How Rural Roots is Changing the Work-Integrated Learning Landscape: Highlights from Year 2

The Rural Development Network’s Rural Roots program has thrived in its second year, leaving a lasting impact on rural communities across Canada. With a focus on empowering post-secondary students and rural employers, the program has achieved impressive milestones and overcome challenges through creativity and collaboration. In this blog, we explore the highlights from the past year such as our achievements, the lessons we’ve learned, and our plans for the future. 

1. Nurturing Rural Roots’ Growth and Impact

Building off a successful pilot initiative, Rural Roots’ second year was one of tremendous growth and impact. According to Daniela Seiferling, Rural Roots’ Program Manager, "It was a year of learning, improving, and thinking of how we could better deliver the program and make this a sustainable initiative.” Targets included facilitating 1,000 Work Integrated Learning (WIL) placements across Canada, engaging 2,000 employers, and hosting a year-end showcase. 

“By incorporating valuable feedback from stakeholders, the program successfully expanded its outreach and matched an additional 250 students compared to Year 1. We also expanded the number of post-secondary institutions (PSIs) and programs we were working with to increase the breadth of opportunities we were offering students," says Daniela, reflecting on the substantial growth in placements and opportunities.

Rural Roots closely monitored our program data to identify trends around career pathways and in-demand skills. The demand for WIL placements among students was diverse, but some roles proved to be particularly sought after. Non-profit branding, graphic design, marketing, and communications were consistently in high demand from both employers and students. Additionally, students displayed a keen interest in data analysis, business consulting, and supporting social enterprises, indicating their desire to contribute research expertise to small businesses and support sustainable economic development. 

By implementing targeted communication campaigns, launching a new matching platform, and creating a WIL microsite, Rural Roots made significant strides in connecting with employers, students, and PSIs, both organically and through established networks. Notably, the program witnessed a surge in engagement from Indigenous-led organizations, economic development entities, and innovation hubs, underscoring the program's ability to resonate with a diverse range of stakeholders.

“This program can help employers and organizations, like Alberta HUB, maintain operations and assist in developing a strategy to meet our mandates,” says Bob Bezpalko, the Executive Director of Alberta HUB, who has engaged over 20 students through the Rural Roots program.

2. Overcoming Challenges through Creativity

Rural Roots’ second year underwent a varying set of challenges, including economic downturns and impacts from provincial election(s). However, the program demonstrated resilience by adapting and innovating to overcome these hurdles and support employers with building their internal capacity to recruit and engage students. 

Daniela explains, "We helped employers pivot from traditional WIL to innovative WIL (e.g., course-based projects) and scale their expectations or deliverables accordingly. We also supported employers with little to no HR capacity with screening applications and interviewing potential candidates."

Our efforts to support employers throughout the WIL process have fostered strong bonds between Rural Roots and between rural communities. As Daniela Seiferling emphasizes, "Our team does a lot of pre-work with employers. We’re meeting with organizations to understand where they have current gaps in capacity and helping them frame their project in a way that meets their needs, both financially and capacity-wise, to ensure they have achievable outcomes."

Our support has helped address an increased demand for WIL and has also fostered new connections and new opportunities in rural communities.

"Because of RDN [and the support of the Rural Roots team] we have been able to reach out to other post-secondary institutions with this common connection so working with RDN has been a catalyst for opportunities," says Medicine Hat College. 

As Rural Roots continues to grow, we plan to develop more resources supporting PSIs in delivering WIL opportunities. We will also aim to advocate for rural and remote employers and institutions at provincial and national levels, fostering unique partnerships, innovative programs, and collaborative funding.

3. A Rising Star: Growing Recognition and Partnerships

Through Rural Roots' unwavering commitment to excellence and meaningful impact, the program has garnered increasing recognition within the work-integrated learning space. "More people are aware of the program and want to partner or work with us on various projects," Daniela remarks, highlighting the program's rising prominence as a key player in the WIL landscape. 

The program's reputation as a trusted partner for post-secondary institutions and rural and remote employers earned accolades from larger organizations interested in the WIL landscape.

"[RDN provides] access to rural networks, [giving] our students access to see what’s going on in rural and smaller communities that need help," says MacEwan University. 

As more people learn about the program and what it has to offer, the Rural Roots team now has employers actively reaching out to them to explore collaboration opportunities. This organic growth stands as a testament to the program's profound impact and evolving influence within the educational and rural development sectors.

And Rural Roots wouldn’t be a rising star without the funding and support from one of its partners, the Business + Higher Education Roundtable (BHER). Through collaborative efforts and regular meetings, BHER and Rural Roots have worked together to achieve shared goals and objectives, while BHER has also championed the program, connecting it with new partners and supporting its expansion.

Daniela says “BHER’s commitment to promoting WIL and creating opportunities for students has enabled Rural Roots to adapt and grow its program, addressing challenges and staying ahead of emerging trends.” 

With this growing recognition comes growing responsibilities and expectations from stakeholders. The program is currently working on a project that identifies best practices and approaches around WIL in rural and remote spaces. The research will inform the creation of a white paper and toolkit that will aim to build capacity for its smaller PSI partners who are looking to Rural Roots for innovative solutions. By providing support to our PSI partners, we hope to further strengthen existing partnerships, attract new partners, and strengthen the WIL ecosystem in Canada. 

A Promising Road Ahead - Engage in the Program Today!

Heading into its third year, Rural Roots aspires to scale its existing program by:

  • Strengthening relationships with post-secondary institutions and expanding partnerships beyond Alberta. 
  • Offering more innovative WIL placements, including course-based projects and competitions. 
  • Exploring funding models including grants and fee-for-service offerings, to expand into high school WIL and support newcomer integration by providing meaningful opportunities in the Canadian context. 

With Daniela Seiferling's guidance, a committed WIL team, and BHER’s support, Rural Roots is set to continue its journey of providing transformative experiences for students, rural and small-scale employers, and PSIs across Canada.

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About Rural Roots

RDNs Rural Roots program allows students to gain much-needed experience to transition to their future careers and allows employers to boost their capacity while generating projects that have tangible results. Through meaningful engagement in our program, we aim to raise awareness of the benefits of working, living, and supporting rural communities.