Skip to content

A new model of learning

Preparing graduates for long-term success

In recent years, universities have reinvented themselves to help set up their graduates for long-term success. But more change is needed as we still see a mismatch between new grads and their job readiness. As I meet with clients and with business leaders, they consistently rank the job readiness of young graduates as their most pressing concern.

In these disruptive times, it’s clear we need to build stronger bridges between workplaces and lecture halls. That’s because the world of work is changing in profound and permanent ways. Digital literacy is essential. But so too are human skills. Yet our current system does not adequately teach or train young workers to develop this portfolio of skills.

Recent RBC research found up to 50 per cent of jobs in Canada are expected to be impacted by automation.

But it’s also creating new opportunities. We estimate close to 2.4 million job openings in the Canadian economy over the next four years alone. Successful graduates will need to possess skills that complement – rather than compete against – the technological revolution transforming the workplace.

To build a workforce fit for the next decade, we need people who can transfer data into knowledge that, in turn, creates value. These skills aren’t static — they will evolve over time as new tools and technologies are introduced into the workplace. But technical and data literacy is paramount.

Other skills are more foundational and more human.

At RBC, we look for good communicators — collaborators — people who think creatively and critically. We want our people to be empathetic too. Indeed, we often hire people with these so-called soft skills and then teach them to be bankers. Our bank has always relied on the innovation and talent coming out of campuses across the globe. We are so intricately connected with universities, and we need them more than ever as we enter the 2020s.

Reinventing the undergraduate degree Learning must be a lifelong endeavour. But for the most part, it is compartmentalized. Think about the undergraduate degree.

Would students be better served if they spent two years at school, entered the workforce for a couple of years, and then finished off their degree with real work experience under their belt? This model could also be an effective way to re-skill workers in mid-career. It’s an area worth exploring further.

Doubling down on work-integrated learning. I’m a big proponent of experiential learning and how it can positively shape a career. I started at RBC as a COBOL programmer at 18 years old. The beauty of the co-op program is that it gave me the opportunity to move into a bank branch, where I truly thrived. I was able to switch my major and realign my education to my interests at 19 years old, and became a more valuable and focused employee coming out of university.

I came back to school and challenged my professors differently. I learned differently because of my work experience. This approach not only unlocks student impact earlier, it fosters a culture of innovation, experimentation and growth on campus, as well as the workplace. Consider the RBC Amplify program, where summer students – all of whom have never been in financial services before — collaborate to build solutions for our toughest business challenges. Some of these problems had been unsolved for years.

We need to grow and expand programs like these. It is how people today learn. They like to experiment, to challenge and to share.

Don’t lose sight of the liberal arts education. Work placements also build networks for students. It’s a social leveler. It exposes students from all back-grounds to the way many employers operate. However, much of this impact has been in areas such as engineering, business and medical science. We need to place a greater focus on liberal arts and humanities, too – because many of the skills in the new world of work are cultivated in these programs.

We all need to do a better job in promoting the value of liberal arts and humanities programs. For as good as many of our schools are, our education system and labour market initiatives are not adequately designed for the changing economy. At the same time, many employers are failing to recruit and develop the skills they need for the future. Across the board, there’s a gap in skills from where we are now, and where we need to be.

Educators and employers have a shared responsibility in helping our workforce adapt and thrive. It’s time for a co-operative new approach to make this happen.

Adapted from a speech delivered on June 5, 2019 at the Times Higher Education (THE) Teaching Excellence Summit, hosted by Western University. It was the first time a THE World Summit Series event has been hosted in Canada.