How Universities Can Scale Work-Integrated Learning to Increase Pathways to Employment

Employers are raising the bar when it comes to hiring candidates. As the significance of power skills, once referred to as soft skills, such as problem-solving and communication, continue to grow, employers' demands have undergone a profound shift. These skills have become so crucial that a staggering 92% of employers now consider them essential in potential employees.

Moreover, the changing landscape requires nearly 90% of employers to seek lifelong learners, individuals capable of continually acquiring new skills long after they graduate from university. Amidst this evolving employment landscape, work-integrated learning (WIL) emerges as a crucial aspect embedded in higher education settings, directly influencing students' perceived employability.

Adding to these challenges is the rapid adoption of artificial intelligence (AI), which is poised to revolutionize the world of work. With over 97 million jobs expected to be created, employers will increasingly seek candidates with a mix of skills and experiences to complement and collaborate with AI technology.

In this context, work-integrated learning emerges as one of the vital pathways to employment, offering the future workforce the essential experience and attributes needed to make a positive difference.

As well as the following topics, here, we delve deeper into the significance of work-integrated learning in bridging the gap between university education and the demands of the evolving job market for university professionals seeking to equip students with the tools for success:

  • Why the traditional higher education system needs to change and pivot to meet both students’ and employers’ demands 
  • The benefits an internship can provide, from both an employability and personal perspective 
  • The differences between undertaking an apprenticeship, an internship, an co-op and embarking upon full-time employment for your students
  • The importance of utilizing career-integrated learning as a method for experiential learning

Why Work-Integrated Learning Matters in University Offerings

Work-integrated learning stands as a pivotal pillar within contemporary university offerings, aligning academic pursuits with real-world demands. University outcomes are a topic of concern for everyone, not just those with direct vested interests such as students.

As mentioned earlier, in an era characterized by rapid technological advancements and evolving job markets, the umbrella of experiential learning bridges the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application, allowing students to take what they learn in the classroom and experiment with it's impact in and real-world setting.

It's important to recognize that this approach cultivates a cohort of graduates armed with not only subject expertise but also a profound understanding of industry dynamics. Market trends underscore the increased preference of employers for candidates adept at seamlessly transitioning into professional environments. As industries seek graduates ready to contribute from day one, this approach facilitates the development of crucial employability skills.

By integrating hands-on experiences, such as internships and industry collaborations into curricula, universities can empower students to navigate complexities, fostering a workforce well-equipped to thrive in the ever-changing landscape of the global economy.

Incorporating work-integrated learning into university programs isn't just advantageous; it's imperative to prepare students for success in the modern job market.

The Shift Occurring in Post-Secondary Pathways

According to a recent report, the traditional higher education - or post-secondary - system has grown “in a haphazard, unplanned fashion that has left it with traditional practices and modes of organization that in some aspects are poorly matched to modern educational needs.

Now, more than 80% of students expect their education to boost their career prospects, but many are graduating feeling short-changed as the report details in the following findings:

It is no wonder, then, that today’s learners are looking for post-secondary experiences that meet both their own aspirations and the demands of the ever-evolving workplace.

Universities and colleges have the opportunity to become essential agents in assisting students in building the core skills that can not only make them successful employees but also have a positive effect on the economy. 

The Benefits of Work-Integrated Learning

In an era where students are demanding more from their university education, it’s not only about obtaining a degree; it’s about securing vital experience and skills that’ll ensure students stand out when looking to secure full-time employment. 

It’s even harder when you consider that a university degree doesn’t always offer much free time to pursue these skills, especially for those who work part-or full-time alongside their degrees, such as first-generation students

By gaining experience in a real-life workplace, enhancing their power skills, and building networks whilst gaining an understanding of workplace culture, students increase their perceived employability. This, in turn, has a positive effect on student satisfaction, graduate outcomes, and the perceived ROI of completing a degree, further helping universities maintain and increase enrollment numbers. 

Utilizing Career-Integrated Learning as a Method of Experiential Learning

Career-integrated learning and work-integrated learning can be –and are– used interchangeably. However, both are methods of experiential learning, the process of learning by doing, engaging students in real-world scenarios in which they apply academic knowledge to a practical setting. 

Considering 80% of students expect a degree to boost their employability prospects, adding work-based learning experiences and programs into the university curriculum will ensure students build their employability skills, have the tools to become lifelong learners, and emerge from university ready to make a difference in the workplace. 

