Jan. 29, 2021
Federal subsidy helps ramp-up on-the-job learning at UCalgary
Even before he enters his final year as a UCalgary economics and global development honours student (with a concentration in applied energy), Ebenezer Belayneh will have racked up resume-worthy work experience and sharpened his career goals.
He has done so as a Faculty of Arts co-op student; since last September, he has worked for UCalgary’s Equity and Diversity Committee. There, he’s been researching policy recommendations on anti-racism initiatives, co-ordinating Black History Month events, led a focus group with Black student leaders and even appeared on the CBC and 660 News channels where he spoke about the expansion of UCalgary’s African Studies program.
“By pursuing a co-op position that was completely unrelated to my studies, I learned new skills and increased my competency on EDI-related issues and concerns,” says Belayneh. “I really do believe this experience will set me apart in the future as workplaces continue to grapple with diversity and representation issues. Plus, my skills in communication, information management and visual design have improved incredibly because of this role.”
Like Belayneh, a growing number of students are pursuing co-op education, internships and other forms of experiential learning as integral components to their degrees. The Student Work Placement Program (SWPP) is a federal government initiative designed to increase the job-readiness of students registered at Canadian post-secondary institutions and now pays employers wage subsidies of up to 75 per cent of the cost for the work term (to a maximum of $7,500 per student).
It was a bit of a no-brainer for Dr. Jordan Hollman, BSc (Eng)’07, PhD’20, a postdoc researcher in environmental engineering at UCalgary, who is currently supervising four SWPP interns. “In a pandemic response project, we knew that quickly providing results to our partners would be critical to its success,” says Hollman, sampling team lead for a research group that is working on a wastewater-based epidemiology study that monitors COVID-19 in Calgary.
“Working on a fast timeline required bringing on knowledgeable team members that could be trained quickly ... our interns carried a large burden of the work in sample processing, allowing us to get data out to the people that needed it quickly.”
Adds Dr. Casey Hubert, BSc’98, PhD’04, associate professor in biological sciences, who also works with Hollman and the interns, “Having extra hands to help out with the project and the sample processing is a huge benefit, as is their contribution to brainstorming and problem-solving gained by adding new team members. Plus, being able to get 75 per cent of their stipends reimbursed is certainly attractive from a project leader’s perspective.”
Working for Ammolite BioModels as a research and development engineering intern, fifth-year mechanical engineering student Anthony Demong rattles off the new abilities he’s acquired since he began his 12-month internship last May: boosted computer-aided design (CAD) know-how; designed parts for 3D printers; grew skills working with the company’s production team; improved communication skills; improved graphic and web-design abilities while working on the company’s website and logo; and upped his project-management skills.
Some might say Belayneh or Demong’s work-integrated-learning experience is “a year-long interview” for both parties. What Ammolite has given Demong is, he says, “the opportunity to spend every day working with advanced technologies and addressing new and interesting problems. I can honestly say that I hope the rest of my career is as exciting and satisfying as my current internship experience.”
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest attractions of SWPP or most work-integrated-learning situations is the low-risk opportunity it offers students and employers to check out each other.
Which is precisely what Dvija Bhatti discovered last year as an SWPP intern with the Immigration Division of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). Aiming to graduate in the spring of 2021 with a BA in political science and international relations, Bhatti describes her four-month dry-run with IRCC as a job opportunity that left her with focus and a staggering number of connections. “I met research analysts, policy analysts, foreign services officers and even some senior management at the director level and above,” she says. “The difficulty I find is not in making connections — it is in maintaining them.”
With sights set on working as a foreign services officer with either IRCC or Global Affairs Canada, Bhatti says one of the most valuable new skills she acquired has been the ability to write concisely.
“Academic writing (in the social sciences especially) is about full thoughts and long-winded sentences,” she says. “Business writing (as I like to call it) is the complete opposite. Learning how to capture my ideas formally in a concise manner is a new skill I will carry to my next job.”
In a completely different role and sector, Mina Mina, a mechanical engineering student who, since September 2020, has been interning with Nimble Science, a medical device startup, says one of the biggest lessons he’ll leave with is the importance of “soft skills.”
“Work is greater than having a strong set of technical skills,” he says. “It is about communicating, about collaborating and, most importantly, about having a growth mentality — understanding the inevitability of making mistakes and, instead, viewing them as opportunities for growth.”
As for Urooj Fatima who, as an SWPP intern employed by UCalgary’s Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, works directly with students and employers to process and access the wage subsidy, the “behind-the-scenes work that goes into the assessing and co-ordinating of each project is huge and interesting work that has convinced me that, in the future, I want to work at something that gives back to the community. I see my current work directly supporting the strategic initiative for work-integrated learning at the university. It is directed towards the betterment of the current economic situation by making the SWPP wage subsidy available for employers.”
UCalgary’s co-op and internship programs and the Office of Experiential Learning in the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning will work with employers interested in applying for funding. Access SWPP this winter to fund existing co-op or internship placements or create positions from Jan. 4 to Apr. 30. Learn more.