Cooperative programs are becoming more and more popular among institutions. I graduated from North America’s largest cooperative program, where as one of my brothers enrolled in a much smaller coop program that was offered by his faculty. This article will focus on the large, well-established co-op programs similar to the one offered by the University of Waterlo0. Waterloo makes all of its engineering students take cooperative education, no option, as well as many other faculties (no surprise they are the largest, eh?). I am not coop education’s strongest proponent; I actually personally view it more negatively than I do positively. The purpose of this article is to outline what I see as the advantages and disadvantages of a cooperative education, and to argue that one doesn’t need take a cooperative education to be successful.
What is a Co-op Education?
Cooperative Education, or Co-op, is a system where a student alternates terms of studying (study term) with terms of work (work term) at an employer in a similar to their chosen field of study. This is similar to what students pursuing a healthcare degree, masters in nursing, or trying to become a Dr. do, except, they get paid for it in some places. In 2011 I remember the Saskatchewan and Manitoba government trying to promote medical personal to work within the rural communities by picking up the entire tab on their education!
Co-op terms are typically four months long, but they can be eight months depending on your institution and your particular situation. It is very similar to an internship program where a student will work with an employer for one year immediately after they complete their third year of study. A co-op program differs from an internship because a student can start working with as little as one study term under their belt and work with a different employer for every work term.
Applying for Jobs is a lot of Work
As a student in a co-op program the job hunt seems to be an endless cycle and can be a considerable amount of work and stress on top of your regular studies. The first job postings usually come out four weeks into the term. These are timed perfectly to have interviews during your mid-terms. If you don’t get a job while writing your mid-terms, you go into second round. Second round is basically go home and check for jobs, apply for jobs, interview for jobs two days later, repeat until you get a job. Every job that you apply for needs to be researched a bit, a resume tailored to it, and if successful an interview to prepare for. Interviews happen during class, so you have to catch up on the material that you missed.
This work load varies, but you do get used to it, and eventually very good at it. So good that it becomes second nature. Those first few years though can add a lot of stress, and if you don’t have a job by the time finals come prepare for even more stress.
Valuable Job Experience
Co-op education gives you relevant job experience which is a huge help when you go and apply for your first real job. Some students even get hired directly by the firms they worked for in their last couple of work terms. Many students use the work terms to sample different industries and get a feel for what they want to do after they graduate. Others know what they want to do and use it to find a good company in their industry of choice. I personally tried out Forestry, Aerospace, Forensic Engineering, Automotive, and Food Production. I ultimately ended up in the Building industry because I didn’t like any of the other stuff I did. How best to use your work terms to your advantage deserves a separate post but you can see the variety you can be exposed to in a very short time.
I must stress that co-op really only helps you directly for your first job. After that, your co-op experience doesn’t really matter. Much like the high school you came from or the university you graduated from, it eventually doesn’t matter anymore.
More Time Needed to Complete Your Degree
The Waterloo system included six work terms. In order to accommodate these six terms, the total time to complete a program was extended by one year. This is not a four year program stretched over five years, it is still a four year program taken in four years, so expect a full course load.
A disadvantage to this is you do enter the work force one year later than a non co-op graduate. Many people counter this by arguing that as a co-op, you have one and a half years of equivalent work experience so you are actually ahead of a non co-op graduate. This is not the case. The first two work terms are not applicable in most instances because they occurred too long ago or are not relevant. To use engineering as an example, I am only allowed to claim work terms that I completed after my second year of study, or three work terms (1 years worth of experience). At best you will be equal. Differences in salaries and getting into the next stage of life one year later should also be considered.
Simon Says “Pay Your Fee!”
