Two years back, while we shifted into a remote environment, adapted to new technologies and equipped ourselves to the ‘new normal’, Canadian businesses noticed another type of pandemic hitting the industry called the ‘quiet crisis’. “Simply put, this crisis emphasized the widening gap between academic institutions and industry”, said Emmanuel Asafo-Adjei, Industry Project Coordinator at Western University. Technological disruption and radical changes created an economy filled with recent graduates who were either overqualified for their current jobs, had insufficient training, or felt underprepared to take the next step in their career journeys. The need was to recognize the transition of the Canadian economy from a jobs economy to a skills economy and prepare employers, educators and policy makers accordingly. This concentrated effort for change led to a pilot work-integrated learning program at Western University in partnership with Business + Higher Education Table (BHER)RBC Future LaunchInnovation, Science and Economic Development of Canada (ISED) and TechAlliance of Southwestern Ontario.  

Across four courses in collaboration with eight industry partners involving more than 1,000 students, Western University and TechAlliance of Southwestern Ontario were recipients of funding from BHER, an organization that works to support young Canadians in their transition from education to workplace and collaborates with academic institutions and the industry to ensure future economic prosperity. The grant facilitated microplacements, or short-term industry projects in liberal arts courses where students tackled pressing issues faced by local tech companies. TechAlliance helped Western identify the right industry partners based on the course requirements and the challenges posed by these companies. Over the span of ten weeks, students developed world-changing ideas in mental health, artificial intelligence, workplace accessibility, virtual tourism and others. The result? A white paper authored by students filled with unique propositions to help ventures  find potential solutions to real business obstacles. 

Polar Imaging, a B2B business that designs customized document management systems to improve efficiency, avoid time, and labor costs associated with searching documents in the workplace, was one industry partner who leveraged the student experience. “We had a new service that we were looking to roll out, and we were struggling with marketing direction, so we had students exercise their expertise and conduct market research,” said Steve Todd, Director of Business Development at Polar Imaging. To provide just that, Todd was matched with students in the Marketing Research course. This alignment supported the Polar Imaging team to understand the impacts and challenges of AI applications for accounts payables of SMEs. “Insights brought by students were incredible and sparked some discussions internally, and has given us a roadmap in terms of how we’re marketing this new product,” said Todd, who found significant value from the collaboration. 

Similarly, EXAR Studios, a venture on the mission of bringing cultural content to users on location through artificial intelligence, proposed a business challenge of finding the most appropriate heritage locations in London, Ontario, to have virtual tourism through augmented reality. A case for Geography of Tourism students, Daniel Kharlas, COO and Co-Founder at EXAR Studios shared his enthusiasm of working with bright minds on this project, “Being able to work with students who are so creative, who have so many new ideas and have them ask deep questions on how you could apply augmented reality to cultural storytelling across Ontario. It’s really exciting to see the answers that they provide and to really think outside the box of what could we be doing across Ontario with our clients.” 

On the other hand, fintech company interVal had a unique issue at hand. A software tool development platform helping businesses with real-time valuation and risk mitigation, interVal has seen tremendous growth in recent years as they acquired investment, widened their product portfolio and added new members to their team. Starting with just a couple of employees to having a total of 27 team members posed challenges in human resource management at this organization. “It’s difficult to find natural ways of mentorship, especially in lean startups, when you don’t have a lot of senior people that are able to train junior people with their experiences to elevate them,” said Trevor Greenway, CEO and Co-Founder at interVal. Through this collaboration, Greenway wanted answers to the varied types of mentoring, the kind of mentorship that will be most applicable to interVal, and ways of measuring the success of mentoring. With the biggest class of 80 students from the Industrial Psychology course working closely with Greenway and his team, the collective group made significant strides in their research, with some of the propositions incorporated already in interVal’s human resource strategic plan. “We could not have been happier with the outcomes and the kind of value derived from this project. In a second, I would do this all over again,” said Greenway. 

Vice President of TechAlliance, Karen Chalmers, loved to see the results of this project, “Our industry partners gained so much from this experience, they were able to implement the work and research of these talented students and impact their businesses’ day to day operations.” Christina Fox, CEO of TechAlliance, wholeheartedly agreed, “As an ecosystem partner that fuels the Canadian economy and encourages innovation across all sectors, this experience not only equipped the youth of the future with the right skillsets, but also helped our industry partners find unique solutions and out-of-the-box ideas to tackle some their key challenges.”