Finding students to fill short-term employment opportunities can sometimes be a challenge for employers. Particularly at small and medium-sized enterprises, the process of hiring a student for a work-integrated learning (WIL) placement can sometimes feel daunting and complicated.
Still, the potential benefits are certainly worth the effort, says Dr. Athena D’Amato, a WIL expert and a co-founder and director of Angle Media Group in Toronto.
“Without question, taking on a student and working with an institution is definitely more work than your typical day-to-day, but it also brings so much to an organization, to a student, and to a community,” Dr. D’Amato says.
Here are some tips and insights from Dr. D’Amato and Taryn De Ruyter, Co-op Program Specialist at Ryerson University’s Career & Co-op Centre, for employers looking to hire a WIL student.
Talk to your colleagues when you’re thinking about creating a WIL placement, especially if you’re going to be creating a new position. “Workshop with your team to find out where the gaps are,” says Dr. D’Amato. “It’s really important to make this a collaborative, engaging activity for the team that you’re working with.”
Internships and co-ops are popular, but there are many other types of placements that fit under the WIL umbrella. “There’s lots of different types of work-integrated learning: practicums, internships, co-ops; all of them have different definitions and some come with different types of provincial and federal incentive programs,” says De Ruyter. “The students don’t necessarily need to be in a co-op program, and employers can really recruit all different types of students for different types of positions, whether it’s part-time, full time, seasonal, or an internship.”
Particularly right now, there is some flexibility with WIL requirements, as long as learning outcomes are met, according to Dr. D’Amato. She suggests connecting with programs and WIL facilitators in different departments of a post-secondary institution if you’re looking to create a hybrid opportunity or want to offer a customized placement.
“There are creative solutions, just because a facilitator or a website says one thing it doesn’t mean you can’t problem solve and find a way to integrate those students into your organization,” Dr. D’Amato says. “We’ve all gotten super creative this year — find a way to make it work. And if a certain institution is not open to a creative solution, move on to one that is, because that’s the one you want to build a relationship with.” There are also new venues for collaboration that you can explore. For example, employers can post WIL project opportunities for students on Riipen’s Project Marketplace.
De Ruyter suggests “building a relationship with those key stakeholders from the programs and institutions you’re looking to recruit from,” and connecting with those specialists to talk about the opportunities you’re offering, get advice, and determine the best ways to connect with students. If you’re offering a remote placement, consider connecting with schools outside of your province as well, to gain access to a wider talent pool.
Having an established relationship with a postsecondary institution or program can help employers gain an edge, especially if they’re hiring quickly or don’t have time to interview many candidates. “If you have a good relationship, you can typically call that program coordinator or the work-integrated learning office and just over the phone ask them ‘this is what I’m looking for, can you narrow it down to two or three students and send them my way?,’” Dr. D’Amato says.
“Write your job description around what the role actually requires, and what that student might be coming to you with,” says Dr. D’Amato. She recommends job postings start with high-level information about the company and its culture, rather than focusing on the job’s day to day.
If you have time, research and look at course outlines for the programs you’re hoping to recruit from and tailor the job description around specific skills those students may have learned at school. “Decide what program you want to be pulling from and look at some of the courses or the [skills] that students might have learned, make sure it does fit your needs,” advises Dr. D’Amato.
Take the time to emphasize the experience and skills students will learn during the placement, especially if you’re a smaller start-up or SME that is competing with more established organizations for talent. “There are lots of students and lots of programs that require [very structured placements], but there are also a lot of students who don’t know what they want to do,” says Dr. D’Amato. “Working with a smaller company allows [them] to wear many hats.”
Another tip is to use a “clear and enticing” job title that will attract more clicks, De Ruyter suggests. “Have a job title that can really speak to the nature and key responsibilities of the position,” she says. Employers should also confirm in the posting which qualifications and competencies are essential, and which would be an asset. “Some students who could be otherwise great candidates for a role can get intimidated by a posting where they don’t meet every requirement,” De Ruyter says.
During the interview process, Dr. D’Amato recommends asking applicants about the hard and soft skills they could bring to your organization, and their desired outcomes for the placement. Ideally, these skills will complement the role you want to fill, and there’ll be a good fit between the opportunity and the student’s academic and career goals.
De Ruyter recommends a combination of technical questions about a candidate’s skill sets and behavioural questions that can speak to their academic, co-curricular, and professional experience.
“I always encourage employers to ask a series of different types of questions, because that will best help [them] get at the different types of qualifications, the drive, the motivation, the competencies that the student can bring to the table,” she says. “Knowledge process questions — questions about how a student might respond to a particular situation that you could see happening in your work environment — can also be a really good predictor of how they’re going to do on the job.”
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