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Dave McKay, CEO of RBC, poses on Bay Street in Toronto on Friday, July 25, 2014. (Darren Calabrese For The Globe and Mail)
Dave McKay, CEO of RBC, poses on Bay Street in Toronto on Friday, July 25, 2014. (Darren Calabrese For The Globe and Mail)

Dave McKay

Experiential learning, agile employees: Getting our students on the right path Add to ...

Dave McKay is chief executive officer of Royal Bank of Canada.

What do Canadian banks and universities have in common? Both are respected institutions, operating at the very heart of the community, with loyal followings and passionate and professional staff. And both sectors are experiencing seismic disruption like never before.

The disruption is taking many forms. It’s technology: The information explosion means anyone with a smartphone can instantly become their own financial adviser – or their own professor. It’s demographics: Think about a rapidly aging baby boom generation, the rise of millennials and the historic impact of sustained, long-term immigration. It’s social values: The decline of loyalty, the loss of trust in institutions and the rise of incredulity are felt by banks just as they are by educational establishments.

As one of the biggest employers in the country for university graduates, we experience the quality of this graduate work force on a daily basis and benefit from it hugely. But as an economic leader, we see cause for concern. While Canada has done a terrific job of enhancing college education, we have fallen from fifth to 17th in university enrolment.

As we stand at this transition point, we need to ask ourselves, are we truly teaching our students how best to tackle the challenges of today – and tomorrow?

One of the ways RBC is tackling change is through agile working. We are changing the way we work. Not just for speed and efficiency, but to instill a mindset suited for innovation. I believe strongly that structured, linear processes won’t produce the intellectual or commercial results we need.

I would argue that our universities also need to find more agile ways to get students on the right path and I believe the best way to do that is through work-integrated learning.

I believe we need an audacious, national goal – to ensure that 100 per cent of Canadian undergrad students are exposed to some form of meaningful experiential learning before graduation. With that goal in mind, we should start with strategic sectors and willing colleges and universities. The financial services sector can and should play a leading role.

Since the turn of the century, we’ve seen a surge in experiential learning in engineering, business and medical science, and as a result, general arts students are being left behind. While the talent pool is improving over all, the erosion of liberal arts is a problem for universities and business. In business, we need a lot more of the soft skills that campuses were traditionally good at.

This need has been shown by a recent survey of Business Council of Canada members, in which 67 per cent of respondents identified collaboration and teamwork as a key skill for entry-level employees. Other skills in high demand included communication, problem-solving and people skills.

I am a passionate believer in the power of experiential and work-integrated learning, which is why I have helped launch a task force through the Business Council of Canada to investigate its use. This is not a factory approach to creating worker bees – work-integrated learning is critical for several reasons. It’s how people learn today. This is a hands-on generation. They like to experiment, to challenge and to share.

Critically, work-integrated learning also improves economic access for minority groups. One of the quiet crises in our economy is that new Canadians and indigenous peoples don’t have the necessary social networks to help them get jobs. Rightly or wrongly, one’s first big job often depends on who you know. Work placements get students in front of employers and act as a social leveller.

Fortunately, we start from a good place. The number of co-op students reached 65,000 in 2013, up from 53,000 in 2006. Expanding access to experiential learning is a national challenge that can be addressed only when universities, colleges, business and government work together. Other countries are doing just that. And I don’t think any of us want to cede what should be the Canadian century to them.

To reach the 100-per-cent goal, we need more government funding for co-ops and work-integrated learning. The recent federal budget took a welcome step, with $73-million over four years to support such efforts. This can help students who can’t afford co-op placement fees, and also ease the burden on employers. Businesses also need to invest more in developing co-op programs. Tax credits would help, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Campuses need to invest in better placement efforts and market their co-op strength to students and employers need to think beyond cookie-cutter models based on traditional semesters to year-round placements and new types of co-op programs. And faculties need to open up more to each other. The business world is increasingly cross-disciplinary; education needs to be, too.

In a world where Canada is smaller and smaller, relatively speaking, we need to make sure that we are fully leveraging all our resources. By encouraging our young talent to work and research in Canada, experiential learning can act as a bridge to create greater prosperity for our country and ensure that we continue to thrive into the 21st century.

This opinion piece is excerpted from a speech delivered to the Universities Canada Governing Council Chamber meeting on April 27, 2016.

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