Co-op students are confident about careers in the new economy
For many new college and university graduates, the hard part is just beginning—the challenge of finding a job in the shrunken workforce of the New Economy. But one study option that appears to be addressing that problem successfully is co-operative education, a concept that mixes classroom teaching with work in the real world. Various programs involve from three to six work terms lasting four months each during a twoto five-year course. Launched in Canada 37years ago at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, the co-op philosophy has spread rapidly in the past decade and, because of its success in the eyes of students and employers alike, continues to grow. There are now more than 50,000 students doing co-op studies in almost all disciplines— from liberal arts and health studies to computer science and engineering—at 45 universities and 96 colleges and institutes.
To get a sense of the effectiveness of the programs, Maclean’s spoke with six recent co-op graduates—three now working, two looking for work and one in graduate school—and found them confident and thoroughly satisfied with the choice they made. Notably, they made it clear that they feel it is up to them to make and keep themselves employable in rapidly changing times.
Maclean’s: The conventional wisdom about your age-group is that you are a bitter bunch of overeducated and underemployed Generation X’ers, angry with your elders for leaving you with few good job prospects. Do you identify with that?
Murray: I don’t think it’s as bad as * you put it. Or maybe it’s different in 5 my field of engineering because, at g least for the people who were in my class, if they were looking for a job, they found one.
Pessoa: Well, the economy is a little rough. But it isn’t as doomy and gloomy as they say with our generation.
Unger: I know people who are bitter and frustrated but I don’t identify with that personally. I think we have more opportunities rather than less, compared with people eight or nine years ago who were entering the workforce right after the baby boom. Sure, the economy has shrunk, but the workforce in my generation has shrunk, too. Reis: Part of the frustration is that for the most part our parents grew up in the same jobs, with a lot of job security, and now we are faced with a lot of short-term employment and less job security. I think it requires an attitude change more than anything else. You have to be willing to adjust to the job market.
Maclean’s: Ray, you spent five years in the working world before going into Mohawk’s coop program. Do you think co-op grads have an advantage over other people your age? Makenbach: You know, I think we do. I think the work experience really pays off. Along with the experience, you need an education that will take you someplace, of course, whether it’s engineering or computer sciences or anything like that.
Seay: I have seen how things are affecting people in our generation, whatever it’s called, but also in my parents’ generation. Both my parents have gone back to school recently and my father graduated from the University of Toronto last year. His company shut down and he had the work experience but not the education. I think our combination of current university degrees plus current work experience is actually giving us an advantage over some of the people who have just been laid off.
Maclean’s: So the attractive elements of a coop program are job experience, real-world contact and of course there is the appeal of a paycheque during your work terms. Anything else? Seay: It’s not just the technical experience you get in a work term, but it’s also the experience you get in team work, doing project planning, estimations of how long something will take; that’s not the kind of stuff we get in school. You can also experiment a little because it offers a chance to try on different jobs.
Reis: Also, you’re working with an employer who is very open to the fact that you are learning and so you’re not as intimidated. Unger: As well as getting a better feel for the field I want, the coop experience put me in contact with supervisors who were very much mentors. I wasn’t just treated as an employee there to do something for them.
Pessoa: In co-op experiences, you really get to apply what you have learned in school to the job in a real-world office. You get to search out what you’re good at and what you’re not. I did a year of school before going out to a work term and, in geography, I really wasn’t sure where I’d be employable. When you see which employers are searching for envi„ ronmental studies students, it’s § surprising to see where you can E fit into the workforce.
Computer systems technology diploma, Mohawk College, Hamilton, 1993. Chose college as a quick route to employability after a back injury forced him out of construction work. Did all three work terms at the Royal Bank, where he is now employed on contract in Toronto.
Mechanical engineering, Sherbrooke University, Quebec, 1993. Most of her classmates have taken jobs, but she decided to continue in a master’s program. Work terms included stints in France and Japan.
£ Makenbach: I’d really have to S agree. The opportunity to ex5 plore and the supportive nature of co-op was excellent for me. Especially in a larger organization where there’s an opportunity to move around.
Murray: It was pretty much the same for me. You get experience with different fields of study and in the end you get a better understanding of what you want to do in the future.
Seay (laughing): We’ve all been | brainwashed.
Maclean’s: But what about fears % that the co-op movement is threatening the traditional role of higher education—that of producing an enlightened citizenry—by focusing so closely on the needs of employers? Murray: I think the fact is that business drives the world. I think you need the practical experience because there’s a big difference between what you learn in school and what you really do in the industry. Reis: I don’t see the two being exclusive. I did a B.Sc., I took all the same courses as anyone who didn’t do co-op. I don’t see co-op taking away from that learning process. Seay: I would say that co-op takes the onus off the university to give people practical knowledge and technical experience in their courses, so it can concentrate on the theory and the new ideas and the new research coming up.
Unger: Some friends of mine in the traditional academic courses had to take part-time jobs to stay in school, and that affected either g their school work or their ability to z participate in campus life. I needed | income, too, like a typical Canadian student, but it helped me to have a definite split between my university and work terms.
