How work-integrated learning drives business success

SOURCE: Marten Bjork/Unsplash
If you want graduates with work expertise, don't wait - work with a university.

By U2B Staff 

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The pace of change in the workplace is increasing. If you own a business, this is both an exciting and frightening prospect.

What it means is an opportunity to accelerate growth and expand your bottom line, whether by developing new products or scaling existing business.

But that’s no cakewalk, and if you’re a founder yourself, you’d agree.

Fact is, high growth equals high uncertainty and a much higher risk of failure. And often, the biggest hurdle in the way of success isn’t time management or cash flow problems – it is finding and retaining the right talent.

The talent crunch

Unfortunately, this is a challenge still keeping corporate recruiters up at night.

Today’s labour market has a serious supply and demand problem. The number of graduates in fields like journalism, marketing, teaching, pharmacy and law, for example, isn’t commensurate with the flagging demand for skills in these areas. The result of this is the honours law student learning to hustle as a freelance writer or the marketing major forced to do a Starbucks stint.

However, in fields most in demand such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence and data analytics among others, the graduate pool remains sorely lacking. The development of new courses in these fields hasn’t been rapid enough to respond to immediate needs, even as universities continue to churn out graduates at record rates.


There are reams of data from studies to surveys, whitepapers and academic publications that discuss this problem, each one coming to the same conclusion – that there’s a serious talent shortage worldwide. And while policymakers and education providers scramble for a solution that quite rightly won’t come easy, the finger-pointing continues among CEOs and parents.

Meanwhile, the glut is affecting business growth prospects, impeding innovation and prompting higher people costs.

The gig economy

From this, and the changing demands of the Gen Z workforce, spawned the gig economy. In the gig economy, companies farm out key business tasks via short-term contracts to freelancers looking for flexible working hours and variety.

co-working space
In the gig economy, companies farm jobs via short-term contracts to freelancers seeking flexibility. Source: Shutterstock

This is great for project work but as much as it is a God-send for certain groups of workers, especially the low-skilled or with specialised expertise, there are major downsides for employers.

For one, you’d likely have to pay higher wages to snag the best candidates for your project or lose the talent bidding war to competition. Again, because the tech talent pool is so small, highly-skilled independent contractors get to dictate how they work, when they work and how much they earn.

And forget the concept of employee loyalty. In the gig economy, even the most talented hires tend to be more concerned with building their personal portfolio and skilling up than in advancing your brand. You could retain them for the next project but they’re off the moment a more lucrative package comes along.

Next, consider how much a constantly evolving workforce would weigh on your managers and current full-time staff. Apart from not having the stability of a traditional office setup, your managers would find themselves spending more time on training and managing than getting actual work done!

Stop waiting – get a university partner

Fortunately, there’s a better, more effective way for employers to respond to the talent crunch.

Go straight to the talent source – universities. Consider the concept of the circular economy. It’s an economic system that aims to minimise waste by making the most out of existing resources. Instead of the traditional linear economy where resources are taken, used and then disposed of, the circular economy uses a regenerative approach where products and services are traded in loops or cycles.

Apply the same concept to the university-to-business structure. Instead of businesses relying entirely on universities to create hires that check all the right boxes, they could participate in the talent-building process themselves. Via this method, talents are nurtured and developed in university to fill roles in business, which then invests back in university through collaborations and partnerships, thus closing the loop.

Of course, university-business partnerships isn’t a new concept. For decades, businesses have collaborated in myriad ways with higher education providers, resulting in some of the world’s greatest life-changing and life-saving inventions.


But considering the speed of advancements in the world today and the labour market conditions we described above, the quantum and quality of these partnerships are in need of a rethink.

If you run a small to medium-sized business and you’re imagining a multimillion-dollar investment in a partnership to build a brand new innovation center at a top-ranking university, stop yourself right there. There are many ways a business can partner with a university that needn’t involve weighing heavily on company finances.

Work-Integrated Learning as a recruitment strategy

One tried and tested method is through “Work-Integrated Learning” (WIL), which is the integration of theory with practical work experience.

Universities have in recent years been pushing harder to market WIL as one of their core offerings to improve student outcomes. These are often embedded within a course structure or offered as an optional add-on, all of which are made possible through established partnerships with industry.

Through work-integrated learning, students are given the opportunity to work with industry via placements, internships, specific projects, fieldwork or simulations. It’s a common practice in many areas such as health and teaching, even journalism, but has been quite undernourished in emerging industries where the skills demand are greatest.

How has industry responded? Suffice to say, there’s plenty more to be done.

According to recent studies in Australia, the term “work-integrated learning” itself isn’t widely recognised. Often, it is larger businesses with more than 15 employees that have been operational for longer periods (20 years or so) that participate more frequently in WIL. Even then, businesses rely on universities or the students themselves initiating WIL, even if they tend to continue offering it after the initial engagement.

For smaller businesses, internships are generally the more popular form of WIL. However, activities in this space haven’t grown by much in recent years. The reasons are often the same – insufficient time and resources and concerns they would not offer the students a high-quality experience.

Michael King, Vice-President and General Manager of IBM’s Global Education Industry unit, however, suggests there’s a strong business case for industry to partner up with universities in any form and capacity.

Citing the findings of a survey by the IBM Institute for Business Value, he noted that 71 percent of corporate recruiters want to see practical experience in their candidates but would often find graduates sorely lacking in this area.

“By capitalising on new technologies and collaborating with industry forces to build a new model of education and create a supportive ecosystem, we can shape a new way of working and learning.

“It’s time to reinvigorate our higher education system so students are adequately prepared to succeed in an evolving world,” he said.

The benefits of work-integrated learning

There is a growing body of evidence to prove that WILs provide wins for all stakeholders involved.

For students, the opportunity to connect with industry at pre-career stage is attractive for a variety of reasons, from the chance to witness practical applications of classroom theories to developing an awareness of workplace culture and expectations, and gaining the “soft skills” every employer seeks.

The work experience also means getting a leg-up in their career hunt as they would have established a valuable network of industry contacts.

conference room discussion
For students, WILs give you a leg-up in your career hunt. Source: Shutterstock

For employers, a collaboration through WIL could very well be the solution to the widening talent gap. It’s true you’d have to spend time and resources on training and bedding in these young, inexperienced workers. But the return on your investment will be well worth it. Among others, employers would get:

  • Access to motivated and enthusiastic students
  • Access to fresh ideas and approaches to promote creativity and encourage innovation
  • Opportunities to network with academia and forge deeper university partnerships such as technology transfer
  • A more cost-effective recruitment strategy
  • Staff development opportunities through engagement with students
  • Opportunities to contribute to curriculum design

Exposing students to the reality of the workplace helps them hit the ground running once it’s time for full-time employment. The experience also shows businesses the kind of skills and abilities these graduates have to offer, allowing them to get a headstart on shaping the talents of the future.

In Australia, data released recently showed that nearly half a million of its university students had a formal work placement, industry or workplace experience in 2017. Separate surveys on graduate outcomes and employer satisfaction indicated that these experiences paid off for both industry and the students themselves.


For one, 72.9 percent of undergraduates were in full-time employment four months after completing their degree. Employers, meanwhile, were pleased with their hires – 85 percent of supervisors said they were satisfied with their graduate employees while 92 percent said these graduates were “very well” or “well” prepared for employment.

From the above, the benefits of collaborating with universities through work-integrated learning are as clear as day.

So if your business needs a talent boost, consider adding WIL to your recruitment strategy – it’s a great way to invest in the future of your company and the overall talent economy.


This article was first published on May 31, 2019. It has been updated for republication on December 26, 2019.