Breaking down co-op programmes in Canada

For more than 60 years, Canada has been offering co-op programmes to its students, with the University of Waterloo operating the largest co-op programme in the country. A co-op programme, co-op education or co-operative education refers to an educational programme where a student’s classroom experience is supplemented with practical work experience. While always popular in Canada, other countries have not been able to seamlessly integrate these programmes into the curriculum. Recently, the Canadian government has increased its support for co-op programmes, encouraging more students to apply. Through the Student Work Placement Programme, the Canadian government has pledged an amount of CAD 73 million over four years (2017-2021) to support and subsidise the salary for co-op students who meet the eligibility criteria in STEM and business programmes for post-secondary education. Here are some reasons why students should consider a co-op when they apply to Canada.

How do co-op programmes work?

A typical co-op programme alternates work and academic terms. The work term lasts for around four months, during which time the student gets placed in an organisation relevant to their field of study, with a specific role and reports to a manager. Since students have multiple work terms over the course of the degree, they tend to take an additional year more to graduate compared to students in other programmes. This is a unique experience that allows students to spend each work term with a different organisation in their chosen field. This gives them insight into different aspects of their subject along with more clarity on what area they would like to pursue in the long run. Co-ops are paid, with the average salary varying depending on the student's current education level, previous work experience and the province in which they work. In British Columbia, for example, the minimum wage is CAD 13.85 per hour, whereas in Ontario it is CAD 14.00. At the end of the work term, managers are required to provide feedback to the university via a form or questionnaire and give a performance evaluation of the student.

Students interested in co-op programmes have a wide variety of options to choose from. For instance, at the University of Waterloo, students can choose between 13 business co-op programmes including environment and business, arts and business, and information technology management or enrol in the university's Computer Engineering co-op programme.

Most universities have dedicated staff or departments who assist students to find programme-specific employment. Alternately, students can also find a job themselves. However, this has to then be vetted by a member of the staff or department to ensure that the job meets the requirements of the co-op programme. For instance, at the University of Waterloo, it is the department of Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) which helps facilitate employment for co-op students. The CEE staff support students by helping them through their job search, during their work experience and even after. They also offer career guidance and create a ‘learning plan’ for each student’s assignment. This ensures that the student receives feedback, which allows them to focus on their goals and work towards them.

Some universities such as the University of British Columbia offer co-op programmes where students get to work abroad for a work term. For instance, their Canada-Japan programme for undergraduate students allows students to work in a Japanese company while studying in Canada. Understandably, the criteria and requirements for work abroad programmes may differ from other co-op programmes.

Why are co-op programmes beneficial?

In recent years, co-op programmes have become increasingly popular. The University of Waterloo states that its 120 co-op programmes are one of the main attractions for approximately 70 percent of their incoming students. The university also states that an astounding 6,700+ employers hire Waterloo students including the Government of Canada itself, with 96 percent of graduates finding jobs related to their degree within six months. There are also a number of initiatives like the National Co-op and Work-Integrated Learning Week in Canada that are encouraging students to apply to these programmes. Apart from this, province-specific investments are also taking place such as the Ontario government's Career Ready Fund. Through this, Trent University received almost CAD 575,000 over two years to expand school-relevant work opportunities, including field placements and internships. There are a number of reasons why a co-op programme would be alluring to young students:

  1. While they aren’t guaranteed a job after working with any organisation, this experience usually aids students by giving them an insight into the industry in which they have worked. This, in turn, makes them more coveted with employers upon graduation. This view is expressed by Dave McKay, president and CEO of the financial services institution, Royal Bank of Canada. In an article by the Society of Human Resource Management, McKay states, "With its blend of higher learning and real-world practice, co-op education has become a proven way to prepare students for a changing world and challenges growing ever more complex."
  2. Many universities including the University of Fraser Valley offer classes to help students with their personal development before they actually start their first work term. This covers the basics like resumes and job interviews but also professionalism and work ethics.
  3. With a number of work terms during their degree, students have the ability to explore multiple areas of interest within their field, gaining critical skills as well as identifying their strengths and weaknesses.
  4. By allowing students to earn during their time at university, co-op programmes offer the double incentive of gaining invaluable work experience and helping pay for school at the same time.
  5. Being a part of a co-op programme allows students to create a network of potential future colleagues and employers.

How do students get a job during the work term?

Taking the example of the University of Ottawa, students in the co-op programme have to apply to get selected in the fall of their second year. If selected, they still have to maintain a cumulative grade point average (CGPA) of at least 8.0 and meet all course requirements until the official start of the co-op programme, even though they have a reserved spot. If they fail to meet this criterion, they shall lose their reserved spot in the programme. Once selected, the student can apply for jobs which are listed on their university website or database. Getting co-op employment is along the same lines as getting a job upon graduation. Like in any job interview in the ‘real world’, the students must await call-backs from interested employers. Once a student receives a call-back, they go for an interview.

While the eligibility criteria may differ for each organisation, there are a few requirements which remain constant:

  • The student needs to be a full-time student
  • The student must be registered for a co-op programme
  • The co-op programme must be a validated programme and registered with the Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada (CEWIL Canada)
  • Depending on the province, the student should be above the minimum age requirement
  • For international students, there is an additional step of applying and getting a co-op work permit for full-time off-campus jobs. Students can apply for this work permit if they meet certain criteria including a valid study permit, if the co-op job accounts for 50 percent or less of the study programme and if a job is required to complete their programme

With both provinces and the government backing the Student Work Placement Program, students who want to avail the benefits of experiential learning while still at university, should definitely put Canada at the top of their list.

Article author: Aditi Bakht, Content Specialist, The Red Pen

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