Maclean’s: But co-op programs have not been immune to the effects of a shrinking economy. Work-term placements are getting much harder to find than they were a few years ago, and in some courses there is considerable competition for those spots. Makenbach: Yes, that really is becoming an issue. People like IBM and CIBC and Royal Bank used to hire 50 or 60 people for each work term, and suddenly they’re down to five or 10.
Reis: When I took my first co-op position, I was willing to take a job that I knew was nowhere near what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But you have to just get with it so you have something to go with for your next one.
Murray: It is getting more and more difficult to find work terms. I think the students are becoming angry towards the co-op service [the campus office that locates companies looking for student help] because it doesn’t provide some of them with any work. Maclean’s: What would you say to students who are taking the traditional academic route?
Seay: I’m now in a position where I look at résumés of people applying for jobs, and if they don’t have any work experience, my company cannot afford to train them. So they get a “Sorry, no thanks, we’re not interested” letter right away, regardless of how wonderful their education is. It helps if they can show they have done a research project, or they have been working for a professor at the university or did some contract work on their own or a lot of volunteer work—things that show that they have the project management skills.
Murray: That they have some leadership qualities. Makenbach: One thing you have a chance to get good at in a co-op program is interview skills, and their value should not be underestimated.
Unger: Sure. We went through a formal interview process, on site or by telephone, for a number of jobs every work term. By the time I graduated, I knew what to expect when it came to presenting myself for a job. Pessoa: Yeah, when you have eight to 10 interviews within a two-week period, you learn to prepare, you learn to anticipate. Sometimes you are in front of one interviewer; sometimes there’s a panel of three. That’s realistic, in the sense that you have to prepare for all types of questioning.
Maclean’s: What does the term “New Economy” mean to you? Murray: I think the New Economy is the globalization of the market. Companies have to become more competitive and gain a global understanding of their clients. And I think one of the keys to that is to have specialists inside the organization—meaning engineers or other people—who have a global understanding of the whole planet and are experienced in international markets.
Seay: I think some of the talk about the New Economy has been exaggerated. Certain kinds of jobs are disappearing, but other kinds are growing exponentially. A perfect example is a company like IBM where they’re still laying off people, but they’re also hiring people left, right and centre with different skills in ^ their development centre.
Environmental studies (geography), University of Waterloo, Ontario, 1991; just completed MA program. Work terms gave him experience in municipal and federal government. Looking for a job.
Biology, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C., 1992. Did two work terms in the SFU labs and has had two contract jobs there since graduation. Looking for full-time work.
Computer science, University of Waterloo, Ontario, 1994. Did work terms in Calgary, Ottawa and France. Works for ThinkNet Inc., a small computer consulting firm in Toronto.
Chemistry, University of Victoria, 1993. Work terms included assignments in Alberta and England. Works in Vancouver for Philips Environmental, a fastgrowing environmental services firm.
Pessoa: Because of globalizag tion, competitiveness, streamlinI ing for efficiency, what is required is a new type of worker, someone who is able to absorb information, handle it, manage it. For us, as recent graduates, we may have the skills through co-op and our education to fit into that New Economy. But for those people from an earlier generation who are used to manufacturing jobs, they may not be in a position to benefit from the New Economy. Maclean’s: But of course the pace of change is not stopping now. Twenty years from now, you’ll have new graduates snapping at your heels, saying they’re more comfortable and flexible dealing with the new tools and attitudes of the day. Do you fear that possibility? Makenbach: I know I do. The company where you can spend the rest of your life is almost gone. It’s great to have graduated, but my biggest responsibility is to stay marketable, and I have to do that by constantly upgrading, taking courses, maintaining my basic knowledge.
Reis: We have started our careers at a time where you don’t just walk into a job and take it for granted. I think we are more aware of the changes and the necessity to keep up than previous generations were.
Maclean’s: Now, if you could make just one recommendation to young people leaving high school on how to prepare for their working lives, what would it be?
Seay: Just one? Hmmm. Well, the one thing they have to keep in mind while they are trying to develop their skills is to try and stay a little focused. Don’t try and do everything at once. Focus on what it is you want to learn, say, for the next four months, or the next year, and at least pursue it a little.
Unger: I believe in mentors, so I would say get to know as many of your professors and faculty as you can. And I’d say the best way to get involved with your faculty is on the co-op program. The work terms also give you a good chance to talk to your supervisors and other people about how they got where they are. Makenbach: My main piece of advice would be to do what you like, and start from there. Because if you go into math and you hate math, well, forget it. But it’s surprising how many people do that, either because they are forced to by their parents or whatever. Pessoa: I think you should ask a lot of questions along the way. You should be well informed. And don’t be afraid to try things. Reis: I’d say it’s important to find out about yourself. So I would recommend travelling, and not to be in a big hurry to finish university. And so what if co-op takes you a little longer to graduate? Take your time.
Murray: Get to know yourself, get to know what you want to do in the future and don’t rush anything. You have to be prepared to learn all your life. We have a tendency to think we only learn in university and that after we get our degree it’s finished. Maclean’s: That’s funny; only a couple of you recommended co-op education.
Seay: Oh, I think we all assumed they would be going the co-op route. □
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