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Are you facing the discouraging prospect of a low-paying, dead end McJob to make ends meet between university or college semesters? What if you found a job positing for a short-term position in your field of study with pay commensurate to your skill level? And what if your school pre-selected all potential employers and the job placement was not only gratifying but also integral to obtaining your degree? Sound impossible? You may be interested in a co-op education program, which integrates pain work experience with post-secondary academic studies.

A co-op curriculum alternates classroom instruction with in-field work placements, and must begin and end with a study term. Co-op work terms are integrated into an academic program in a defined sequence and comprise at least 30 per cent to half of the total study time. Job programs must be approved by the co-op education institution and constitute active, productive work, supervised by the employer.

According to the Canadian Association for Co-op Education (CAFCE), studies show that co-op students gain employment sooner after graduation, have higher salaries and are more likely to find employment related to their degree area than non-co-op graduates.

The Canadian Way

Co-op programs began in Canada in 1957 at the University of Waterloo, now home to the largest program in the work. Following a quick expansion in the 70’s, by 2004, over 78,500 students were enrolled in co-op programs at 78 institutions across Canada.

Thirty-nine-co-op schools are listed in the four Western provinces, offering everything from Bachelor of Arts degrees to masters and PhD’s with co-op options.

  • The co-op model consists of more than one work period during the academic program and follows three structures.
  • A mandatory co-op requires all students in the academic program to participate in the work placement component.
  • An optional program allows students to opt for co-op work placements, once enrolled in an admissible education program.
  • Selective programs will admit only those students who meet a predetermined set of selection criteria, for example a minimum grade point average, an accepted portfolio and/or employer-conducted interview.

Paid co-op work placements can help students finance their tuition, but may add to the time required to complete their studies. Multiple job scenarios can help students enhance their own employability, while they gain a greater understanding of what skills and attributes future employers may be looking for and what career opportunities may be available. Building a resume of work experience relevant to their discipline can give students a decided advantage when entering the work force upon graduation.

Federal and provincial legislation sets out rules governing hiring and employment, but employers will have their own criteria for accepting students for a work placement. For example, they may require students to reach a level of practical knowledge or skills before hiring and may only accept placements to coordinate with latter periods of study.

Employers get involved

Beyond their involvement in employing students, some employers may participate in education and industry related activities such as career fairs, conferences, mock-interviews and resume critiques. Some may provide instructors to conduct classes or workshops (credit and non) in employment issues such as job search and interview techniques, communication skills and safety in the work place.

If an employer champions the value of co-op education, they may develop a fundraising program or endowment fund to help finance their own participate in a program. Company representative may also hold positions on co-op program advisory committees as a means of keeping schools and students aware of their industry’s needs and hiring practices.

Co-op education is a three-way partnership, where all parties benefit. Students gain valuable knowledge of workplace realities, schools can provide resources beyond the walls and scope of in-class instruction and employers have a hand in educating potential partners.

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