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When I enrolled as a computer science student at the University of Waterloo in the early 1980s, I had no idea I'd end up in banking.

A work term at the Royal Bank of Canada, through Waterloo's vaunted co-op program, changed that. It opened my eyes to a world that involved strategy, people and the finance I was studying, and I never looked back.

Five more co-op terms, all at RBC, confirmed my passion for finance, and did something more: They changed the way I learned, both in the workplace and when I got back to the classroom at Waterloo.

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As Canada comes to grips with its place in the age of disruption, our university and college co-op programs are among our quiet strengths. We need more of them, and to do a lot more with them.

With its blend of higher learning and real world practice, co-op education has become a proven way to prepare students for a world in which change is accelerating and challenges are growing ever more complex. They're essential to our creative and disruptive economy.

For our next generation of graduates, co-op learning provides exposure to new ideas, different ways of working and, most critically, a diverse world of experiences.

For colleges and universities, co-ops challenge the status quo by creating classrooms of students coming and going from relevant work placements.

For employers, co-op has become a critical bridge to our country's outstanding schools and centres of excellence – a bridge not nearly enough companies use.

And yet, according to a recent Statistics Canada study, the proportion of university graduates in 2009-10 who had taken co-op as part of their bachelor degree was unchanged compared with 2005 levels, at 12 per cent. Among college graduates, the figure was down to 22 per cent, from 26 per cent in 2005.

From Germany to Israel to India, much of the world is blending work and learning – and not just for students. Canada needs to catch up.

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The challenge in increasing the number of quality co-op placements is two-fold. First, there aren't adequate government incentives for colleges and universities to raise the bar in terms of quality, monitoring and administration of programs. Second, the private sector and postsecondary institutions aren't co-ordinating these programs effectively.

At RBC, we hire about 1,600 co-op, pregraduate and summer students a year, and expect the number to rise. We're retaining more and more of those students by offering them permanent jobs upon graduation, particularly in areas such as technology and operations as the bank looks for new ways to innovate.

Many students also take the confidence and skills they've developed through co-op learning – what some call "contextual learning" – and strike out on their own.

That is exactly what's taking place in Ontario's Waterloo region, which has grown into one of North America's premier hubs for technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. It's no coincidence the University of Waterloo runs one of the world's biggest co-op programs, with about 19,000 co-op students enrolled and 5,200 employers participating globally.

Simon Fraser University, whose co-op program is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, is another compelling example of what's working well. It offers opportunities both in Canada and abroad, with SFU students working for companies in the United States, South Korea, Germany, India, China and many others.

We're seeing how these programs do much more than prepare students for the work force. They change the classroom and in some cases act as a social leveller.

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At Waterloo, I've seen firsthand how co-op students are more demanding and curious, pushing their peers and professors to look for fresh insights and to think more broadly and creatively about problems.

Co-ops also enable students who don't have the cultural and family ties that sometimes lead to the first job. These programs help students from diverse backgrounds, many of them new to Canada, get their foot through the employment door.

Despite these benefits, Canadian businesses, universities and colleges are not doing enough. Recent McKinsey & Co. research found that one in five Canadian employers does not interact or co-ordinate with education providers, lagging countries such as Germany, the United States, Brazil, Britain and India.

And at a time when many students are asking whether a postsecondary education is worth the time and money required, research suggests Canadian universities don't prioritize helping students find work. The McKinsey study found that universities ranked helping students find jobs as eighth out of 10 priorities, behind issues such as attracting new students and faculty, increasing graduation rates and generating revenue and reducing costs. U.S. universities, by contrast, ranked job-finding for students as their fourth-highest priority.

To best prepare our students for a strong career start, governments should create incentives for universities to focus on high-quality co-op placements with the largest and most successful organizations – not just in Canada but around the world.

The private sector can't sit idly by and assume this is a problem for government and schools to fix. Employers must take a leadership role in both stressing the importance of co-op learning to our economy and in increasing the depth and quality of such placements.

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This will be more challenging for one of the key engines of our economy – small and mid-sized enterprises that create the bulk of Canada's jobs and economic wealth. These smaller employers need to plug into our universities and colleges, both for co-op students and also to be a more active part of the innovation ecosystem.

If we get this right, an expanded, high-quality co-op system with both a domestic and global orientation will help put Canada at the forefront of working and learning in the 21st century.

David McKay is president and CEO of Royal Bank of Canada.

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