Try Before You Buy: Why Cooperative Education is the Future
How many times have you applied for a job and seen in large, bold font, “EXPERIENCE REQUIRED”. Experience? What if I am brand new to this field? What if this is my first job out of school? How is one supposed to gain valuable experience when no one will hire without any? A real chicken before the egg conundrum faced by so many of collegiate individuals seeking to make it out in the world.
One might argue that there are plenty of ‘entry-level’ positions out there for students with the proper credentials, but where do those credentials come from? The skill sets that are necessary for the professional world and what substantiates good grades aren’t always one and the same. A recent study found that while 80% of employers agree that during the hiring process it is necessary that graduates demonstrate the ability to apply what they’ve learned in real-world settings, only 23% say that recent college graduates are well prepared for these scenarios. Moreover, 44% of employers rate them as not that or not at all prepared to apply their knowledge and skills in real-world settings.
So again, we come to our core question: where to find this necessary experience? Many front-running students have already tried to overcome this barrier by filling their summers with short-term internships or volunteer programs. But trying to maintain the skill sets learned over these brief periods of time is difficult amongst the many other demands of undergraduate education. Moreover, if any of you are of an applied skills profession (such as the sciences) you know that three months or a few hours a week in between classes is no real measure of time to learn the ins and outs of the trade. Lastly, how about those 80% of students who change their major at least once over the course of their undergraduate degree? Wouldn’t they have benefited from the opportunity to practice their trade prior to wasting valuable time (and money!) before making that decision?
For these reasons and much more, I make the argument for Cooperative Education (Co-Op) to someday be the standard for progressive education in America.
Co-Op vs. Internship
First, co-op and internship are by no means synonymous. While they both provide students with the opportunity to gain work experience in their career fields, co-ops are meant to be as true to real employment responsibilities as possible. Moreover, the major difference between a co-op and an internship boils down to one fundamental piece: The University. Internships are usually set-up between the student and the company, on the terms of the employer; however, co-op contracts and requirements are often overseen by the university. To the university, these programs are not just established for the students benefit, but also serve as a means of required credits to graduate.
The university does not simply throw the student out into the woods, either. Most co-op universities provide students with a multitude of resources including one-on-one counseling, interview and resume prep, performance reviews, etc. The responsibility falls on the student to apply, interview, and receive the positions; however, it is the university’s job to provide the training and guidance necessary to market themselves professionally.
If aside from all other rewards of the ‘co-op experience’, what could be more appealing to the collegiate student that the incentive of pay? Despite the value an individual places on how much they wish to earn in their field-of-interest, we can all agree on one thing: some degree of income is necessary to afford the basic necessities of life. The opportunity for students earn money, experience, and college credits all in one shot should be a reason alone for more universities to consider the Co-Op model.
Depending on the school, students may be required to complete up to three co-op rotations over the course of their degree, working full- or part-time for anywhere from 3-12 months at a time. NACE 2014 Internship & Co-op Survey reports on average, students on full-time co-ops earn roughly $17.44/hour, typically seeing raises moving from their first co-op to their last. Following graduation, Forbes reports co-ops earn graduates an average $30,000-$60,000 higher starting salary than those without. Moreover, level-of-income is usually paralleled to relevant experience and education, so as students progress through each co-op they see the fruit of their tribulations in terms of both responsibility and compensation.
Networking & Life Skills
As stated previously, there are some skill sets necessary for the professional world that simply cannot be taught in a classroom. Foremost, there are seemingly benign proficiencies such as timing a commute, budgeting income, constructing emails, attire/presentation, and meeting etiquette. Nevertheless, there are many beyond-the-classroom type skills tailored to individualized fields of study such as standards of practice, ethics, quality of work, and deadlines. While this is expected of employers, not all new employees have had the opportunity to be aware and/or develop these basics. Networking is an essential skill for students no matter the industry or major. Why networking is important and ways to improve networking as skill set are detailed nicely here.
Besides what is expected of the student, there are many rewards from the work experience they likely would have never received other than via this opportunity such as: published or accredited experience, training opportunities, networking, and mentorship. Because co-ops are often interspaced within the curriculum, the student can come back to school after each opportunity more aware of what choices they wish to make in terms of further education or skill sets they need to acquire before/after graduating to set them up where they want to go. As so stated in the title of this article, it is often to the individual’s benefit to “try before you buy” so to speak, in that having a glimpse into the workforce can provide invaluable insight into deciding what you want or don’t want to do.
So in stepping off my soapbox, I make this argument, not to discredit those who have been successful from internships or attendees of non-Co-op schools, but to make an argument to universities to move towards building programs like those into their curriculums. At least to provide the option, because in a job market where competition for more innovative, educated, and progressive thinkers is necessary, what better way to prepare our newest members of the workforce than with a sturdy base of applied work experience. In my experience, the Co-op model has been great for my development. It has allowed me to create ties in my industry, gain research experience that helped me get into my graduate program, and elevate my professionalism.
For those seeking a co-op school feel free to check out this link for the “Best Schools in Cooperative Education”.