Planning for the Future – the Next Generation of Engineers

The future of work, the workforce, and how to best prepare for the many unknowns ahead are some of the biggest challenges currently facing Canada’s governments, employers, educators and policymakers.

With Canada’s ageing population, nearly one in four workers are expected to be aged 55 or older this year (2021). There has never been a more critical time for Canadian companies to consider the long-term needs of their workforce and begin investing in talent early.

In the engineering field alone, thousands of engineers are reaching the age of retirement. In a report called Engineering Labour Marketing in Canada – Projections to 2025, Engineers Canada expects that organizations across Canada will be short 100,000 engineers over the next decade as a result of retirements and growth in business demand.

According to Mary Wells, P.Eng., Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo, retiring engineers pose an opportunity for organizations to assess their current talent strategies. “This emerging group will be unlike the engineers before them – they’ll be the first generation to grow up completely embedded in technology since birth. Paired with the advances spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, the new talent pool will bring a new dimension to the current employers and organizations.”

Wells cautions that while the next generation will bring new perspectives to industry, it is up to organizations to meet the needs of talent and help keep them in Canada.

“We are losing engineering talent to major tech hubs around the world,” says Wells. “If Canadian employers focus on creating unique work experiences and career opportunities for our students, there will be more of a desire for them to stay. As the potential for Canadian technology investment grows, they will return.”

At Waterloo, preparing the next generation of talent for an evolving workplace and a complex future has become central to many programs.

“Co-operative education and work-integrated learning enables students to gain experience and helps employers engage with emerging talent well before they graduate,” says Norah McRae, associate provost of Co-operative and Experiential Education. “By the time they graduate, students typically have two years of experience navigating the workforce and applying their skills to solve problems across organizations.”

Co-op has been central to the University since its founding in 1957 when 74 students started engineering classes. In October of that year, the same students began their first co-op placements.

“We are home to the largest pool of co-op talent in the world,” says McRae. “More than 25,000 Waterloo co-op students are hired each year by 7,500 employers located in more than 60 countries.”

Today, nearly 3,500 ENG students on average look for work each term. In 2021, more than 7,130 Engineering students were employed over the year, with a total of 10,400 total work terms completed.

The changing workforce

“Our workforce is drastically shifting. There is a heightened need for employees who have complementary and sometimes unusual combinations of transferable skills. The future workforce will require talent that has a strong educational foundation coupled with technical skill and agility. Our students are uniquely equipped to contribute their talents in unique and meaningful ways,” says McRae.

For Geotab, one of the fastest-growing technology companies in North America, preparing for more millennials and Gen Z to enter the workforce means embracing the significance of generational change.

“Geotab is preparing for more millennials and Gen Z in the workforce by providing opportunities for growth and development. And, constantly finding new ways to keep students engaged and to choose Geotab as an employer of choice,” says Tharsiga Selvathilagan, campus talent acquisition partner at Geotab. “We believe in the power of fostering key relationships and setting employees up for success through mentorship opportunities. Our new Buddy Program is designed to uphold this philosophy by pairing a new hire with a seasoned Geotabber to ease the transition into their new role.”

For Canada’s leading general contractor, PCL Construction, co-op has become a significant source of talent acquisition. “The student program at PCL is truly invaluable from a talent perspective,” says Brendan O’Neil, district HRPD manager at PCL Constructors Canada Inc. “We always look to our student program first when hiring for our entry-level positions across all districts as they are already familiar with our business and processes. Additionally, students provide us with new perspectives and ideas to improve processes and approach challenges from a different lens.”

At Wind River, Waterloo Co-op offers talent that can bring a fresh perspective to projects for their software development roles. “As an organization, we use the co-op term to evaluate a student’s interest, performance, output and potential as we build our future talent pool,” says Stephanie Muldoon, senior human resources partner at Wind River. “As a result, we’ve had some brilliant co-op students who have brought energy, enthusiasm and new ideas into the team—often sparking conversations and allowing the teams to look at technical issues in a new light.”

The next generation wants their work to align with their values

In a recent survey published by Waterloo on the future of the workforce, almost 50 percent of Gen Z student respondents said they’d be unlikely to accept a full-time job that matches their skills, but not their values.

Providing opportunities for students to contribute meaningfully during work terms is a central aspect to engaging them through the work term and retaining talent long term.

Maddie Whibbs, talent acquisition manager at BlackBerry, says, “students are given various projects to work on depending on their role and product team.”

“Previous students played an integral role in preparing and improving the functionality of the kernel for safety certification on the QNX team. Students are also involved in developing and testing hardware and sensors used as part of the BlackBerry IVY ecosystem in partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS),” said Whibbs.

At Geotab, students are treated as contributing team members working alongside their teammates to complete tasks that impact software deliverables. Depending on their level and experience, this may vary from simple tasks at first, developing later into more complex tasks that the team counts on them to complete.

“Waterloo is committed to leading engineering education and research,” says Selvathilagan. “We see a spark in many students hired from Waterloo. The motivation and eagerness to learn is very apparent and students have a strong academic acumen that they bring to the table, along with past co-op/internship experience.”

Employer Q+A

We asked some Waterloo employers from various sectors and industries why they continue to hire co-op students from the engineering program each year. Here’s what they said:

What leads your organization to continue hiring emerging talent from Waterloo each year?

“It is evident that the University of Waterloo makes a significant effort to prepare their students for their co-op term, from the interview right through to completion of their work term. We eagerly accept the opportunity to bring students back for sequential terms, enabling them to build on and apply what they have learned in previous terms with PCL and from their classes in-between.” – Brendan O’Neil, District HRPD Manager PCL Constructors Canada Inc.

“BlackBerry and the University of Waterloo have a long-standing partnership rooted in community and innovation. Over the past 30 years, thousands of Waterloo students and graduates have helped to build our company and turn it into one of the world’s most recognized and celebrated technology brands.” – Maddie Whibbs, Talent Acquisition Manager, University & Colleges, BlackBerry

“Waterloo students are prepared! They come to a work term understanding what’s expected and eager to learn and work. Often, they also have previous work experience, which lowers the time to ramp up. From an HR perspective, the platform to post, interview, and select is top-notch. Easy to use, well supported by the co-op team office and flexible to allow for changes as they occur.” – Stephanie Muldoon, Senior Human Resources Partner, Wind River

What advice do you have for employers who are considering hiring co-op?

“Take the time to understand your student’s goals and how you can support them in achieving those goals. Keep in mind that this is a learning opportunity, and it might be a student’s first entry into professional job experience. Providing continuous informal feedback is also key to supporting the student’s experience and ability to develop in the role.”- O’Neil

“Get granular with your job descriptions to ensure you capture what sets this role apart from the other opportunities on the market. Be sure to be specific about the projects and technologies that the student will be working on.” – Whibbs

“Be ready to commit. Having a successful term on both ends means planning the work, providing the proper training and support along the way. Be reasonable with your expectations and set aside time weekly for check-ins.” – Muldoon

“Co-op students are here to learn! They may not know everything like a seasoned working professional. However, as an employer, it’s our job to guide them and provide opportunities for growth and development to reach their full potential.” – Tharsiga Selvathilagan, Campus Talent Acquisition Partner, Geotab

Developing a strong talent pipeline starts with providing young talent with an environment where they can thrive. Don’t hesitate to get them through your doors early as the competition for brilliant talent increases. Find out more about Hire Waterloo, the University of Waterloo’s student co-op program.

This article is provided by OSPE on behalf of the University of Waterloo. 

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