many companies were wary of committing to student work placements when the future of the entire business was very much in doubt.
The turmoil created two sets of victims. First were the countless small- and medium-sized enterprises who rely on students to advance important projects while benefiting from their energy, enthusiasm, and up-to-date technical skills. Second were the students themselves, whose post-graduation employment prospects are greatly enhanced by the hands-on experience gained through WIL.
Stuck in the middle of these suffering groups was Riipen, the Canadian company that connects companies and students through short term projects that typically take place inside the classroom. With placements being cancelled and job offers rescinded en masse, Riipen was besieged with requests for help from educators desperate to find new opportunities for their students to work and learn.
As the scale of the pandemic’s global impact and its likely duration started to become apparent, Riipen decided it was time for bold action. The company waived subscription fees for all but its biggest users, making the service free for all small- and medium-sized businesses. The move was originally intended to apply only to the spring and summer semesters, but Riipen soon decided to make it permanent.
“We just really enjoyed helping companies out, especially small businesses,” said Jan Natividad, Riipen’s Growth Marketing Manager. “We decided to keep that forever.”
Free access wasn’t Riipen’s only response. The company also expanded its offerings to accommodate the new pandemic reality, adding remote virtual internships to its mix of experiential learning options. More flexible than traditional in-person internships, Riipen’s new offering allows individuals or groups of students to connect with employers in order to take on projects.
Riipen’s desire to step up amid the uncertainty of the pandemic stemmed from an unwavering belief in its mission to ensure students get meaningful and relevant experience that will help them succeed in the rest of their careers.
“Your first job out of university or college definitely matters,” said Natividad. “When you’re underemployed or unemployed right after graduation, studies show it can affect your job prospects for as many as five to 10 years.”
Helping prepare post-secondary students to enter the workforce, while also providing a valuable talent pipeline for businesses of all sizes, has been central to Riipen’s mission since it launched in 2013, having grown out of a class project co-founders Dave Savory and Dana Stephenson developed at the University of Victoria. Initially available only to Canadian employers and educators, Riipen has since seen rapid expansion at post-secondary institutions across the United States, and around the world.
At Riipen’s core is a three-sided marketplace populated by employers, educators, and students. The marketplace allows educators to integrate real-world work projects into their curriculum. Educators can post a project idea to the marketplace, hoping to attract a needy employer, or they can identify a suitable project idea posted by an employer and integrate it into their student’s course work.
To date, Riipen has helped more than 80,000 students complete five million hours of applied learning with 10,000 different employers. In doing so, it has created positive outcomes for multiple groups of stakeholders. Employers are able to recruit better talent, while post-secondary institutions can more easily incorporate real-world learning into curriculums, while also producing graduates who are more work-ready. Finally, students who participate in projects and internships enter the workforce in a better position to succeed. Taken together, these outcomes combine to improve the overall economy.
“Riipen’s mission is to reduce graduate underemployment and unemployment, which is a short-term goal with long-term implications,” Natividad said. “We need to start making actionable changes today in order to improve our future workforce and economy.”