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Co-op: Earn while you learn

By Lauren Breslin
Special to The Sun

Earning a college or university degree is all well and good, but to succeed in a competitive world -- a.k.a. the real world -- you'll need something more.
Twelve co-op students from the University of Waterloo recently worked at the TTC. Ten of the 12 are UW Engineering co-ops. L to R: Chris Hogan, Cathy Kwan, Eddie Lam, Andrew Sandrasagra, Mike Hsu, Khalid Grant, Ellen Choi, Travis Ratnam, Ivan Lee, Tripti Ahuja, Rishi Ramjit, Estella Chau.

In addition to a post-secondary degree, relevant work experience gives students an upper hand in finding a job and building a career. Companies place great value on practical experience and, given the choice, will favour the candidate with a proven track record.

This is where co-operative education comes in.

Integrated approach

Co-operative education, usually known as co-op, is an integrated approach to higher learning that combines regular studies with professional work experience. Think of it as getting the best of both worlds: co-op students alternate between academic terms on campus and paid, full-time work placements off campus. Upon graduation, they hold a degree that is identical to that of a regular program, but with the advantage of several terms' worth of applied experience under their belts.

The University of Waterloo (UW) has the largest and most comprehensive co-operative education program in the country. UW was the pioneer of co-op in Canada, having introduced the program back in 1957, the year the school was founded.

"We now have approximately 11,000 co-op students, and 3,500 active employers that take part in hiring students," says Olaf Naese, communications and PR administrator for Co-op Education and Career Services at UW. "We also have the most diverse groupings of programs over any other school."

The UW model is typical of most co-op programs, dividing the school year into four-month intervals -- four months in school, four months at work. The co-op department assumes the roles of facilitator, administrator and advisor, offering guidance on career development, holding seminars and workshops, and liaising with employers.

But co-op students are not simply handed a job. They are instead fully responsible for applying for and securing their own work placements -- that means preparing resumes, checking job postings and going for interviews. The main difference is that, if you're enrolled in co-op, you now have access to a massive range of employment opportunities that are exclusive to your school.
University of Waterloo co-op student

But do all students land jobs? "We usually wind up with a 98% job placement success rate," Naese says.

Many students consider the salary they earn during co-op to be a huge incentive. "The financial side is a big part of it," says Keith Kenning, associate director of field services at UW. "Being able to work every four months gives students enough money to let them pay their way through school."

Wages depend on your field of study, level of education and prior experience. In 2004, UW reported an average weekly salary of $480 on a first work term -- and salaries generally increase over time.

But it's the practical experience gained through co-op that counts in the biggest way. Unlike seasonal or part-time work, co-op jobs aren't about menial or "gopher" tasks. Co-op placements are real jobs, with real responsibilities and hefty demands.


Students in co-op also have the opportunity to network with professionals and establish job references for future employment. "When you graduate, you've probably accumulated two or three different organizations during co-op that would be willing to hire you back," Kenning says. Indeed, research shows that co-op students have higher employment rates than other graduates in their chosen field.
Canadian Association for Co-operative Education (CAFCE)

CAFCE is an all-in-one resource for educators, students and employers interested in the co-operative education process anywhere in Canada.
World Association for Co-operative Education (WACE)

WACE's expanding network of international students, employers, educational institutions and governments currently includes more than 1,000 individual and organizational members from 43 countries.
Co-op Education and Career Services at the University of Waterloo

UW has the largest and most comprehensive co-op program in Canada.
Co-operative Education Program at the University of Victoria

UVic Co-op is the third-largest co-op program in Canada, next to Sherbrooke College in Quebec.

"Graduating with experience is something I'm looking forward to," says third-year UW co-op student Nicole Wright. "Having that experience behind me is definitely going to give me an advantage."

Co-op also allows students to explore career options and determine if they have chosen the right field of study. "Another advantage is being able to figure out what you like and what you don't -- and getting ideas for future careers," Wright says.

In the end, though it may entail more work and fewer breaks, many students feel the co-op process was well worth it.

"I think co-op teaches you a lot about yourself and time management," Wright says. "When you're applying for jobs, it's almost like having an extra course because you're preparing applications and going for interviews while you're still in school. It's a lot of work and there's lots of competition. But for the most part, people find jobs and are happy with their jobs."

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