Practitioners engaged in Canadian post-secondary co-operative education programs regularly encounter ethical risk involving key stakeholders – co-op students, employers and the higher-education institution (HEI). Risk can seem minimal, such as bending program rules to support a student, or it can be more significant. More complex situations such as workplace safety issues are time sensitive and likely involve multiple individuals and departments. If not identified and properly managed, risk can have negative financial, legal and reputational consequences.
After interviewing 10 Canadian work-integrated learning (WIL) practitioners, it was clear to me that practitioners regularly take part in activities to reduce, transfer, control or eliminate ethical risk in co-op programs (Dodds, Cameron, & Maclean, 2021). In an article I co-authored for the Canadian Journal of Career Development, risk management practices shared by practitioners were categorized into five distinct areas: policies and processes, institutional support, education and training, student communication and collaboration with the WIL community. An overarching theme was relationship management between stakeholders.
The stories and actions shared by research participants may prove useful to practitioners interested in evaluating and improving existing risk management practices in their own HEI co-op programming. This may be particularly relevant now, given the impacts of COVID-19 on co-op program management. For those directly involved in co-op, the spotlight on what is considered risk, and how to manage it, has intensified. In this article, I explore how my WIL team at Capilano University navigated and mitigated risk affecting co-op students during the pandemic.
COVID-19, risk and our WIL team
In spring 2020 Canadian WIL practitioners gathered in virtual town hall meetings facilitated by provincial and national associations. A range of approaches emerged as individual HEIs considered how to manage existing co-op programs under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some paused interaction with co-op employers completely, other HEIs continued to operate with altered expectations of both students and employers. Local and national associations supported necessary changes with the central mandate of maintaining quality programming.
In the School of Tourism Management at Capilano University, ethical risk was top of mind as our team of WIL practitioners gathered with department leads to consider a path for students needing and wanting work experience. Hours of conversation and planning resulted in several initiatives, some immediate and others evolving over time. Many of our actions fit neatly into the five categories mentioned above. Following is an overview of several best practices we designed to reduce, transfer or control risk in our new environment.
Policies and processes: Our team collaborated with the campus Health and Safety Office to design a process for evaluating/vetting co-op employers with a focus on 1.) workplace COVID-19 safety measures and 2.) new employee/student training specific to COVID-19. Potential employers were required to provide specific safety materials, which were reviewed by the health and safety team. Student placements required their approval to move forward.
Institutional support: We requested student-facing and practitioner-facing process charts designed to clearly indicate “what to do if” a student had a COVID-related challenge while engaged in their co-op work term. While this initiative was supported, updated versions of the documents are pending.
“… ethical risk was top of mind as our team of WIL practitioners gathered with department leads to consider a path for students needing and wanting work experience.”
Education and training: We increased workplace safety training for co-op students by requiring completion of the Foundations of Workplace Safety course delivered online through go2hr, an association supporting BC’s tourism and hospitality industry. There is now a second online course available, titled B-Safe, which offers a foundational understanding of COVID-19 health and safety protocols as well as tips on handing non-compliance. While the course is tourism/hospitality focused, it could be of value to others. We will no doubt include this training in the future.
Student communication: We increased the amount of both general and COVID-19-specific health and safety information on course pages, and reinforced student workplace rights and responsibilities. Although students were made aware that employers had provided our team with work-safe materials, we emphasized the importance of ensuring that daily on-site COVID-19 safety practices were happening. Students were reminded of their rights as an employee should an employer not follow COVID safety practices at their workplace. Conversations around safety were of highest importance during all student/employer interactions and check-ins.
Collaboration with the WIL community: Increased town hall meetings were facilitated by both our provincial and national associations, offering general updates and space for practitioners to ask questions, express concerns and share current practices. We saw an increase in research, articles and conference presentations focused on risk management in WIL programming.
The complexity of maintaining productive, quality relationships with our co-op students, our valued employers and individuals within our own institution was a high priority. Student safety and welfare trumped all. While our team operated with a high duty of care, it was also necessary to trust both students and employers to uphold high safety standards in the workplace. Creativity and collaboration helped our team support student learning while reducing, transferring and controlling risk as best we could. Changes and added steps took time and energy. Although not easy or perfect, we did make a significant effort to ensure that our tourism co-op students had the opportunity to engage in meaningful – and safe – work.