Work-integrated learning (WIL) benefits industry as well as students when the right candidates are involved, those who attended an Ai Group webinar last week heard.  

Students with a positive attitude, good soft skills and industry work experience have so much to offer, panellists told webinar host and Ai Group Centre for Education and Training Executive Director Megan Lilly.   

“Knowledge and skills needed in the workforce are quickly changing, with technology being the main driver,” Ms Lilly said. 

“That’s why it’s time to significantly upscale learning and work interactions between companies, universities and students during a student's learning journey.” 

The economic benefits are huge. 

Universities Australia CEO Luke Sheehy said increasing WIL opportunities would boost the Australian economy by $250million. 

What is work-integrated learning? 

Work-integrated learning aims to link theory and knowledge with work practices. 

“While student placements are the best-known form of WIL, there's a broad range of ways companies, students and universities can interact during university degrees,” Ms Lilly said. 

“Opportunities range from micro placements and projects right through to degree apprenticeships.  

“It’s not a singular model.” 

Michael O'Connor, President of the Australian Collaboration Education Network (ACEN), agrees, adding: “Think of WIL as a training journey. 

“Early experiences provide a knowledge framework to understand work, and subsequent WIL activities apply that knowledge to a work context. 

“Those scaffolding WIL experiences really help students to build their skills and understand how they fill a workplace need. 

“Relevant WIL activities can help students become aware of how learning aligns with employment. 

“It also helps workplace supervisors better understand how the student-learning journey prepares the student for employment. 

“Getting that alignment right, through that scaffolded WIL journey of these different activities that build towards a final placement then employment, is so important.” 

How WIL benefits industry . . .  

“That progression of knowledge and mutual understanding — not just how students understand the workplace but how people in industry can gain from the additional knowledge that students bring via their work placements — can help improve recruitment and, potentially, retention,” Mr O’Connor said. 

“It's important to have industry input into those WIL scaffolding experiences.” 

Fellow panellist Erika Hughes, Commercial Director of Integra Systems, which offers sheet metal product design, project management and advanced manufacturing, agrees. 

“Younger people have a lot of new ideas on how to use technology and sustainability, so it’s crucial we tap into university students and graduate programs to pick up on those skills,” she said. 

“With the integration of new technologies and the development of industry 4.0 practices and automation, we’re finding that those with relevant work experience have a much shorter learning curve and can dive straight into a lot of projects. 

“Those with the right attitude; soft skills such as communication, teamwork and adaptability; as well as industry work experience bring the most value to the table.”  

. . . and students 

“Developing specific skills is important, but quality WIL has broader benefits,” Mr O’Connor said. 

“It aids professional development by improving teamwork and active listening abilities within learners and promotes mutual respect and acceptance of diversity. 

“Work-integrated learning also stimulates self-reflection. It helps students understand how their work fits within both a local work context and a broader community context. 

“These broader benefits of WIL are becoming increasingly important as workers transition between jobs and sectors.  

“ACEN believes it's important that those broader benefits of WIL aren't lost by focusing only on WIL for skills development.” 

WIL can also improve students’ academic outcomes, Ms Hughes said. 

“Work-integrated learning, combined with education and soft skills, has proven to be the key to helping students accelerate their integration into the workforce and making them workforce ready,” she said. 

“Once they've had a period of time with us, students in our WIL programs with the best attitudes and soft skills achieve a massive uptick in their results in their final year at university.” 

Universities Australia’s Luke Sheehy said it’s important to give people from all walks of life skills to succeed in the economy. 

“Opportunities to be work and job ready through internships and work-integrated opportunities are vital,” he said. 

“The sooner students get access to the opportunity to work and work environments, the better.” 

Opportunities at Integra 

Integra’s WIL models vary from 12-week projects to 12-month placements. 

“All our students get paid for their time — about 75 per cent of what you would pay your graduates in an undergraduate program,” Ms Hughes said. 

“We generally look for engineering students who can work within our engineering, production and manufacturing teams. 

“Through Ai Group, we’ve had 12-week placements where students worked on defence projects and gained credits towards subjects. 

“They're given a specific project and a supervisor and there are key outcomes that come from that project, usually related to a topic they're studying within their course. 

“We’ve worked with Swinburne and Deakin on those kinds of models.  

“We’ve also had students who are paid an upfront stipend to complete a certain number of hours. La Trobe has a 180-hour model for which we pay an upfront fee of about $12,000.” 

Integra favours the 12-month placement. 

“Students gain a lot of experience over 12 months compared to a project,” Ms Hughes said. 

“Twelve-week placements are quite resource-intensive, and you know that fundamentally, the productivity that's coming out of the student is not necessarily going to contribute to the company's development. 

“You're doing it more to develop the student in the workplace. 

“But, with the 12-month placement, you get a dual effect.  

“The six and 12-month placements generally involve undertaking a role; it’s not necessarily project-specific.  

“The role has a purpose, and students are assigned a supervisor. They're working within a team environment during that learning curve while they’re developing their skills. 

