Work Experience... Key to Success

by Erica Lind

Gone are the days when simply having a degree meant getting the lead on the best entry level jobs upon graduation. Unfortunately, in today’s economic climate, the one thing students can be certain of once they graduate is that they’ll face fierce competition the minute they step out into the work place. With employers forced to quickly adapt in rapidly changing markets, they are looking for employees with skill sets which reflect their business position—adaptability, ingenuity, and most of all, previous experience in addition to degree qualifications.

But how do students develop those skills and gain that invaluable experience in a viable working environment when they’re full time students at university? The best way forward is to take advantage of any Co-operative Education, Applied Study or Internship placement opportunities their institution has to offer. “Co-op is an exceptional way for students to gain practical work experience in virtually any field of study, in cities and towns across Canada and in numerous locations abroad,” says Diana Young, Director of the Co-operative Education and Internships Program for the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Lethbridge.

Developed by Diana Young, the Arts & Science Co-operative Education Program began in 1995. “I saw a need for students to become more acutely aware of the career opportunities open to them, regardless of their degree or major,” explains Diana. “Establishing the Co-op Program was an ideal opportunity to give students a chance to get hands-on experience and network with employers." Starting out with only two students, the program now has over 400 students taking part and receives approximately 100 to 150 new students each year. The program also boasts excellent relationships with upwards of 1000 employers. Recognized across Canada, the program is the only Alberta based Arts & Science program to offer positions to all majors.

The Co-op program combines academic studies with work terms, giving students a well-rounded education and a solid foundation for their entry into the workforce. Co-op students have access to a secure job board, featuring positions that are usually unavailable to those outside the program. Students complete work terms of four, eight, or twelve months, which can be completed at any time during the year and at any point in their degree. After a minimum of twelve months work experience and the completion of their degree requirements, students are able to graduate with a Co-op designation on their degree—A distinction that is highly sought after by employers and recognized across the country. Positions can range from working at the Department of National Defence as an intern for the summer, to longer term placements at companies like EA Games or RIM testing software and hardware for new gaming technologies or the latest model of the Blackberry™. Students can also find placements within the academic community, either helping with research projects or opting to perform an Independent or Applied Study under the guidance of a Faculty member.

The benefits of taking part in a co-operative education program in conjunction with a degree—whatever it is—are seemingly endless. Not only will students gain experience while in a paid position, they also encounter a variety of opportunities to learn, gain a new perspective on their career choices, get hands-on, practical instruction, and, in some cases, the opportunity to travel to new places and experience different cultures. Most importantly, they’ll make contacts that will very likely help them find permanent employment once they graduate.

“On top of all the obvious benefits of this type of experiential learning, over the years we’ve noticed that students enrolled in our Co-op Program have increased academic success as well. Being out in the real world spurs them on to excel in their formal education on top of what they’re learning in the workplace,” adds Young.

“It’s a reality check on what life is like out in the working world.” Employers often choose to extend the length of Co-op work terms for students, and sometimes choose to keep students on permanently once they graduate. “Many employers use Co-op as a recruiting tool,” says Diana. “Employers like Shell, IBM, EA Games, and Research in Motion find their permanent employees by hiring Co-op students and keeping them on after their work terms.”

The Arts & Science Co-op Program at U of L is one of the best in Canada. The Globe and Mail ranked the program number one for small universities in 2006. In the last six years the program has seen two of its students achieve the Canadian Co-op Student of the Year award, issued by the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education, and has had several students receive honourable mentions. Students from 80 institutions compete for this award each year. The Co-op team works hard to maintain a personal touch for the program. “We deal with students in an individual way,” says Diana. “This gives our program an advantage over programs at larger universities, where it’s not as easy to give personal attention to students.”

Co-op team members work one-on-one with students to help develop their resumes, cover letters, and interview skills as needed. During a work term, a Co-op team member will conduct an on-site visit to check in with the student and see how the work term is going. The personalized nature of the program helps ensure that students are successful—both in securing work terms and at the workplace.

Each member of the Co-op team contributes something different. As the Director of the program, Diana Young has a variety of roles. “I ensure that we have diverse opportunities for students,” she says, “and that employers are supportive of the Co-op philosophy and dedicated to providing a positive work environment.” She also ensures that the program stays relevant to students, employers, and the university itself.

The Co-op team is very collaborative and works hard to brainstorm creative new ways of connecting with employers and students. In addition to Diana Young (far left), the team also consists of consists of Lynette Harty (Program Assistant), Stacey Gaudette-Sharp (Coordinator), Jasminn Berteotti (Coordinator), Catharine Reader (Marketing & Communications Officer). Together they liaise with students and employers as part of the hiring process, conduct orientation sessions, give students guidance with resumes, cover letters, and interview skills, as well as providing support and supervision to students on work terms.

“We’re all passionate about the program,” says Diana, “We’d like to see 100 percent of Arts & Science students do at least one work term.”

The program has changed a great deal since its introduction fourteen years ago. “It’s gained stability and popularity,” says Diana. “More and more students are realizing how important it is.” According to Jasminn, the program has grown in several ways. “It’s grown in both numbers and diversity among staff, majors, and students,” she says. Catharine explains that employers are coming from wider areas and are talking about Co-op more than ever before.

Catharine expects the Co-op program to continue growing and becoming stronger, and hopes to incorporate more technology into the program. “We’re looking at using social media as an information and experience sharing tool for the program,” she says, “as well as the possibility of an online chat feature that would allow students to communicate with their Co-op coordinators in cyberspace.”

Diana is excited about the future of the program. She hopes to establish more opportunities for BA students, more opportunities for nonprofit and international work term placements, more placements on campus, more flexible ways of doing Co-op, and even stronger relationships with employers and students. “Whatever way you slice it, adding a Co-op designation to your degree is one of the best ways to increase employability once you step out into the workforce, bar none,” says Diana. “We’re here to help our students make the very best of their experience here and give them all the tools they need to be successful once they graduate.”