SPECIAL REPORT

Classroom Meets The Boardroom

Waterloo’s pioneer program has made Canada a world leader in co-op training

DEIRDRE McMURDY October 21 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

Classroom Meets The Boardroom

Waterloo’s pioneer program has made Canada a world leader in co-op training

DEIRDRE McMURDY October 21 1991

Classroom Meets The Boardroom

Waterloo’s pioneer program has made Canada a world leader in co-op training

Nestled in the middle of a tree-lined campus, James Wilson’s cozy office is where Canada’s boardroom and classroom intersect. For 22 years, Wilson, now the director of the co-operative education program at Ontario’s University of Waterloo, has worked to bring Canadian business and the postsecondary education system closer together. In the process, he has helped to establish what is now the largest and one of the most respected co-op education programs in the world, involving 10,000 students each year. The program reflects Waterloo’s belief that a university education is incomplete without practical experience. That philosophy is eagerly endorsed by more than 2,500 employers who hire Waterloo students for regular fourto eight-month intervals before they return to the classroom. Says Wilson: “Business has a heightened awareness of the need to work with schools, but business is always changing. There are new technologies, new companies, new managers—we can’t ever stand still.” Since 1957, when Waterloo pioneered the concept of alternating classroom and work terms in Canada, the integrated approach to a university education has gained widespread appeal. Bolstered by government

support and the participation of a rapidly growing number of businesses, co-op education is an option now exercised by 50,000 students at about 85 Canadian universities and community colleges—about 10 per cent of the total undergraduate student population. In fact, Canada has become an international leader in the co-op education movement and is helping to organize a similar program in other countries, including China.

The genesis of Waterloo’s pioneer program reflects how the outside business world can influence the academic community to meet its needs. In the mid-1950s, recalled Wilson, general interest in technology and science “exploded,” and a group of companies in the Waterloo region, concerned about promoting technical education in the area, decided to sponsor the development of a work-study program at the local university. As a result, 75 engineering students were placed with 35 firms. Now, the school places about 3,800 people for each fourmonth work period.

As Waterloo’s co-op plan expanded—almost 70 per cent of its 15,000 full-time undergraduates now take part, while the rest choose the more traditional eight-month academic term—it was refined. Co-op students attend workshops that help them ease into the corporate world. As well, prior to their first work term, they are instructed in interview techniques and résumé writing, and are coached about current issues and expectations in the workplace.

For young people like fourth-year Waterloo computer science student Barry Kilner, who is completing his fourth work assignment at General Electric Canada Inc.’s headquarters in Mississauga, Ont., the co-op experience has not only allowed him to earn money to pay for his education, but also has helped supplement his computer science curriculum. Says Kilner, 22, a resident of Orangeville, Ont.: “You don’t just get stuck doing grunt work. The assignments that co-op students are given are relevant to the courses they take—I feel like a regular team member who just happens to leave every four months.”

Although he was initially overwhelmed by “the amount of red tape” in the workplace, Kilner says that he has learned some valuable lessons about dealing with others. “You have to hold your own but be flexible about what others want,” he adds. “You also get a sense of when to speak up and when to just follow instructions.” But one of the biggest benefits of the co-op program, according to Kilner, is that the workplace experience should “make the transition from school to full-time work much easier.”

Laura Richardson, 28, credits the Waterloo co-op program with helping her to make the transition to her

first job, in 1986, as a computer support specialist at the Manufacturers Life Insurance Co. in Toronto, where she had worked for two terms while a co-op student. Since then, she has taken a similar position at GE Canada. Now, part of her job is interviewing and hiring co-op students. “With the co-op program, you go through so many job interviews that you learn to present yourself and put points across,” she says. “Sitting on the other side of the table in interviews now, I really notice that. Prior to the co-op experience, the only job I’d had was at an ice-cream parlor— not really adequate preparation.”

For Angela Higgins, 21, of Mississauga, a third-year Waterloo co-op recreation student, making contacts and learning about the employment opportunities in her area of study are the program’s most useful benefits. Higgins, who has spent work terms with the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada in Toronto and Ottawa, and as an organizer of a public health department awareness program in Brampton, Ont., says that the work experiences have helped her target which companies she would like to approach for future employment.

Adds Higgins: “You graduate from the program with some solid, personal references and two years of relevant work experience from a range of different places. That’s an edge in a competitive job market.”

Although technical and scientific disciplines are the traditional foundation of co-operative education, it now includes the liberal arts as well. Universities offering commerce programs have also made use of the cooperative approach. At Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., for example, students studying industrial relations, marketing, accounting and finance can choose to alternate school semesters with work terms. Says Waterloo’s Wilson: “Computers and engineering may be its roots, but co-op is suited to all disciplines. A creative approach to problem-solving is always appropriate.”

Ultimately, no matter what training co-op universities like Waterloo provide, the programs depend on the willingness of employers to hire the students. For the employers who participate in the programs, it is a chance to become more directly involved in the education process—and to ensure that the graduates meet their employment criteria. Says Tim Page, senior vicepresident at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Ottawa: “Business used to think it could delegate away any responsibility for education. Now, the thinking is that there must be a partnership with educators and government, and a sharing of resources. No one party can tackle this challenge alone.”

In order to ensure that Waterloo remains responsive to current issues and trends beyond its academic precincts, it has established a business advisory council of 36 senior executives and government officials that meets twice a year with faculty representatives for several days. The current council includes members from a cross section of companies, including IBM Canada, London Life Insurance Co., Spar Aerospace, Imperial Oil Ltd. and the Royal Bank of Canada. Says Roger Mahabir, vice-president and chief information officer at GE Canada and president of the advisory council: “Waterloo is very responsive to suggestions from business. It’s a classic example of talking to your end user or customer and meeting their needs.”

Feedback from the business sector has prompted several recent

innovations in the Waterloo program. For starters, new courses have been developed that allow students to focus on emerging areas such as international trade and environmental engineering. Wilson has also devoted an increasing amount of effort to the placement of Waterloo students in jobs abroad.

Waterloo currently offers 15 exchange programs for work terms in Europe and the United States. It also is sharing a $3-million federal government grant to form a consortium with the University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., and Quebec’s University of Sherbrooke to increase the exposure of their students to Japanese industry. Noted Wilson: “Through this initiative, the Japanese are building future contacts in the North American market and the students get a flavor of the Japanese style of management and business.”

In Atlantic Canada particularly, co-op education is a boon for some

companies that are unable to afford consultants. Anne Marie Coolen, director of co-op education for engineering and computer science at the Technical University of Nova Scotia in Halifax, says that for the relatively smaller businesses in her region, the employment of co-op students has played an important role in the transfer of technology. Says Coolen: “When people know their business is lagging, they can use a co-op student instead of a consultant to help out with something like the installation of a computer system.” Even at GE Canada, there is a slot for 15 to 20 co-op students to play a useful role. Says Mahabir: “The students are fresh blood. They don’t have preconceptions about the way things have to be, so they often make innovative suggestions or ask excellent questions about existing practices.” He added that their youth and the relatively short four-month duration of their assignment means that they are “nonthreatening” to more senior employees, who might otherwise be defensive about the introduction of new ideas.

As Canadian business struggles to keep pace with changes in an increasingly competitive environment, co-op students are clearly playing an important role. The two solitudes of business and education have learned to meet each other halfway.

DEIRDRE McMURDY in Waterloo