4 reasons why employers should engage students now: Dee Ann Benard’s story

As an employer, Dee Ann Benard, CEO of the Rural Development Network (RDN), was excited at the prospect of tapping into the almost endless supply of ideas, energy, and enthusiasm that is Work-Integrated Learning.

RDN’s new Work-Integrated Learning program, Rural Roots, connects employers with innovative post-secondary students to boost their capacity, supporting the future workforce and the sustainability of rural communities.

Over the years, Dee Ann and the staff at RDN have engaged several post-secondary students through Work-Integrated Learning. Based on her experience of working with post-secondary students, here are four reasons why Dee Ann thinks employers should engage students now:

1. Discover new talent at low risk and cost

Through Work-Integrated Learning, employers can engage students in various ways, often at no cost. For example, many post-secondary programs have project-based components for courses or work placement requirements that encourage employers to provide much-needed work experience for their students. 

According to Dee Ann, Work-Integrated Learning provides employers an opportunity to discover new talent and potentially source new staff that is the right fit for their organization: 

“It gave us an opportunity to try out specific students. For example, if we find we like one of the students and we already have experience with how they work, it makes it easier for us to offer them a position. It’s a bit of a ‘try before you buy’ type of opportunity.”

2. Younger generations have new and innovative ideas

Post-secondary students learn the most up-to-date practices and research in their fields of study. So, when employers engage post-secondary students who are still completing their programs or are recent graduates, they often bring new and innovative ideas to the organization. 

“Students are exposed to cutting-edge ideas when they’re in school and bring those ideas to the workforce,” says Dee Ann. “I can learn something new from somebody who’s 20 years old, and that’s really exciting. Younger people aren’t afraid to talk and share their ideas, and lots of times they’re really good ideas.”

New ideas like these can help organizations rethink systems and processes, and potentially even shift entire mindsets. Finding new ways of doing supports organizations to keep adapting and moving forward. 

3. Get quality work with long-term benefits

When employers engage post-secondary students, they have an opportunity to receive quality work at a fraction of the cost that can have a lasting impact for staff, a specific project or initiative, and the organization. 

For example, in Fall 2021, RDN partnered with a team of graduate students at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health to explore coordinated access for people at risk of homelessness in rural and remote communities.

The project’s outcomes included a literature review to understand the strengths and challenges of implementing coordinated access in rural, remote, and Indigenous communities, and a service mapping project that drew on direct engagement with service providers in Lac La Biche County.

One of the graduate students continued to build on the project outcomes during their practicum placement with RDN. The project included a survey, virtual engagement sessions, and informal interviews with service providers. The research findings were analyzed and compiled into a report and will be shared with community partners in 2022-2023. 

“The project was absolutely invaluable – it was a free project, and we are still using the work that the students did,” says Dee Ann. “It also encouraged us to start doing more paid work placements.”

4. Additional capacity supports organizations and students

Employers that engage post-secondary students build their capacity by offloading back-burner projects or getting additional hands-on-deck to support existing initiatives. 

“It builds capacity, especially when you’re talking about small businesses or not-for-profits,” explains Dee Ann. “Having that extra pair of hands, pair of eyes, and brainpower can really contribute a lot to capacity. I think it’s a really good opportunity for employers to see the value of hiring students.” 

In return, students build their confidence and portfolios and enhance their resumes, which allows them to integrate into the workforce successfully. 

”You’re helping somebody else move forward in their career, and you never know where people might end up. It’s really exciting to see what they have to offer and where they’re going – they have so much ahead of them.”

Overcoming barriers and getting started with Work-Integrated Learning

According to Dee Ann, it can be challenging to get employers interested in trying out Work-Integrated Learning because of time constraints, busy schedules, and the uncertainty of how something new will work.

“The reality is that I was initially reluctant – do I really want to do this? But I’m so glad I did,” says Dee Ann. “The vast majority of employers who try it once will try it again and again because the little bit of extra work that it might be is compensated way more by the value you get.”

“I really want to encourage employers to take a chance because the vast majority of students will contribute so much to your organization. You’ll be glad you took the time.”

How to get started with Work-Integrated Learning:

RDN’s Rural Roots program connects employers with talented post-secondary students. Learn more and get started today!

About Dee Ann Benard

Dee Ann began working with RDN as the inaugural Executive Director and has been leading the team in this position since 2009, becoming the Chief Executive Officer in 2022. After earning her B.Sc. (Biology) and M.Sc. (Plant Pathology) from Simon Fraser University, Dee Ann moved to Edmonton to work with Alberta Agriculture. Eventually, she joined the private industry to manage the Alberta operation of Integrated Crop Management Services (ICMS), Inc. Later, she moved to the Alberta Research Council (now Alberta Innovates) where she worked first as a plant pathologist, and later in business development.

In 2004, she joined the newly formed Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta (ARECA) as Executive Director, a position she held until she joined the (A)RDN. Dee Ann served as a member of the Agriculture and Food Council for several years, where she held roles such as Chair of Advancing Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food and treasurer. She enjoys skiing, kayaking, and hiking.