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Lisa Bifano is graduating from McMaster University in Hamilton with a degree in English and Communications.

PETER POWER/The Globe and Mail

The class of 2013 entered university against a backdrop of economic havoc. The global financial crisis was a year old, job prospects were grim, layoffs were constant and parents were watching their nest eggs take a beating.

This latest crop of graduates was perhaps fortunate to ride out the worst of the recession from the calm of a campus library, but it is now time for many of them to navigate the slow-growth economy. As a recovery refuses to take hold, the lack of youth job opportunities in Canada and other advanced economies is not predicted to fall substantially before 2018, while temporary contract positions are proliferating.

Perhaps because of the relentlessly bleak climate, many students now accept that their path to a stable lifestyle may involve years pinballing their way up the ranks with a mixture of interning, contract work and networking. As a result, they have been calling for ever more work experience – like internships or field work – to be built into their education. Despite some localized efforts, however, universities have been slow to catch up with demand.

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"I don't get the sense that there's a gigantic expansion [of experiential learning] under way. I think there's a growing recognition that this is extremely important and valued by students, by employers, by their families," said Alan Shepard, president of Concordia University in Montreal. "Could we do more? Yes, we could do more."

University leaders say they are trying their best to respond. Half of undergraduate students now get an internship or co-op placement before graduating, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, and a recent survey by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario found that 48 per cent of university students at Ontario schools were participating in "work-integrated learning."

As the HEQCO survey shows, however, those experiences are largely voluntary and remain concentrated in science, engineering and business. In the arts and humanities, only seven per cent are completing co-op placements, 11 per cent landing internships, and 10 per cent doing "service learning" with community organizations.

It's a gap that Mount Allison University president Robert Campbell has personally tried to bridge. With his wife, he created summer internships for students in music, fine art and drama, and hopes such programs will start to spread across humanities programs. "We've tried to shatter this [divide] a little bit," he said.

It should come as no surprise that students from a range of disciplines are agitating for relevant work experience that can help make them employable: 10 per cent of students under the age of 25 with a university degree were unemployed in 2012, up from 7.8 per cent in 2007 and well above the unemployment rate of 6.2 per cent for all Canadian university graduates. An Ontario government survey shows that six months after graduation, 12 per cent of the province's 2009 grad class were out of work, while a further 20 per cent were working part-time. And 30 per cent of Canadian youth with jobs were on temporary contracts in 2011, compared with 27 per cent in 2008, says a new report from the International Labour Organization.

To overcome those odds and "even get the starting job," students are often expected to arrive at their first post-grad job interviews with experience to show – an asset that has "huge value," said Bill Morneau, executive chairman of human resources consultancy Morneau Shepell and a board member with The Learning Partnership, a charitable organization aimed at strengthening public education in Canada. His top concern is that many students are still not "as effective as we might hope" in core communication and numeracy skills.

Universities aren't deaf to demands to link learning more with work experience, and some have launched programs to do just that. "We're more concerned with what graduates become as people than what they do as workers," said Allan Rock, president of the University of Ottawa. "Nonetheless, we're very much sensitive to our responsibility to make sure that our graduates, if they want to seek employment, are ready for that."

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The University of Ottawa's goal is now to have every student involved in experiential learning, Mr. Rock said. In the last five years, the school has added 500 more co-op placements and created a new Centre for Global and Community Engagement that connects more than 2,600 students to volunteer opportunities and community partnerships.

McMaster University opened a new Humanities Target Learning and Experiential Education Centre in January to offer arts students internships and practical experiences.

Graduating student Lisa Bifano, 21, helped create the new centre after seeing strong demand from classmates through her years in student government. "I have noticed students taking on extra volunteer opportunities and paid or unpaid internships just to kind of build their portfolios a bit more and separate themselves among the sea of individuals who have a bachelor's degree," she said.

What is clear is that "students today are clamouring [to get] their hands dirty," Dr. Shepard said. But to launch a new program providing placements for even 500 students each year, "just think about how many relationships need to be nurtured by the university," he cautioned, adding that "you don't want to do them badly" and wind up funnelling students to roles where they do little more than make photocopies.

Still, Canadian universities are hoping to increase their experiential learning opportunities, Mr. Rock said. But doing so costs money and time, and means hunting for worthy partners.

"We can go out and beat the bushes in the community and say, who wants to take a student?" he said. "That's labour-intensive, and so far, we have hundreds of organizations in the community playing ball with us. But how many others are there that will fit the bill?"

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