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Forget reforming universities. Let’s reform the students

As another academic year begins, debate is sure to flare up on the shortfalls of postsecondary education. Countless white papers and editorials have been written on how universities and colleges are failing us and why the economy will suffer as a result.

It's easy to criticize schools for being out of touch with the economy of 2014, and certainly changes could be made. But students are also responsible for their learning and becoming the workers of the future.

Contrary to popular thinking, most young people aren't spoiled or entitled. They simply view the world differently. And I'm unconvinced that the job market is worse for them than it's been for past generations. It's just changing in ways that require greater creativity and adaptability. Part of Canada's labour market challenge is that we've yet to see a wave of brand new industries and jobs that normally arise post-recession. Preparing the next generation of workers means preparing to think and act differently.

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So forget the policy papers on education reform. What reforms can students make? And how can their individual actions improve Canada's global competitiveness? Here's a top ten list of student habits that will spur on a new wave of industries and jobs that don't even exist yet.

10: Join a club.

Students who engage with their peers and participate in a club on campus will develop empathy, social skills and connections. It doesn't matter if it's a debating team or a chess club. Be involved in something unrelated to your studies.

9: Have a writing sample.

Shockingly, it's possible to complete an undergraduate degree without writing a term paper. But just because it's not required doesn't mean you can't write one. Potential employers will ask for one. Ask your professor to read and grade a paper even if it's not a course requirement.

8. Find a co-op position.

Many programs offer work co-ops for a semester. This is valuable experience even if it extends the total time it takes to complete your degree.

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7: Read novels.

Neuroscience shows that reading fiction exercises the brain in different ways than reading non-fiction. You'll be reading plenty of textbooks and other course material, but a brain that gets a break with a good dose of fiction will function at a higher level.

6. Plan to spend time abroad.

An overseas exchange program to study or work is a fantastic way to develop creative thinking and adaptability.

5: Be curious.

When a professor starts talking about things that aren't in the text book, don't throw up your hand and ask "Is this going to be on the exam?" Stories and anecdotes from the real world breathe life into the course material. Developing a natural curiosity about the world includes attention to the information not on the exam.

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4: Focus on school, then work.

The realities of managing tuition fees and living expenses require many students to take part-time jobs. But to every extent possible, allow your studies to be the priority and your job a secondary obligation. You'll have the next 40 years to focus on work.

3: Pick your major by what you're interested in, not what you think will get you a high-paying job.

It's true that economy needs more skilled trades, technicians and engineers. But if your passions don't lie in a specific area, you're not going to be effective in that field anyway.

2. Take a broad range of courses.

Don't get caught up in focusing only on your major while ignoring the humanities, sciences and languages. A whole-brain thinker will be the worker of the future.

1: Learn how to learn.

There's a difference between memorizing material and understanding it. Don't blame the professor if you don't learn anything. That's your job. What employers need are recruits who know how to absorb new material and apply it. They need good learners.

Developing these habits is about more than just having a good postsecondary experience. By developing them you'll be better equipped for a new wave of industries and jobs that didn't exist a decade ago. Canada's economy in 2020 won't need warm bodies – it'll need curious, creative, empathetic learners who know how to communicate and how to learn.

Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline

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About the Author

Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline. More


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