The career-integrated learning opportunities that are now available online provide higher education institutions with the opportunity to provide an option that is sustainable, feasible and mutually beneficial

Exploring Pathways to Employment

Comparing Apprenticeships and Internships for Students

There are many options when it comes to work-based learning, all of which can offer routes into full-time employment. Internships are continuously rated as the most influential factor in the hiring decisions of employers, but that’s not to say apprenticeships are the lesser option. 

In fact, there were over 700,000 apprenticeships in the UK alone for 2021/22. There are, on the surface at least, a lot of similarities. Apprenticeships provide:

  • Specialist training and mentoring
  • A neat gateway to a future career 

Similarly, an internship is also an opportunity to build experience and progress into an industry of your choice. They provide the chance to build the kind of practical skills that are not always readily available in traditional education.

However, there are key differences between apprenticeships and internships to consider which we dive into here

Job vs Internships: Is There a Right Choice for Students?

For students, on the surface, a job offers instant appeal. There’s a regular salary, for one thing, and it technically takes them straight into employment. However, does it offer the vital stepping stone that an internship can provide? 

A job can open the door to bigger and better things, but that isn’t always a guarantee. There’s also the issue of commitment - a job represents rigidity and a long-term pledge. For many students, often those paying their own way through university, part-time jobs operate purely as financial support and not necessarily a tool to building the skills that will support the career they are seeking through the degree they're working towards obtaining. However, when choosing between the financial support and gaining experience for the long-term picture, many students won't have the option (or empowerment) to learn towards the latter and will find themselves debating the job vs internship dilemma

Students with significant barriers to gaining work-based experience such as an internship, and/or those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds therefore require significant support from their university to ensure their needs are met.

Universities should be focussed on making sure their students are equipped to succeed in the future job market, and support their work experience pursuits to help them achieve their goals post-graduation. In turn, increasing student satisfaction, graduate outcomes, and perceived ROI for university degrees. 

High Impact Practices Universities Can Implement

High impact practices are teaching methods that lead students to successful learning and increased engagement. Types of high impact practices include –and are not limited to– service learning, undergraduate research, study abroad programs, co-ops, and internships. 

However, some practices are best for students at a particular level, while others help enrich a specific program or teaching style. For example, first-year seminars are more beneficial to incoming students than seniors, while capstone projects or courses will benefit those preparing to graduate. However, both significantly contribute to student engagement and retention. 

In a publication published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities on High Impact Educational Practices, the best co-curricular activities are experiences that are exceptionally well-designed to foster student success during participants’ time at the institution and beyond. 

Considering this statement and the value of work-integrated learning we've detailed throughout this blog, all signs point to the fact that this type of experience needs to be made a pivotal part of the university curriculum - especially considering 80% of students expect a degree to boost their employability prospects.

Internships as a Scalable Method of Work-Integrated Learning to Increase Student Pathways to Employment

The real-world experience students can gain from an internship shouldn’t be underestimated. It really is a vital opportunity that will enable graduates to stand out from the vast amount of competition. Of the many reports that dive into the benefits of university internships, these are some of the most interesting findings:

    • A path to long-term employment - Eight in ten employers extend job offers to their interns, with the acceptance rate an impressive 83%.
    • Opens doors to global brands - Over 70% of employees at some of the world’s biggest companies - including IBM, Meta, Google and PwC - have completed at least one internship.
    • Improves power skills - 63% of employers feel graduates who have undertaken work experience, such as an internship, had the required soft (aka power) skills.

Whilst a job offer at the end of an internship isn't always guaranteed, but students will walk away with a sense of empowerment with newfound skills, confidence, and experience to pursue employment in their desired field. 

Making internships a part of the university curriculum will enable students to receive the real-world education they seek, but universities still face several competing challenges which we talk more in more depth here.

But that doesn't have to be the case. 

Virtual Internships is the only platform that guarantees 100% of your students real-world work experience with companies in their chosen industry and region, allowing universities to increase engagement in high impact practices and therefore impact student satisfaction, graduate outcomes, and increase student retention and enrolment. 

By incorporating Virtual Internships into your curriculum, universities can offer work-integrated learning opportunities that:
  • transcend geographical and socioeconomic boundaries,
  • creates an inclusive environment,
  • and are entirely scalable to ensure that every student has the chance to gain hands-on experience. 
Find out more about partnering with Virtual Internships to provide your students with an unbeatable advantage. 

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