A co-op education can cost you more in tuition. These programs are complicated and require a lot of support workers. Waterloo tucked a cool $500 a term “Co-op Fee” into everyone’s tuition to cover the costs. Whether the fee was appropriate or not is an offline discussion, but I want to make everyone aware that there probably will be a fee. This fee however, will not guarantee you a job. You may have to pay it regardless if you get a job or not, or if you get a job without using any of the co-op services. Countless students argued against this policy every term, and were never successful to my knowledge. This fee can be seen as a “pay for privilege” not a “pay for service” type of fee.
The Income is Very Nice
Probably the most direct benefit of a co-op education is the income that you can earn while you study, and it is a very good income for a student. You can expect to be paid in your first term a little bit better than minimum wage, and complete your last term earning around $23 dollars an hour. These numbers vary considerably between programs, and the above numbers are the averages for engineering. If you are interested with what your program might pay go and check out the University of Waterloo co-op website. Many of my friends left university with no debt, others bought cars, and some just lived very comfortably as a student.
Graduating debt free is not exclusive to co-op students, nor will being in a co-op program eliminate your debt concerns. I actually graduated with more debt than JB, and he went to a regular program. Many students do it every year, or at least graduate with minimal student debt. It can be done.
A Different University Experience
The university experience is an important part of going to university, and this is where I feel the co-op program comes up short. You will be constantly be moving to and from university depending on where your work term is. This makes it more difficult to maintain friendships, relationships, or even develop a deep friendship. The atmosphere of a university is hard to quantify or explain, but every institution just feels different. Most of my university friends could not relate to what I was saying because they did not know what was really going on at other universities. I attended a few of the socials and events at the University of Manitoba, and took classes at different institutions, so I knew the atmosphere was different. Between my experience and that of my brothers, I have to say they their’s was better.
The Co-op Advantage
If you have already done a little research into co-op education, you may have heard the term “The Co-op Advantage”. The big advantage that a co-op student has over a non co-op student is what I had one professor refer to as “polished”. Co-op students are job savvy by the time they graduate. They have negotiated at least six job contracts, and have worked for six different companies. To get there they have probably applied to a hundred different jobs and have had more interviews then they can remember (I am not joking here, a dorm-mate once complained to me that he applied to ninety-nine jobs in his first term). To sum it up, we know how to write a resume, get an interview, what to say in that interview, and demand a good salary. To put it another way, the advantage is confidence. A co-op education will push you learn the job application process and how to adapt to various different work environments. When this is compared against someone who is having an interview for their first real job, it is a big advantage.
But the School I Want to Go to Doesn’t Offer Co-op
This is of no concern. Remember that co-op programs are still the exception, not the norm. Ever since I completed my degree I have argued that I could be in the same position I am in right now, if not better, if I didn’t go into a co-op program. At the end of the day your success is a direct result of how much you put into it. With a regular program a student has three summers and countless volunteering opportunities. If you utilize these you can considerably narrow the advantage a co-op student has. Employers are always looking for “team-oriented”, “hard-working”, “good communicators”, and other buzz word skills that you can gain yourself if you have the discipline to do so. Co-op students don’t have that discipline. That is why we enrolled in a co-op program, to have someone make us do it.
Will I Be Successful If I Don’t Go To A Co-op Program?
Co-op institutions will be the first to tell you that graduates from a co-op program are more successful than graduates from non co-op programs. There is some truth to this statement, but always take what a salesman says with a grain of salt. There are many more non co-op programs than co-op programs, and all of the graduates from non co-0p programs DO find jobs and DO lead very successful lives. Just ask around, the vast majority of people did not graduate from co-op programs.
So no, I don not think that a co-op education is a requirement to be successful. However there is a catch. If you go to university for a degree in accounting, but do not do any accounting related work during your summers, you will likely lose out to a co-op student of accounting with the exact same grades as you do.
Co-op education takes an average student and makes them better by giving them job experience. If you worked during your summers at an employer related to your degree, you will be very comparable to a co-op graduate. This is a big topic and I really only have scratched the surface. If you have any questions please feel free to post them below in the comments and I will do my best to answer them.