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‘Earn while you learn:’ Co-op programs gain appeal amid rising cost of living

It’s a learning model that alternates between academic and paid work terms

In her final years of high school, teachers warned Ainsley Wallace and her classmates that going to university wouldn’t guarantee them a dream job.

“They kind of scared us a bit and told us that getting a degree doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get a good job,” said Wallace, originally from Ottawa and now a student at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“I decided to apply for a co-op program so I could graduate with some work experience and be able to compete for better jobs.”

Canada is a leader in co-operative education, a learning model that alternates between academic and paid work terms.

It’s a form of so-called work integrated learning, an umbrella term that also includes other approaches to experiential learning like apprenticeships, internships and clinical placements.

Co-op programs can vary across the country, but all involve work related to a student’s field of study.

Employers gain access to affordable and energetic young talent, while students get hands-on experience and earn money.

“It’s earn while you learn,” said Robert Wooden, director of Management Career Services at Dalhousie University. “You’re learning in the classroom but you’re also earning an income during work terms.”

The rising cost of living and higher tuition fees have made co-op programs increasingly appealing for students.

Tuition costs have nearly doubled over the last 20 years, according to Statistics Canada, while the cost of housing, food and other basic living expenses have also increased drastically.

Wallace, currently working for Halifax-based mentorship organization EnPoint as a marketing and business growth intern, said being able to earn cash while attending university was a major draw.

“I’m fully on student loans,” she said. “It’s definitely been so helpful to be able to make an income for four months straight during these internships.”

Making sure students are paid is one of the requirements of co-op accreditation, said Wooden, who also chairs the Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada Accreditation Council.

“Co-op students aren’t working for free,” he said. “Nowadays university is too expensive. Organizations that are seeking to take advantage of unpaid student labour — co-ops are not interested in that.”

Despite allowing students to earn money, co-op programs often take more time to complete.

“Typically co-op programs do take longer, but you graduate with a year of relevant work experience,” Wooden said. “That’s a lot more powerful on a resume than a degree and experience mowing lawns for three summers.”

Companies hire co-op students as a way of bringing fresh ideas and young workers into the workplace.

“Employers like the co-op model because they see it as a talent pipeline,” said Alice Hsiung, manager of career development projects and operations at Centennial College in Toronto, which offers co-op programs for students in different disciplines, including business, engineering technology, applied science and transportation.

“Some even offer students part-time jobs when they return to school at the end of a term and full-time positions once they graduate.”

Although co-op programs have gained an edge amid the rising cost of living, they have a long history in Canada.

The University of Waterloo has been running co-operative education programs since the school was founded 65 years ago.

Its co-op program gained worldwide attention during the rise of BlackBerry, formerly Research In Motion, which drew heavily on the school’s engineering and computer science talent.

But co-op programs aren’t just for engineers and computer science students, said Norah McRae, associate provost of Co-operative and Experiential Education at the University of Waterloo.

Every academic program across the school’s six faculties offers a co-op program — some optional and some mandatory — with about 25,000 work terms last year alone, McRae said.

“It’s an opportunity for students to engage with workplaces and take what they’re learning in the classroom and apply it in different contexts,” she said. “It deepens the learning through application.”

She adds: “Sometimes the best work terms are those where a student says, ‘I hate this,’ because it’s way better to figure that out after a four-month work term than to graduate, pursue a career in that field and a couple of years later realize it’s not for you.”

Still, despite the benefits of co-op programs, there are drawbacks.

Sometimes job offers are far from where the university or college is located.

“If you’re a finance student and you want to work in capital markets, the only place that you can really get into sales and trading is Toronto downtown,” Wooden said.

“If you’re an industrial engineering student, you’re not going to step outside your apartment and walk to work. There is no manufacturing plant in downtown Halifax.”

While some employers have started to offer hybrid or remote work terms — and others offer relocation benefits — co-op students may have to move to gain experience, he said.

Also, co-op programs aren’t easy.

While universities find employers looking to hire, share job postings and offer tools to help students build resumes and prepare for interviews, the student is responsible for engaging in a competitive process and finding a work term, McRae said.

“It’s hard work,” she said. “No one in any co-op program in Canada is going to hand you a job.”

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press

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