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Co-op Education: Gaining Professional Experience While Still In College

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Cooperative education is an institution-based program which provides students with periods of work that are related to the academic and career interests of participants. The experiences involve productive work for the employer rather than observation or school-designed activities.

Most of these student jobs are salaried. Although co-op earnings vary due to numerous factors, the typical student will earn more than $7,500 annually. 25% of the employers provided benefits such as medical insurance, retirement credit, and paid holidays, vacation, and sick days.

The typical co-op program, especially in four-year colleges and universities, is for students to alternate terms of full-time classroom study with terms of full-time, employment. Program participation involves multiple work terms in addition to completion of the student’s degree requirements. The typical participant will work three or four work terms, resulting in a year or more of career-related work experience before graduation. The majority of two-year colleges follow a parallel model, which involves students attending classes part of the day and working part of the day (15 to 20 hours per week). Participation usually continues over consecutive school terms. Participating in a co-op program may involve extending the date of graduation due to the time spent working.

Co-op students have advantages when seeking employment after graduation. Their extensive work experiences make them especially attractive to employers. Nationally, about 40 percent of co-op graduates will accept a job offer from one of their co-op employers. There are also academic, professional, and personal advantages to a co-op education. Some of these include:

  • Academic
    • Ability to Integrate Classroom Theory with Workplace Practice
    • Clarity about Academic Goals
    • Academic Motivation
    • Technical Knowledge through Use of State-of-the-Art Equipment
  • Professional
    • Clarity about Career Goals
    • Understanding of Workplace Culture
    • New or Advanced Skills
    • Improved Career Management
    • Professional Networking Opportunities
    • Shorter Job Search Times
  • Personal
    • Determination of Strengths & Weaknesses
    • Development/Enhancement of Interpersonal Skills
    • Earnings to Assist College Expenses or to Support Personal Financial Responsibilities
    • Productive and Responsible Citizenship Skills
    • Lifelong Learning Skills

Critics of cooperative learning say that learning from experience is not automatic. This can be addressed by requiring a reflective component to the co-op program. This is already a part of some co-op models. Previous research has found mixed results when measuring the effects of cooperative education. It was found that co-op experience increases starting salaries ($6,302 greater than students with no co-op experience) and resulted in higher GPAs (3.16 versus 3.04). Co-op students also have higher academic averages and retention rates.

Most cooperative education programs are college-wide in scope. Students can go to a designated coordinating office for participation information.

Co-op education gives students a head start on learning job search skills. Students write resumes and then interview with employers to compete for co-op positions. This is done with the help of coordinators. Coordinators usually maintain a listing of available co-op positions and files telling what previous holders of the positions said about their experience. Using these aids, students explore their options. They also work with their coordinators to define what they want to learn at work. Students can then match themselves with jobs that would foster the desired learning. In some instances, students may find jobs not on the official list or even create their own opportunities. After students identify jobs they might want, the real interviewing begins. The process varies by school. At some schools, coordinators forward students’ resumes to the employers. Other schools take an all-at-once approach by holding interviews on campus. Some co-op students will receive offers from more than one employer. Co-op programs never guarantee employment and not all students find jobs they like. A lot depends on the economy and the local job market. Once students are employed, the school monitors their job performance and the students prepare reports on their experiences. The majority of co-op programs involve some form of academic credit for the successful completion of work terms.

While students benefit greatly from co-op education, it is a two-way street. Employers expect benefits, too. Co-op programs allow companies to get people who they know are dependable to do pre-professional work. All co-op employers share this expectation, whether they’re mom-and-pop shops, Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, or government agencies. All types of employers use co-op students. In the private sector, 85 of the Fortune 100 companies employ co-op students.

In the Federal Government, agencies employing co-op students can hire them upon graduation without the competition usually required for civil service positions. In the past, this made co-op a popular recruiting source. Government downsizing and a rule change by the Office of Management and Budget have sharply curtailed co-op employment in recent years. For those who find co-op jobs in federal agencies, it’s still an inroad to permanent federal employment.

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