Funded by the Business + Higher Education Roundtable (B+HER), VFC built Alberta’s Externship Program, an innovative WIL concept offering students opportunities to job shadow at an SME while completing a short-term project in a volunteer capacity.
Over 6 months, we tested, iterated and made improvements to help the program succeed. As challenges arose, we mitigated by focus-grouping, launching incentivized surveys for feedback, implementing user design testing, and redesigning outreach strategies. Proactively setting expectations that it was a volunteer program allowed to focus on partnership with community organizations, incubators, and business chambers. There was a positive response from post-secondary institutions in the province, but we listened to concerns from SMEs about the added responsibility of managing volunteers outweighing the benefit of potential business solutions provided by the participants.
Applying our existing WIL delivery model with for-profit SMEs to a program centered around student volunteer hours was not a viable method. The existing framework did not resonate with either group and volunteer WIL programs are not our area of expertise. Our successful WIL and I-WIL programs provide clear incentives to all participants. Volunteerism can be an incentive for some, but we observed a critical challenge for students and leaders to prioritize this commitment. We do belive this model could work for the social impact sector and not-for-profits.
While we did not meet our objectives, we will be taking the valuable lessons we learned into future program design and believe that in sharing them with interested organizations, we can contribute to the growing body of knowledge on work integrated learning.
Lessons we’ll apply to future program design:
- Students completing volunteer projects may feel more motivated if they benefit the not-for-profit or charitable sector
- 30% of participants who signed up were international students (our other student-facing programs are not open to international students due to funding requirements). Evidently, there is a programming gap for incentivized work experiences for international students
- Students value the opportunity to network with employers through work experiences
- Students appreciate the experience of learning how to work remotely
- Students found the experience tested and improved their communication skills