David Russell

Requiring 30 hours of work experience does a disservice to high school students
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Coquitlam Now, January 21, 2004, pg. 13

It's official: The current crop of Grade 9 students in B.C.'s public school system have a new set of requirements to graduate.

Among some of the hotly contested changes are more province-wide examinations for students in grades 10 through 12, physical education as a graduation requirement and portfolio assessment by members of the community.

Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education did not take this opportunity while re-designing graduation criteria to closely examine -- or eliminate altogether -- the need for compulsory work experience hours for all students.

At first glance, the idea of having students experience some form of employment as part of their education sounds sensible. There may well be benefits to spending some time in the workforce that are not as easily obtained in the classroom.

But what the Ministry of Education does not like to acknowledge is the work experience requirement's dirty little secret: free labour.

It's easy to proclaim that area businesses are doing a great service by providing opportunities for our youth to gain employment skills. The work experience requirement for graduation was also originally touted as a chance for kids to make contacts with perspective future employers.

But how many of those students working for free actually get jobs from their sponsor employees?

There is no doubt that many local businesses and even those local affiliates of big corporate Canada have the best interests of students at heart when they volunteer their workplaces for high school students.

On the other hand, in a large urban school district, multiply the number of students approaching graduation times 30 hours and the incentive to get short-term labourers is significant.

Certainly those students who have gotten part-time jobs on their own can use those paying jobs to qualify for the graduation requirement and a good many do. But for many of those without jobs - - whether by choice or lack of opportunity -- 30 hours of their educational time must be used working for free.

And what skills do they hone? Lucky students may find themselves placed in a job in which they can practise skills they've learned or hope to use in a vocation after graduation.

Others are less fortunate.

It is not uncommon for students to spend their work experience hours stocking shelves, cleaning storage rooms, taking out the trash, etc., all of which are important elements of a functioning business but hardly worth requiring students to participate in the name of an arbitrarily determined set of hours to meet graduation requirements.

Students in so-called career preparation programs often fare much worse in that these programs can require upwards of 100 hours, all of it worked for no pay and often with no hope of successfully landing a permanent position.

For this, students may be required to miss countless hours of instruction, potentially putting them further behind in meeting requirements in the rest of their studies.

We want kids to leave school with skills -- academic and applied - - that are transferable to the workplace.

But the public education system is more than a job-training center.

For those students who wish to co-ordinate their school program with appropriate work placement in pursuit of specific vocational aims, let's make that happen.

Dumping all students into 30 hours of unpaid labour -- regardless of its value to their academic or vocational goals -- hardly meets society's expectations of a modern, forward-thinking educational system.

We owe our students more.

David Russell, a Coquitlam resident, is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Canadian Politics.