When Larissa Meleiro walked into her first day of her hospitality internship at a Hampton by Hilton hotel in Toronto, she knew she was ready to be there.
“The hands-on training I received at George Brown gave me the skills to handle different situations that I encountered,” explains Meleiro, who enrolled in the Hotel Operations Management course at Toronto’s George Brown College in 2019. “I went to a college for that exact reason, because I was looking for technical skills and hands-on learning.”
Canada’s polytechnic institutions, like George Brown, are highly sought after for their focus on applied and experiential learning. This type of teaching gives students the confidence, as well as the technical and soft skills employers require in their chosen industry, ensuring employers are getting graduates that are ready to tackle the job on day one.
In fact, Meleiro was offered a job once her internship was over, and continues to work with the Hilton hotel group. She says her training in everything from customer relations to mixology in a diverse environment made her ready for the hospitality industry as an in-demand professional.
“At the same time that we were learning the foundational skills and support knowledge we were also doing hands-on learning and networking with industry professionals,” recalls Melerio. “It was very useful because not only did I feel prepared, but the teachings allowed me to see what the expectations are in the hospitality culture.”
Being job ready is just one of the benefits of experiential learning.
Training at polytechnics is industry-responsive and focused in order to provide students with the necessary skills they need to get a job in a specific industry, such as health care or the energy sector. As a result, this approach makes graduates from these programs highly employable, explains Laura Jo Gunter, president and chief executive officer of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton.
“All of our programming is career focused,” Gunter explains, adding that in 2019, 97 per cent of NAIT students were employed after graduating. “People know they are coming here to get a career and the skills and knowledge they need for that career.”
Hands-on learning means exposing students to elements of industry – from the work setting to the technology – they will experience when they graduate from the classroom. For instance, finance students at NAIT’s JR Shaw School of Business test their investment know-how and develop sound financial management skills by investing and tracking money in the Banking and Stock Trading Simulation Lab.
Developing these spaces fosters innovation, like at The Mawji Centre for New Venture and Student Entrepreneurship at NAIT. It is designed to incubate and nurture student business ideas –– and it’s working. Last year alone, The Mawji Centre helped NAIT students launch 61 businesses.
“It’s a way of learning that exposes them to the realities of the job, but gives them the space to grow,” says Gunter.
Staying current, staying relevant and giving both students and employers what is necessary for employment success is a critical part of the make-up of Canada’s polytechnic post-secondary institutions.
“Technology is in everything,” adds Gunter. “We spend a lot of time with our industry partners developing the curriculum to ensure our students have those skills that the industry wants.”
Back at George Brown, the connection between workplace and classroom is also carefully intertwined. Here the culinary students cook quality meals for the public at the school’s restaurant, The Chefs’ House. Similarly, the WAVE clinic offers professional dental services to the public, giving students at George Brown’s School of Dental Health experiential training under the guidance of professionals.
“We believe hands-on learning is a great way to learn,” explains Dario Guescini, director, Work-Integrated Learning, Experiential Education and Global Mobility at George Brown College. “It’s about the integration of learning through work and through this the student will understand what the real world will be all about and gives them the ability to transition seamlessly from theory to practice.”
Graduates of polytechnic post-secondary institutions are employable right away because they’ve spent their training building confidence and competence in realistic workplace settings. That’s what gives these institutions a “competitive edge,” says Guescini.
“As a polytechnic our DNA is all about supporting the economy,” he explains. “And how do we do that? By having programs that align with industry needs and, in addition to that, we want students in our programs to have real experiences throughout their academic journey, so they are ready to tackle industry needs as soon as they graduate.”
For Meleiro, she feels her educational experience was exactly what she signed up for. It was about getting the experience and getting the job. And that’s exactly what happened.
“People are so welcoming in the industry when you’re a prepared student because they just want to keep you there,” she says. “I think it does make a difference where you go to school and my experience opened doors.”