Mitacs turns to post-secondary students to fix innovation sector
Statistics Canada recently reported there are more jobs than workers available to fill them. This unemployment-to-job vacancy ratio is at an all-time low.
Mitacs, a research and development company is meeting the challenge head-on by matching post-secondary and graduate students in need of work experience with employers in need of their expertise.
The innovative program is not only filling labour gaps, it’s also giving students an opportunity to fine tune their skills making them even more marketable. At the same time, the program is boosting Canada’s lagging innovation record.
According to the Conference Board of Canada, Canada currently ranks 13th out of 16 peer countries when it comes to innovation. Countries with the highest overall scores tend to have national strategies around innovation.
While Canada has good universities, engineering schools, teaching hospitals and technical institutes, it continues to experience innovation challenges that impede competitiveness in the global market and keep it from being a technology leader.
Mitacs credits Canada’s lack of innovation competitiveness to waning business investment in research and development, struggles to scale firms, and poor adoption of productivity-enhancing technologies among other things.
To help this sector transform, Mitacs has been sourcing internships from tens of thousands of college, undergraduate, and graduate students, as well as postdocs. These paid internships cover a broad cross-section of disciplines.
“Giving post-secondary students, postdocs, and recent grads much-needed workplace experience is key to helping them develop skills that are critical for the future workforce and which they just can’t get in the classroom,” said John Hepburn, Mitacs CEO during an interview with rabble.ca.
“At the same time, with more jobs being filled with capable students, we’re helping to improve Canada’s productivity and innovation. It’s a win-win for students, post-secondary institutions, industry and the country’s prosperity as a whole,” Hepburn added.
Hepburn believes solving the innovation problem is going to take teams of people with different, but complimentary, skills and knowledge. Mitacs has projects that require students from such diverse disciplines as engineering, life sciences, math science, fashion, art, and marketing.
Hepburn emphasized that still more needs to be done to support students’ skills development in Canada. A recent report commissioned by the non-profit, Mitacs Skills for Innovation – Sharpening Canada’s Skills Advantage (September 2022), revealed students lack confidence in key areas.
Critical thinking and problem-solving skills, essential for innovation, are also highly valued by organizations. But of the 608 students surveyed, only 43 per cent were very confident that they processed these skills.
Student confidence was also lacking when it came to team management (19 per cent) and project management (24 per cent).
“Confidence comes with experience and practice in honing skills — all of which students report gaining through internships,” Hepburn observed. “Fortunately, organizations today are hungry for top talent and, with a labour shortage, are eager to provide students with growth opportunities.”
The interns work full-time for the experiential learning, but also for financial compensation. That’s because Hepburn believes it’s immoral to have unpaid internships.
He believes financial compensation shows a much-needed level of commitment by the companies to the student experience. The mid-training salaries are also essential if interns are going to live in the cities where they’re working. But, perhaps more importantly, it values their labour.
These mutually beneficial collaborations mean companies get solutions to their problems while students get to take their research projects to the next level while developing their soft skills.
A gateway to real-world experience
Hepburn maintains, “Our interns are our best advertisers.” And, Tony Chahine, Founder and CEO of Myant, couldn’t agree more.
Chahine creates textiles with sensors and actuators knit into them. The clothing created from these innovative fabrics is able to sense and react to the human body.
These garments can help control stress, improve sleep or to stay connected when separated by distance or cognitive ability.
The continual bidirectional interface helps the wearer manage their health, deliver treatment and can monitor systems to enhance athletic performance.
Students have worked on a variety of projects at Myant including a new category for health care designed to be preventative rather than reactive.
For the past 12 years students have helped in the creation of a medium that connects a patient with their health care professional as well as their wider circle of care.
The project involved dozens of disciplines spanning the arts, engineering, clinical faculties and information technology. The different disciplines came together to design clothing that could potentially monitor the health of the seven million Canadians living with cardio disease. In fact, the clothing can house a wearable defibrillator to assist patients at risk of sudden cardiac death.
To date, Myant has hired over 20 employees through the Mitacs program. During a phone interview with rabble.ca, Chahine said, “Canada has a massive opportunity here. We just need to take the talent and create an economy of making rather than and economy of consuming.”
With a view to creating a truly more sustainable world, Worksport designs, produces and distributes solar-charging tonneau covers for trucks.
These covers are ready to power the electric vehicle (EV) and engine stop-start (ESS) trucks of tomorrow using solar power that’s stored in a battery. That energy can also be used to power work and recreational equipment.
Sandra Aragon came from Colombia to pursue her masters in electrical and computer engineering at Ontario Tech University. She completed a five-month paid internship researching and analyzing the best choice of solar panels.
She said Worksport had a welcoming ambiance that fostered collaboration and teamwork. Aragon also liked the fact that she had the opportunity to work on different projects.
When her internship ended Aragon was hired by Worksport. She told rabble.ca, “I decided to continue working at Worksport as a research and development engineer because here, I have the opportunity to learn and apply my knowledge to solve the many challenges that we face every day. As an engineer this is very exciting since I get to do different things all the time.”
Mitacs internships are supported by the federal and provincial governments. Organizations receive partial funding to compensate interns.
Working with more than 100 post-secondary institutions, Mitacs builds partnerships that support industrial and social innovation in Canada.
Mitacs is funded by the Government of Canada and every province, as well as academic, industry and international partners.
For more information, visit mitacs.ca.