Want to get hands-on, real life work experience while still in school? Co-op is the way to go!
One of the many great things about attending a Canadian university as an international student is that no matter where you come from, you are eligible to work part-time during your studies.
But beyond the most obvious upside of such positions – to earn while you learn – are many more benefits, and unique opportunities. Especiallywhen it comes to taking part in co-operative education, or “co-op” programs.
What is co-op?
Co-operative education is a program combining classroom-based education with practical, hands-on work experience. Such on-the-job experience is a great way for students to gain valuable work skills, explore different career options first-hand, and impress references who can later recommend them to potential employers. All this is critical in making the school-to-full-time work transition much smoother after graduation. Best of all, co-op jobs are directly related to a student’s field of study, helping them to kick-start their career and up their chances of landing that dream job later on.
How does Co-op work?
At many Canadian universities, such programs provide students with an average of three to four work terms (in other words, a full year) of academic credits, which count toward their under-graduate or graduate degrees. Working with a co-op coordinator before, during and after each co-op term, students are supported in finding appropriate co-op placements, and encouraged to set learning goals for each position they’re offered.
The majority of co-op placements in Canada also involve pay. Often,very good pay. At the University of Victoria (or UVic), for example, the average undergraduate co-op salary is $2,700 per month, while the average graduate co-op salary is more than $3,225.
Types of co-op jobs
Where you work is up to you! Canadian university co-op students generally work for a wide range of employers, from federal and provincial governments, to private companies and non-profit organizations. And with location possibilities varying as widely as employers, students can find themselves working anywhere at all – from right on-campus to countries elsewhere around the world. For examples of some past student co-op stories, visit UVic’s alumni profiles at http://www.uvic.ca/coopandcareer/studentsalumni/home/studentstories/index.php.
Co-op as a path to full-time employment
While it is not uncommon for hard-working students to end up being offered full-time positions with the very same companies they co-op with (a definite plus of the co-op experience!), the majority of students use the experience as a step towards other opportunities in future.
Students, like Earfan Sarder.
Originally from Jhalakati, Bangladesh, Earfan completed a B.Sc. degree in Computer Science at Algoma University, located in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. After starting his Canadian university experience with a semester-long ESL (or English as a Second Language) program, Earfan jumped right into the working life – landing paid positions both on-campus and through the university’s co-op program, all the while still concentrating hard on his degree studies.
“I was trying very hard to get myself involved with any and every activity that I could,” Earfan explains. “So after a semester of skill development, I became a co-op student. Through co-op, I worked with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation for a year and half in their IT-Asset Management department. I was well paid, receiving more than a basic salary, and I could feel independent and proud that I had a position related to my career direction. I kept my eyes and ears open to fit into a Canadian office environment in all ways, and the co-op position also gave me good feedback on how to improve.”
It was an experience that Earfan says greatly helped him to obtain permanent employment post-graduation.
“Definitely this gave a boost to my career,” he explains.
“After my graduation, I moved to Calgary, Alberta – where I earned 28 job interviews within one month! So you can see that working in the school and co-op really gave me the opportunity to learn about Canadian culture, how to present myself, different kinds of workplaces, while all the time using and practising leading edge Information Technology. Not just studying it in a book, but actually using it in practice. I really believe all those opportunities enriched my professional skills and experiences in preparation for my career.”
Today, Earfan works in the Canadian healthcare sector, as a Technical Support Specialist.
How to get the most out of your co-op experience
Especially for any students hoping to stay and work in Canada post-graduation, co-op can act as the perfect introduction to the Canadian workplace – helping you to fit in more easily when you do land that first full-time job later on. So in order to help ensure you get the most out of your co-op experiences, keep in mind the following, most basic points:
Be professional. This may sound straightforward, but it’s often the simple things that can earn or lose the respect of your new employer and/or colleagues – things like arriving on time, maintaining a positive attitude, and dressing appropriately (find out the company’s dress code before your placement begins).
Take initiative. Seek out opportunities to learn, wherever you can. From volunteering for extra projects, to reading up on industry-related news and developments outside the office, the more you can get out of (and put into) your co-op experience, the better. If you can seek out a mentor at your new work place, ask them to help show you the ropes.
Network! Co-op placements are a great time to build up your network of contacts – not just of potential future employers, but also future references.
So no matter who you are interacting with, consider them a potentially valuable contact, and try to make your best impression – you never know who could help you down the line.
Having some business cards made up can also help ensure you are remembered.
And finally, always do your best work. Although it’s easy to get in the trap of thinking, “This isn’t a real job”, co-op positions should be viewed as being just as valuable – and serious – as any other work experience.
Even if you’re given more menial tasks than you may have hoped for, just remember that everyone has to start somewhere, and by showing your employer that you are a hard-worker no matter what the task, you’re more likely to be trusted with greater responsibility in future.
– ARWEN KIDD
• ARWEN KIDD currently serves as Communications Director for the Canadian University Application Centre and its parent organization, Higher-Edge. A Canadian university graduate herself, Arwen has spent most of the past five years working and travelling overseas. Among her credits are various documentary film and photo journalism projects in Eastern Europe, Australia and West Africa. Arwen is currently based in Liberia.