“By the end of the 12 months, they're contributing well to the role. 

“They're developing the role and adding a lot of value to the outcomes for the company. You start to get some commercial productivity from them.” 

Investment = retention  

Integra has an 80 per cent placement rate following WIL experiences for engineering students. 

“The placement is highly valuable for students,” Ms Hughes said. 

“All our engineering students get time within the manufacturing facility, so they understand how the hands-on work is executed through the design phase. 

“Within our engineering team, we generally have about an 80 per cent success rate of students taking part in an internship then going back to uni and working a couple of days of week with us. 

“When they finish uni, they'll generally get a placement with us.” 

Ms Hughes shone light on a standout student. 

“There was a particular student who was so great, I couldn't let her go,” she said. 

“Once she finished her 12-month placement, she went back to uni and worked with me for two days a week. 

“As soon as she graduated, she came on board full time and has become an integral part of the business operations.” 

Teething problems  

While the WIL model of a degree apprenticeship has been operating successfully for many years around the world — particularly in Germany and in the UK — it is relatively new to Australia.  

“Ai Group has been involved with degree apprenticeship pilots for some time now, sourcing and coordinating companies and universities to develop and deliver programs,” Ms Lilly said. 

“We’re finding there are many challenges to the structures and delivery models within universities. They often create barriers, if not significant delay.” 

Mr Sheehy said Universities Australia was working with universities and government to address these obstacles, but a key challenge was the nature of Australia’s economy. 

“Degree or advanced apprenticeships reflect an important piece of the vertical collaboration between VET (Vocatioanl Education and Training) and higher education,” he said.  

“However, while they work well in certain sectors, particularly where the sector supporting the student is a bigger business and has HR and other capabilities, it is more difficult for SMEs. 

“The important thing for us to consider is, how do we do it in Australia, given we are an SME economy?  

“How do we make it fit for purpose for the Australian context, and who delivers it? 

“We've got some good signs in the system already. These new TAFE Centres for Excellence are a good opportunity. 

“We need to look at, test and see where these work and are scalable and replicable.”  

It’s an issue ACEN is keenly exploring. 

“’Collaboratively’ is probably the shortest way to describe how we're approaching it,” Mr O’Connor said. 

“ACEN collaborates with other organisations, such as Universities Australia, to advocate to government on issues such as WIL quality, equity and inclusion. 

“ACEN also supports identifying best practice for WIL.  

“We provide annual research grants to identify and develop emerging models of quality and inclusive WIL. 

“Last year, for example, we awarded an ACEN grant to investigate the use of artificial intelligence to support student decision making in clinical labs. 

“This year, we have research grant themes that include WIL and workplace technologies and another theme around diversity and inclusion in WIL. 

“We also aim to foster industry collaboration. We promote the need to understand the distinct needs of partners within WIL. 

“Large-scale WIL that's high quality and inclusive needs to be rolled out for SMEs.  

“How is that going to happen? What does that look like? What does success look like — from an industry perspective but also to other stakeholders? 

“We’re very open to partnerships with industry groups to pursue what that looks like and see how it can be integrated with the learning journey of students.” 

Moving forward  

The Australian University Accord Final Report, released in January this year, recognises the importance of WIL and building the skills of the future workforce through the yet-to-be-released new National Higher Education Work Integrated Learning Strategy, which builds on the success of the previous strategy released in 2015. 

The strategy will include good WIL practices, roles, responsibilities and measures of success.  

“The strategy needs to be sector-led rather than government led,” Mr Sheehy said. 

“UA believes we should give the incoming Tertiary Education Commission and Commissioners fully formed policy ideas to hit the ground running. 

“I think we know the economic risk If we don't do it and the economic opportunity if we do. 

“We’ve got a political and policy priority to ensure WIL is on the agenda. 

“If we put it to the government as an almost worked-up piece of public policy, then we'll move the dial a lot sooner.” 

The Final Report also includes a recommendation to develop work-relevant skills by working with peak bodies for employers, industry, business and tertiary education providers to deliver more WIL opportunities in curricula across all disciplines and providing training to industry supervisors. 

Ms Lilly said partnerships were crucial in the development of WIL.  

“Partnerships deliver more sustained outcomes,” she said. 

“Ai Group has long advocated for WIL to become a core part of degree programs and we acknowledge that involvement by companies takes time and resources. 

“We see the need for more support, for example, in the form of incentives to companies, particularly if SMEs are to be involved.  

“It’s about supporting more partners into the mix and ensuring that whatever form WIL takes, it’s purposeful, authentic, structured, supported and valued.” 

Save the date for Ai Group CET’s next webinar: Digital and Social Skills Required in the Workplace Today on July 10 with panellists: 

Wendy Larter

Wendy Larter is Communications Manager at the Australian Industry Group. She has more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter, features writer, contributor and sub-editor for newspapers and magazines including The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and Metro, the News of the World, The Times and Elle in the UK.