Uncertain future for co-op

Students interested in expansion of co-op and internship programs, but University has no firm plans for development

About 60 per cent of students at the University of Waterloo are enrolled in its co-operative education program.
About 60 per cent of students at the University of Waterloo are enrolled in its co-operative education program.

Last spring, the University hired a new position to look into the potential of expanding experiential learning for Queen’s students. According to Career Services, the program is still in its research stage and has yet to develop any firm plans.

“I don’t have a mandate to expand but at the same time I’m researching what we currently offer,” said Claire Lesage, who was hired last spring for the position of manager, employer and partner relations at the Career Services.

Lesage was hired over six months ago to begin researching any possibilities for expanding experiential learning programs, which can include models such as internships and co-operative education.

“We’re looking at many models,” she said. Lesage couldn’t offer any more details, except for the fact that she’s been conducting the process “intelligently.” She was also unable to confirm or deny if Career Services was considering co-op.

Compared to other Ontario schools, such as the University of Waterloo, where 60 per cent of students are enrolled in co-op, Queen’s offers very little experiential learning. There’s no school-wide co-op program and most placements offered through the Queen’s University Internship Program (QUIP) take place year-round and are geared towards more technical industries and not arts-related subjects.

“Ideally the intention is that we’re looking for programs that don’t affect the calendar in the way that co-op programs can,” she said, adding that any program chosen would have to fit with academic programming.

At Waterloo, campus must operate full-time, year-round in order to accommodate student co-op schedules. QUIP differs from this, as it offers longer placements (12 to 16 months) that students must take either after second or third-year.

Even though it’s unclear what direction the University is shifting in, the AMS has recently investigated the potential of implementing co-operative education at Queen’s.

Between 2010 and 2012, the AMS Teaching Issues Committee wrote a paper emphasizing the importance of co-op experience for students. Last March, AMS Assembly passed a motion that added a statement of support for co-op into AMS policy, based on the report from the Committee.

“We wanted to explore the idea of co-operative learning some more and see what is actually here, what there is room for,” said Misato Okutsu, co-chair of the 2011-12 Teaching Issues Committee.

Through their research, the committee found that there’s room for some form of experiential, co-operative education at Queen’s.

“There’s a huge need for it. Especially as universities in Canada change, you can’t just stay stagnant,” she said. “Before, the AMS didn’t have a stance on it. So we kind of wanted them to have something to say about it officially.”

For Okutsu, Sci ’12, co-operative education can be more than just the traditional four-month work placement.

“It’s really important to keep in mind that’s its really discipline-specific,” she said. “You can’t just have the same thing for everyone.”

Isabelle Duchaine, AMS academic affairs commissioner, said there were some concerns when the report was originally presented to Assembly.

“There was actually quite a bit of very lively debate about it,” she said. “One of the concerns brought forward was that internships could kind of affect Queen’s in the sense that we have a very strong community. Commuting here and having students go back and forth between internships and campus could kind of disrupt that feeling of continuity.”

According to Duchaine, having this paper supported by Assembly means there’s room on campus for more innovation in experiential learning.

“It’s recognition that Queen’s hasn’t been as forward on this kind of enterprise as a lot of other universities, specifically Waterloo. And that could be hurting us in terms of competitiveness in certain programs,” Duchaine, ArtSci ’13, said.

At Waterloo, co-op placements in the form of four-month work terms are available for all faculties, which can take place during any term. Students often take a full course load during the summer months, which means that campus is bustling year-round.

But building an all-encompassing co-op program from scratch could take millions of dollars. The Waterloo co-op department currently employs 135 full time staff.

A complex online system is used for job postings and applications. After interviews take place, students and employers rank each other based on preference.

Although Waterloo’s system helps create matches, the process can be independent for students, as finding a placement isn’t a guarantee.

“We’re not in control of the market out there, so we try to make that really clear to students,” said Olaf Naese, an administrator with Co-operative Education and Career Action at the University of Waterloo. “It’s a really competitive environment.”

According to Naese, there are students who don’t find placements due to bad job markets, poor interviewing skills or little to no previous work experience.

There are also extra costs associated with having a fully operational campus year-round. “[It] requires professors to be teaching in the summer; [it] requires buildings to be air-conditioned, cleaning, the operation of residences and also a set of exams that have to be given in the summer term as well.”

In return, students get paid a salary by their respective employers, averaging about $600 per week.

Due to their placements, students in the Waterloo program also must take an extra year to get their degree.

Justin Lycklama, a fourth-year Computer Science co-op student at Waterloo, said thus far, he’s had five co-op placements at three organizations: a ticketing company, a customer relationship management organization and a company that develops iOS software for hospital use.

His search for placements hasn’t always been a smooth process. Once, he didn’t find a placement until after the term had already started.

“It’s mandatory that you have to submit your grades,” he said. “My grades aren’t all that great. So sometimes it’s hard to get interviews. It all depends on the place.”

Even though he’s faced challenges in finding a placement, Lycklama’s overall experience with the co-op program has been positive.

“It’s always great to get used to the work environment,” he said. ”I like having the opportunity to go to these places, and learn about how these companies work.”

He said he had no problems continually shifting back and forth from his placement to campus. “It’s like a constant break,” he said. “It keeps everything fresh.”

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