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Finding a good fit

Concordia’s Institute for Co-operative Education — Co-op — takes students into the workforce
September 12, 2014
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By J. Latimer

"Do you have any experience in the field?”

That’s the question that fills most young people with dread during job interviews. Sure, they’ve had summer jobs, but it isn’t the same thing as real experience in a chosen profession. Getting a foot in the door can be nearly impossible with a resumé that contains nothing more than retail and restaurants. Employers want to know that junior applicants are mature enough to transition into their first full-time position. 

Co-op staff Concordia co-op director Gerry Hughes, seated, and (from left) co-op coordinators Alex Bottausci, Fred Francis, Richard Melkonian and Jane Fairhurst, who work to help place students with employers.

Enter Concordia’s Institute for Co-Operative Education (Co-op). Since 1980, Co-op has been working in partnership with students, faculty, staff, employers and alumni to provide a high-quality co-operative education. It’s a learning model that rotates four-month work terms with periods of formal academ­ic study. During their work terms, students earn a wage (always a good thing for them), while their employers solve staffing shortages and receive a tax credit from the government.

There is a rigorous application process to become a Co-op student, including academic performance requirements. If successfully admitted into the Co-op program, students take mandatory workshops — covering topics including how to write a resumé and cover letter, interview skills, email etiquette, identifying styles of management and French-language training — before they have access to the job board.

“We set the table for students to enter the workforce,” ex­plains Gerry Hughes, BComm (bus. admin.) 74, director of the Institute for Co-operative Education, which has increased the number of students by over 20 per cent in the last three years. “It’s exciting because we’re expanding horizontally and vertically, continually adding more non-traditional Co-op programs in areas like anthropology, political science and journalism.” Hughes, who took over the directorship in 2011 after running the career centre at the John Molson School of Business (JMSB) for four years, stresses the importance of alumni outreach. “We want to foster a tribe mindset of ‘hire one of your own.’”

It must be working. In the 2013-14 academic year, Co-op created more than 1,000 work placements for 1,450 students at non-profits, government agencies and private-sector employers, including Google, RIM, Bombardier, Beiersdorf, CAE, Ericsson, Genetec, GE, Bank of Nova Scotia, Terry Fox Foundation and Le Château. There’s still a need to develop jobs in certain fields such as finance, accounting and civil and mechanical engineering. “Some disciplines are easier to place than others,” explains Hughes, whose team introduced Co-op’s new website (concordia.ca/co-op) and social media presence in 2013. “But the benefits to the students, employers, faculty members and the Concordia community as a whole speak for themselves.”

Finding a good fit

After each of their three work terms, students are required to meet in small groups to reflect on what they’ve absorbed. Some of the positive learning experiences exceeded even Hughes’s expectations. “We placed a student at Pratt & Whitney, where he helped supervise 110 unionized employees,” he recalls. “When I asked him what makes a good supervisor, he spoke about the importance of respecting the staff, getting your hands dirty, doing what you say and showing that you care. It was invaluable knowledge, learned on the job.” 

The Co-op experience, then, is more than just the job op­portunities. It’s about processing each experience and mining it for patterns of best practices and student growth.

“We are working to establish a Co-op wow factor,” says Hughes. “The idea is to give students the training and the preparation that boost confidence.” On the other side of the coin, companies who take on a Co-op student can reduce recruitment expenses, tackle special projects, meet peak workloads, evaluate potential full-time hires, engage in joint research projects with the faculty and get first pick at the top talent — all while enjoying tax breaks. 

Wow, indeed. With almost $10,000 in Co-op scholarships awarded through the program to worthy students last year, word is growing about this vibrant way for students to bridge university life and the working world.

“The misconception is that we’re simply a placement agen­cy,” clarifies Hughes. “A key part of our branding is the official ‘Co-op experience,’ with our professional staff, value-added resources, services and seminars that go above and beyond the prac­tical work experience students gain in their fields. It’s the definition of win-win.”

When it comes to discovering their niche in the field — be it accounting, biochemistry, mechanical engineer­ing or any of the 39 available programs — students in Co-op are one step ahead. Maybe they excel at strategy or client de­velopment. Maybe they thrive in a research lab or rise to the challenge of project management. Co-op students begin their critical process of self-discovery earlier and obtain a “head start” on establishing their career journey. 

Hughes, who helms a team of 16 staff at Co-op, explains, “Our goal is to enable students to develop the knowledge, skills and experience they need to lead successful professional lives.”

—Joanne Latimer, MFA 94, is a Montreal-based freelance writer.

Case studies in action

Meet recent Institute for Co-operative Education students and grads at their companies.



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