Co-Op Education: Is it as good as it should be? 70% say 'No'
"Social, economic, and historic forces are making cooperative education more relevant than ever" Grubb & Villeneuve
I think Co-Op Education programs are great. This may have something to do with the fact that I credit a Co-Op program for helping to launch me on my successful career in professional services and now, here I am, over 20 years later, a partner in my own management consulting firm. As a result, Berlineaton takes an almost familial interest in Co-Op education programs, and how to make sure they can Continuously Improve. We’ve recently completed a survey with Co-Op students about their experiences with this popular, experiential approach to post-secondary education and, speaking as a former Co-Op student, I think the insights they have shared will surprise you.
Co-Operative education is a structured method of combining classroom-based learning with paid work placements. Under the right circumstances, Co-Op reflects the finest that experiential education programs can offer, providing a win-win situation for both students and employers. At its best, students gain valuable work skills and contacts while connecting their studies with real-world practices; and they love it. As one student told us “Co-Ops are such a valuable part of our degree and give us a great advantage after graduation.” Employers love it too. David McKay, the CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada, notes that “for employers, Co-Op has become a critical bridge to our country’s outstanding schools and centres of excellence.”
But is Co-Op education as good as it should be? 70% of the students we surveyed said no. We asked students questions about what their experience was like applying for jobs, what could have been done differently to improve this experience, and what they would score the program out of 10 (where 10 is an excellent experience). The program average was around 5/10 or 50%.
So, what did we learn that Post-Secondary institutions need to do to get it right? Here are the top four themes that emerged from the Co-Op students we surveyed, in order of priority:
1. Students want to be treated just like a normal customer.
95% of those we surveyed said that the Co-Op program, as a business itself, doesn’t provide enough value for its main customers: the students. The only students who noted that they were satisfied with the program were those who created paths on their own, and who didn’t interact with the Co-Op office at all. As one student said, “many of us felt that we were just handing over heaps of money to the Co-Op office for minimal value in return.” Another commented that “the Co-Op advisors did not seem at all interested in me as an individual”. Post-Secondary institutions need to improve their customer service standards for students.
2. Students want good jobs, not just good grades.
90% of those we surveyed said that there is a lack of relevant job postings, and that they felt forced to either accept a job they didn’t want, or spend precious time using personal connections to find a better placement. In today’s uncertain work climate, students see Co-Op jobs as valuable stepping stones on the path to their ideal career. Post-Secondary institutions need to do a better job at finding good jobs for students.
3. Establish stronger connections with the employers that students want to work with.
75% of those surveyed said that the Co-Op office was not able to effectively support them in finding a job in their chosen field. Students want the Co-Op program to build more business connections and to create a stronger community presence. As one student said “if we tell the Co-Op office what sector or companies we are interested in, it would be great if they could reach out to these companies, or to the sector in general.”
4. Provide sufficient institutional resources
About 70% of those we surveyed said that Co-Op Office staff capacity and capability was poor i.e., there weren’t enough Co-Op staff and some of them did a poor job of customer service. Institutions must ensure that they have enough of the right staff to provide a superior level of service to students.
How can we Continuously Improve Co-Operative Education?
Co-Operative education programs are one of the most valuable services post-secondary institutions have to offer their students. However, we can no longer get away with, as noted by Harvey Weingarten, CEO of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario“ slapping together work-integrated learning programs, calling it experiential learning and promoting it to students.” So what, then, should Co-Op offices do? Using Berlineaton’s Continuous Improvement methodology as a framework, here is some great advice we gleaned from the Co-Op students we surveyed:
Build a shared vision. Co-Op offices must do a better job of engaging both students and employers in designing programs that meet the end goals of both parties. Students tell us that they want relevant Co-Op jobs, and we know that employers want students who can fill their particular needs. Post-secondary institutions should play more effective facilitation role in helping both students and employers create the future they both want and need.
Make it easy to say ‘yes’ to Co-Op. No one wants to have to struggle through layers of bureaucracy and procedural red-tape, least of all harried students and frenetic employers. Post-Secondary institutions need to create streamlined processes and leverage modern technology, like the iPhone. Co-Op: Is there an app for that? If not, there should be.
Put students at the centre. Students must be positioned as empowered and engaged actors at the centre of their own learning and career management. Students are customers who pay a lot of money for services that they have a right to feel well served by. Like any other customer, they expect to receive customized assistance and to feel that their personal career goals matter to Co-Op staff and employers. Post-Secondary institutions need to provide enough staff resources with the skills, capability and desire to help students find and keep a good match with employers.
Or, like any other dissatisfied customer, these savvy, and extensively networked and self-directed young people will take their business elsewhere.
* * *
Richard Eaton is a co-founding partner of Berlineaton and a senior management consultant with over 20 years’ experience facilitating significant and positive culture shifts within large organizations and complex human systems.