Why Co-Op Programs Are a Win-Win for Students and Employers

Programs help employers and students get real-world experience

By Catherine Skrzypinski May 30, 2017
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​From Canada to India to the U.S. and beyond, employers are investing in co-operative education programs to train and ultimately hire students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.  

Co-op education is a three-way partnership between a university, an employer and a student. A co-op job is like a paid internship, where students earn a salary as they work with professionals in their fields of study. Some are then hired by their co-op employers.

The University of Waterloo in Canada pioneered co-operative education 60 years ago, combining academic studies with work experience to aid aspiring engineers. In the 2000s, Waterloo partnered with what is now called Blackberry Limited, formerly Research in Motion, maker of the Blackberry device, to hire and train students in hopes they would become employees after graduation.

"With its blend of higher learning and real-world practice, co-op education has become a proven way to prepare students for a changing world and challenges growing ever more complex," said Dave McKay, president and CEO of financial services institution Royal Bank of Canada, headquartered in Toronto, Ontario.

McKay, an alumnus of the University of Waterloo's computer science co-op program, proposed a national goal to ensure that 100 percent of Canadian undergraduate students are exposed to experiential learning before they graduate. "The business world is increasingly cross-disciplinary; education needs to be, too," he told the Universities Canada Governing Council Chamber in April 2016.

Waterloo: Canada's Tech Hub

More than 19,000 students are enrolled in co-ops at Waterloo, where technology plays an integral role. About 70 percent of students say they chose the university because of its renowned co-op program, according to Waterloo's incoming undergraduate student survey.

Kik founder Ted Livingston, whose Ontario-based social media messaging platform is currently valued at more than $1 billion, is one such success story.  

Livingston studied mechatronics engineering at Waterloo from 2005 to 2009. He saved $15,000 from the cooperative programs he worked in to start Kik in 2010. Once Kik became popular, Livingston donated $1 million to Waterloo to help pay for business startups in which students are involved.

"Waterloo's mission is to inspire students and provide a richer education," said Peggy Jarvie, Waterloo's associate provost of co-operative and experiential education. "Students are connected to current technology and bring a fresh perspective to the workplace to apply what they learn in class."

Jarvie explained that the university plays a key role in the city of Waterloo's huge startup or entrepreneur program. Students can take part in Velocity, the entrepreneurship program at Waterloo University. It is the largest free-startup incubator in the world. "Velocity provides an avenue to help students build their own startups and launch new products," she added.

Ontario's university graduate survey data show that around 96 percent of graduates are employed within six months of graduation in positions related to skills they learned during their co-ops and at Waterloo.

"Waterloo students have four or five co-ops on their resume when they graduate," Jarvie continued. "They know how to articulate those skills with potential employees. It's an invaluable experience."

Experiential Learning a Global Phenomenon

Beyond Canada, many other countries around the world are blending work and learning.
At Drexel University in Philadelphia, students in a co-op program test-drive their careers at Amazon and Google and are exposed to the best minds, said Peter Franks, Drexel's vice provost for career education. After working at these companies while they study, "they come back to the classroom more mature, confident and knowledgeable with new skills and innovations."

In India, these programs have helped impoverished students who have few education options to earn degrees in science.

In Hyderabad, India, Dr. Reddy's Laboratories Ltd., an Indian multinational pharmaceutical company, believes education is key to retention. For more than 10 years, the $2.5 billion company with offices in 30 countries has hired college freshman from poor villages—where an advanced education is virtually unheard of—to work and learn as they earn science degrees.

"We train them in the skills of pharmaceutical manufacturing," said S. Chandrasekhar, Dr. Reddy's president and global head of HR, during an interview with SHRM Online in Hyderabad in April. "We provide them with an undergrad degree by funding their education, and we ensure that they earn while they learn."

Dr. Reddy's partners with three universities and provides employees with housing in college dorms. Within three years, "we immerse them in the company's culture, and [by the time they graduate], we've made them job ready and culture ready. There is a 96 percent retention rate for the first five years, and 95 percent stay with us," he said. 

He added that most are hired from small, rural villages. "They are not the rich kids," Chandrasekhar said. "This program has a social cause. We are trying to uplift the lives of poor people who cannot afford higher education or good jobs. This is life-altering for these people."

Students graduate with a Bachelor of Science in pharmaceutical chemistry. 

 

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Benefits of Continuous Feedback

Co-op programs rely on feedback from employers and students to keep up with technological skills needed in the workplace and to assess a student's capabilities, according to educators in Canada and the United States.

Co-op education is a fundamental part of the HR pipeline as it could lead to employment, explained Kettil Cedercreutz, Ph.D., associate provost and dean at the University of Cincinnati's division of experience-based learning and career education. It, too, has a co-op program.

"The feedback cycle works," Cedercreutz added. "Students will be vocal if the university teaches them the wrong software. This will lead to a dialogue to change the software. In turn, we will lose employers if the students don't have the right skills. We need to know where industries are going to stay on the right track."

"Co-op is considered a recruitment strategy," said Norah McRae, Ph.D., University of Victoria's executive director of co-operative education and career services in Victoria, British Columbia. "With [Victoria's] aging population, we need new graduates to stay and work in the community. A co-op student hire is the equivalent of a four-month interview where both the employer and student can determine whether they have a future together."

 

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer in Vancouver. Aliah D. Wright, SHRM's technology editor contributed to this story.

 

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