Beyond the Book

How Work-Integrated Learning Sets Students Apart

“It is weirdly easy to not have [work] experience… and it makes it that much harder to get your foot in the door,” says Isaac O’Neill, Internship Coordinator for the Career Centre. 

While the focus of university education tends to be classroom learning, experience gained outside of school builds perspective and proficiency. Work-integrated learning is a general term for education gained outside of academic study, and at Redeemer this takes the form of a co-op placement over eight months or an internship part-time over one semester. The post-graduation job search does not have to be a scramble.

Work-integrated learning has different benefits depending on the type of placement. The student tasks may be the focus in some situations, such as learning the process of video editing from start to finish. Simply accomplishing the assigned tasks builds expertise. 

However, even if the placement only offers training on one or two specific tasks, a practical understanding of the workplace gives students an advantage when considering their future career. As O’Neill puts it, “You are more of a fly on the wall, but you are soaking in a ton.”

This was certainly the case for Justin Vos, a fourth year student who completed an eight month co-op at an accounting firm in downtown Hamilton this past spring. 

“I was able to learn a lot by watching other people do the job that I was now doing,” he says

Vos spent much of his co-op term working on only a few tasks, mostly auditing financial documents. Still, he says “by working in what you are learning, and doing it every day for a long period of time, you can carry that forward into remembering something over the long term.” 

The focused approach can be a benefit as well, providing a deeper learning than can be gained when taking a full semester of classes.

In fact, real-world implications were one of the biggest takeaways after Vos’ placement. He explains that “now that I have my work experience and come back to the classroom, I am seeing the theory that I am learning and I have the application in my mind… I have scenarios in my head that I can then reference back to what I am learning in the textbook.” 

O’Neill agrees that understanding the culture of the workplace is a significant part of work-integrated learning. He notes that experiencing a workplace can help students determine their preferences in management styles or organization sizes. 

O’Neill emphasizes the benefit of placement experience on a resume when looking for jobs in a student’s field of study. “[At a placement] you are working with people with industry experience and, honestly, having that on a resume just stands out.” 

There are only benefits to making networking connections early on, and work-integrated learning is an opportunity to get a head start on job searching. O’Neill points out that “the more you can learn early on, the more range you can have in your work experience… At a young age that is very advantageous.” 

Vos acknowledges that some students may find joining a co-op placement intimidating as it adds eight months onto an undergraduate degree. Despite the time commitment, his advice is for students to consider the option, saying, “It is a bit of a short-minded mindset to say, ‘I’m not going to do co-op because I need to get through four years of school and then start making money.’” 

In fact, he sees the interlude of his eight months co-op terms as a financial advantage, noting that “at the end of your five years you will be in the same financial state.” 

O’Neill also suggests internships as an alternative to a co-op position if the commitment is something that might hold someone back from work-integrated learning.

Student work experience is an appealing alternative to a blank resume after graduation. O’Neill emphasizes that the career centre can help search for placements that send students further in their careers, observing, “it is sometimes easier to network as a student in that context than it is when you are a grad simply looking for work.” 

This is partly because an internship or co-op placement guarantees employers a certain number of hours, and partly because students have less immediate pressure to find a job in their field than a graduate.

Work-integrated learning could be a consideration for students when they plan their post-secondary education. Classroom knowledge is important, but tends to emphasize theory. A co-op placement or internship allows students to apply academic knowledge in a more realistic environment. So, by simply integrating work experience into their education, students can get their foot in the door and begin their careers a full stride ahead.