If you’ve been reading the business section of any national newspaper in the past few years, you’ve no doubt been subjected to the intense debate over skills shortages/mismatches, and what Canada is or should be doing to address this phenomenon. In the age of unpaid internships, high youth unemployment, and a rapidly changing labour landscape, it is clear that today’s youth face daunting barriers to meaningful employment. Both the education and business community have been working collaboratively to help prepare today’s students for the jobs of the future. For example, the Alberta and Ontario Ministries of Education have both recently released renewed educational visions for their provinces that speak to this issue. On the business side, organizations such as RBC have launched paid work and development programs to help young graduates gain experience.
Yet, what is the student’s perspective in all of this? Surely, the student voice is important since it is their future at stake. But even so, while students have been involved in the consultation process in various educational initiatives, there hasn’t really been a true attempt to comprehensively capture the national student voice – that is, until now.
Beginning in the fall of 2013, I worked on an exciting project called It’s My Future!, which was comprised of a series of student-focused consultations about their futures. We traveled across the country consulting with senior students from coast-to-coast, in all 10 provinces and in both official languages, encountering an incredibly diverse cross-section of students. Over 500 students participated in the consultations and focus groups. A National Online Student Survey was also conducted concurrent to these consultations where over 1000 students made their voices heard. Many of the consultations were conducted in large urban cities to maximize outreach.
These consultations with Canadian students also culminated in our first National Student Symposium where 22 It’s My Future! participants from across the country were brought to Toronto to discuss the future of education. I had a chance to meet with these students at the symposium, and it was simply remarkable to hear and witness them making their voices heard. When I saw these students collaborate with their peers to come up with recommendations for positive changes in education, it made me realize that this could be the beginning of something monumental.
But why is this important? The It’s My Future! initiative represents a significant first step in collecting students’ opinions from coast-to-coast and in helping students develop a platform for their voices. How do we prepare students for a future we cannot predict? To arrive at an answer, education systems across the country should seek input from students. Not only are they the greatest stakeholder in education, but they also have a great deal to contribute and must be given an opportunity and platform to make their voices heard.
Through this initiative, we’ve already discovered insightful information that is common to all Canadian students. For example, students desire more experiential learning opportunities outside the classroom. In fact, one of the most discussed issues was the opportunity for students to explore jobs and their future careers while still in high school. As the National Program Manager for the Take Our Kids to Work™ day program, I am keenly aware of the impact that experiential learning has on generating effective career awareness and planning for students – and not at all surprised that students want more of these opportunities.
And we’re not just going to sit on this information either. Over the course of the next year, we will be developing a national student strategy for our organization that will be a for-student, by-student initiative. We will work closely with these students to better understand how to move all the input we collected this past year into action. We also plan to collaborate with education systems across Canada to better understand students’ needs in planning for their future jobs and careers.
We’re just getting started.
Albert Ko is The Learning Partnership’s School-to-Work Analyst and the National Program Manager for the Take Our Kids to Work™ program. His areas of expertise are policies involving school to work transitions, career education curriculum, and labour market and macroeconomic issues.