Creating a co-op program that gets results

How employers and educational institutions can form partnerships to better prepare the next-generation workforce
By Adam Bajan
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/06/2016

There comes a time in every student’s life where she starts wondering, “What am I going to do when I graduate? How am I going to find a job?”

A common complaint shared by many students is that the classroom education they receive in critical theory, while certainly interesting, doesn’t really prepare them for life in the workplace. And the simple fact is many universities don’t do enough to prepare students for future careers.

In the fast-paced corporate world of eight-hour days and repetitive commutes, employers routinely wonder what will happen when baby boomers retire en masse. This massive corporate turnover is happening, and it’s happening now. The days of employees entering the workforce at 20 and retiring at 65 are long over and today’s corporations often struggle with the dreaded triangle of the demands and realities of the workforce, expectations of direct-input post-graduation employees, and fending off a stagnating creative force.

Perhaps one of the key issues behind the so-called “Generation Jobless” is the corporate world looks for a baseline qualification level — and many potential applicants simply don’t have it, says Heather Blanchard, talent acquisition specialist at Ashton College in Vancouver. 

“I can’t count the number of resumés that cross my desk that I have to immediately disregard,” says Blanchard. “They’re perfectly educated and enthusiastic young individuals but often lacking in the basic skills needed to succeed in the workforce. It’s not their fault but the reality is that companies usually don’t want to hire a blank canvas. They need something they can build on.”

Co-op programs a potential solution 

But the situation isn’t completely dark — there is light coming over the horizon. At least 81 universities and colleges across Canada currently offer co-operative education programs that give students the chance to earn valuable job experience as well as paying off some of their ever-looming student loan debt. 

“As a co-op co-ordinator for the past six years, I’ve gotten to witness the benefits that co-op offers to both the student and their supervisor,” says Liesl Jurock of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

 “Students gain valuable skills, experience and connections that are relevant within their industry while making real contributions to their organizations. Supervisors often comment to me about the keen energy, fresh perspective and out-of-the-box thinking that students bring.” 

But the benefits of a co-op placement extend beyond the tangible skill set a student earns. Co-op students also provide extensive benefits to the sponsoring company and much of this comes down to youthful exuberance. 

“We’ve been taking on co-op students for years for the simple reason that they’re innovative. I think it has something to do with the way universities train students to think in a creative, constructive manner that isn’t bound by a rigid corporate structure,” says Blanchard.

Innovation is the key to moving forward for companies that are facing the prospects of large-scale retirements from long-serving baby boomers. The smart companies recognize the new generation of worker is a far cry from the current generation.

Studies show millennials view the nature of work in a fundamentally different manner than their parents. 

“I like to feel that my work matters,” says Alex Nikotina, a co-op student from Simon Fraser University.

“I want to come home at the end of the day and feel fulfilled, like I accomplished something that means something. I think a lot of the older generation struggles to understand this — it’s almost like the concept of liking your job is foreign to them.” 

Kate Grishko, a Russian-born international student also on co-op placement at Ashton College, doesn’t want to feel constrained by her job either. 

“I’m young; I have a lot of ideas. I want my employer to recognize that. I know I’m not an expert but when I bring something up in a meeting, it’s important to me that I’m heard,” she says. 

Employers with a more rigid mindset of the corporate structure can and do struggle with what they see as “entitled” millennials. But what they may see as arrogance or a sense of entitlement could just be a marked enthusiasm and desire to break free from what young people perceive as a creatively restrictive style of work. 

“It’s definitely not an easy transition to go from a super creative environment like a university classroom into a nine-to-five office where everything is regimented. But you get used to it,” says Lina Kunina, a fourth-year undergraduate with three terms of co-op under her belt.

This is not to say all baby boomers are waving the flag of conservatism in the workplace. Many are quick to recognize the merits an injection of youth can bring.  

For Blanchard, the key to success with gen Y-ers is to motivate them. 

“They have this incredible enthusiasm and there’s power in that if an employer can harness it. You just have to keep them focused and motivated,” she says.

By playing to the unbridled enthusiasm of university students on a co-op posting, companies are able to maximize the return on investment, in terms of both capital and time. Students often begin their postings a bit timidly, unsure of how they’ll fit into the corporate environment. But by showing them that their contributions are valuable, companies bringing co-op students into the fold will often find just how much of a difference they’ve made, both in the students’ lives and the lives of those with longstanding company tenures.


Adam Bajan is a digital brand experience assistant at Ashton College in Vancouver. For more information, visit www.ashtoncollege.ca. 

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