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Another January is rapidly coming to an end and we are well and truly back to work and back to business in 2016. As we shake off the cobwebs and return to our routines, it’s time to look at some fresh ideas to boost productivity and have a positive impact through our work.

One idea worth a look this year is Work Integrated Learning, or WIL.

If you haven’t come across WIL before, the term refers to a range of programs for engaging students in the workplace through internships, placements, business projects and challenges. Do this ad hoc and it can just be a hassle, do this well and you can build a cost effective talent and innovation pipeline for your business.

Mark Twain said people have two birthdays: the one where they are born and the one where they realise what they were born to do. A well-run work Integrated learning program enables and accelerates these discoveries – making productive connections, creating opportunities and changing lives.

At this stage you might be thinking it’s time to take on an intern or two; more bodies in the office, youthful optimism and a fresh perspective. This kind of thinking is great, but a WIL program can be much more. It can be a valuable, significant business initiative that delivers a pipeline of fresh thinking, talent and staff development into your organisation.Young man presenting his ideas to his business team

 

Personally, my work integrated learning experiences changed my career trajectory. The first was a basic business project with a large organisation, which gave me – a young and underachieving law student from a working class family – some awareness of the whole world of business. And the second was an entrepreneurship challenge, which I shocked myself by winning. It opened up the world of innovation to me – the central passion of my career and one I’ve pursued over the past 15 years as a serial startup founder, management consultant and as Head of Strategy for the CSIRO.

Yes, many employers already provide WIL opportunities. But what drives organisations to devote resources to a cohort of students and what is the upside?

Recent PhillipsKPA research undertaken for the Department of Industry showed that employers support WIL programs to “give back” to the industry or profession; they do it to aid future recruitment; access new thinking and ideas; establish links with universities and to refresh the organisation. These organisation have seen such a positive impact that 88% of those employers offering WIL programs indicated that they plan to continue.

However, only one in 5 employers surveyed offered these opportunities. The 2012 Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) estimated that about 34% of Australian students have taken part in industry placement or work experience with heavy concentration in education, law and health. This is just one of many factors which contribute Australia’s lowly OECD ranking for University-Business collaboration – a major driver of innovation.

This research shows us that more can be done.

We aren’t doing enough to connect students with businesses, and as a result we are holding back our innovation performance – there is a massive opportunity to change this.

In Australia, peak industry and university groups including the BCA and Universities Australia have recognised this trend and are working together to boost rates of WIL in Australia, while the Chief Scientist has identified its importance to entrepreneurship and innovation.

Already there are some great examples of programs operating at large scale and delivering value, like the CSIRO and Deloitte who are launching ‘NEXT’ – Australia’s student innovation program with the University of Sydney, QUT and UTS – offering an open access innovation program to Australian universities and businesses.

The NSW Government is also getting involved with a program called ‘Global Scope’, connecting hundreds of students from UTS, Macquarie University, UNSW, NSW TAFE and Performance Education with business projects in NSW departments.

And professional services firm EY have already developed its Asian Century Growth program to connect its clients exploring Asian growth with international students at QUT, UNSW and Melbourne Business School.

These programs are part of preparing our future workforce for a world of work where 50% of current jobs may be disrupted by technology, and where future workers will have more career changes than ever before.

This future demands adaptive experiential learning skills, and indeed, was one of the key reasons we founded our startup, Intersective.

We identified an opportunity to help universities, business and students to collaborate more effectively on great programs like NEXT, Global Scope and Asian Century Growth, and a global opportunity for a smart technology platform we’ve developed called Practera, to support them.

And it’s not just large businesses that can benefit.

Our startup business has seen the benefits of “walking the walk” and operating our own WIL program. Our small team of 15 staff hosts a rolling program of 8-10 interns at any one time – the program helps explore ideas we might not otherwise get to, helps our culture and builds our talent pool – so much so that we hired four of our interns last year.

So when you’re setting your goals for 2016, consider how a well-run and cost effective Work Integrated Learning program can bring a fresh perspective to your organisation and simultaneously strengthen ties with universities and the next generation of workers.