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Tobyn Sowden believes the hands-on work experience he received as a University of Victoria co-op student was instrumental in his professional development. So when the computer science graduate founded Redbrick in 2011, he was excited to offer students similar opportunities at his own startup.

What started out as a way of paying it forward, however, soon blossomed into a vital company resource.

“Our goals shifted a little bit from just giving back through a co-op program to realizing that not only are we getting real value from co-op students on our team … but our hiring funnel is changing and a lot of our co-op students are applying to full-time jobs when they finish their degrees,” he says.

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As employers across the country cut back their summer student hiring, Redbrick is preparing to welcome its largest cohort ever, adding eight co-op students to its staff of 110.

According to a recent survey, 38 per cent of Canadian employers who were previously planning on hiring summer students may now reduce or eliminate those positions, while 23 per cent are considering rescinding offers they’ve already made. At the same time, however, some Canadian employers are finding innovative ways to maintain or even increase student hiring, often utilizing new government programs for financial support.

“The wage subsidy I think is where everyone should be looking,” says Mr. Sowden, referring to the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which covers 75 per cent of eligible employers’ payroll costs. “My position on these programs that are coming out – and the wage subsidy program in particular – is that it’s a massive program that will likely take us decades to pay off, so if you as a business are eligible and qualified, you have to apply.”

On Wednesday, Ottawa announced another program, a $9-billion package of measures for students that includes a $1,250 monthly benefit.

Even employers that would typically lack the resources to offer summer positions can utilize government programs to engage students for individual tasks and projects. That’s why Vancouver-based Riipen – an online platform that connects employers with specific projects to students from postsecondary institutions – has seen a record number of registrations from both employers and academic partners since the coronavirus outbreak.

“In March we hit a record for company sign-ups; it tripled from the month before,” says Riipen chief executive officer and co-founder Dana Stephenson. “What this tells us it that employers are still interested in engaging students, but they’re looking for innovative options that give them more flexibility.”

Students often receive school credit and earn an income for their contributions, and employers don’t need to spend time and resources recruiting and vetting candidates.

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“Given the current climate they might not be able to commit to a full 560-hour [14-week internship] placement, but now they can use the wage subsidy to potentially do a shorter-term, lower-commitment placement that still provides students with that mentorship,” Mr. Stephenson explains.

It’s an especially attractive option for smaller businesses that often don’t have the human-resources capacity to vet and on-board candidates, many of which are in the process of pivoting their business to respond to the crisis.

Although it may not sound like a traditional summer internship, Co-op Education & Work Integrated Learning Canada, or CEWIL – which regulates and accredits internship programs in Canada – has recently made some changes in hopes of encouraging employers to maintain their student hiring.

“We made a statement so that people knew they could make decisions within their own institutions that would not affect their accreditation at this time,” explains CEWIL president Cara Krezek.

For example, the organization is allowing students to graduate with a co-op degree after completing two co-op terms, rather than the previously required three. It’s also accrediting remote internships and allowing internships to start on June 1, rather than May 1st.

Although many employers have decided to cancel their summer internship programs, Ms. Krezek says she is hopeful that the changes provide employers with the flexibility they need to keep the majority in tact.

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As Mr. Sowden points out, however, these opportunities shouldn’t be considered a form of charity or corporate social responsibility, which are often a target of cuts during lean economic times. In fact, at a time when businesses are struggling, the extra assistance can be vital, especially when there’s a government program to help fund it.

“Rather than losing money right now we’re having it subsidized, so it helps us avoid making hard decisions about these programs,” he says. “I encourage employers to think about how it impacts future hiring, and I’d encourage them to think twice about reneging on commitments.”

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