Jumping on the Co-Op Bandwagon

Last week’s media offerings included a couple of stories on co-op education. First was this BC story about private college health sciences students placed in co-op experiences in fast food restaurants. This might be cool if building tacos and poutine helpings required some form of post-secondary credential but… well come on. Clearly not all co-ops are created equal. There is a “buyer beware” element at play here, and these poor suckers in their matching uniforms were caught up in it.

On the heels of this piece, which rightly expressed concern that students were being exploited, was this Globe and Mail article arguing that a co-op program makes your university education “worthwhile.” Here, author Andrew d’Souza takes a supply-side perspective,[1] arguing that co-ops are a great way for students to learn if their formal education and skill sets will actually be in valued in the labour market.

In either case, it appears that co-op placements, widely in demand by students, are the next evolving story in learning “market,” in which the student free-agent had better read the signs and signals well or else.

Where Dem High Skills Jobs At?

I want to take issue with d’Souza’s claim that co-op experience somehow provides students with information about the value of their learning in the “real world” of the labour market. First, however, let’s unpack the nature of the “co-op.” The Canadian Association for Co-operative Education defines the co-op as paid labour market experience that is relevant to the student’s field of study, and forms a substantive portion of the student’s academic program. Well done, co-ops serve an important purpose, bridging book learning with learning in real world settings. As d’Souza recounts of his own experiences, co-ops can affirm a young adult’s career aspirations, or offer a wake-up call when the lived experience of working in a field doesn’t live up to expectations.[2]

But again, the co-op has to be well done. That is, it has to provide the student with relevant and meaningful work experience. And this is where d’Souza’s appeal to the logic of markets gets iffy. He states, “When learning skills that are in-demand, students have a wide selection of co-op jobs, which provide meaningful experience and competitive compensation.”

I’m not sure what universe the author is travelling when he discusses skills that are “in-demand.”[3] If we turn to the trades, it’s pretty clear that employers’ needs can’t be assumed to generate meaningful workplace learning opportunities. Canada’s apprenticeship system is in pretty crappy shape, despite hues and cries that we are facing skilled labour shortages. If skilled trades are truly in demand, you’d think employers would step up to the plate by investing in their early career workers. Yet a recent panel on TVO’s The Agenda lamented the under-investment of Canadian employers in their workforce – positions supported by OECD research showing that Canada’s track record for workplace learning is mediocre at best. Hell even the United States does a better job of training its workers than we do.[4] Employers, argued some of the panelists, have greater incentives to bring in skilled foreign temporary workers than they do to invest in domestic workers by providing reliable apprenticeship opportunities for young people.

So if employers in these high-needs sectors are unwilling to invest in the learning of their early career workers, there’s little reason to think that they’ll be rushing to provide work experience in other fields either. This pokes some holes in d’Souza’s argument that high labour market demand will translate to valuable co-op opportunities.

The Lure of the Co-Op

Weak employer demand is also supported by some accounts that obtaining co-ops can, in the words of one co-op advisor, be “a competitive environment.”[5] What this must amount to, then, is a whole lot of career-hungry post-secondary students chasing a relatively scarce number of opportunities. Universities and colleges, if they know what’s good for ‘em, are hustling just as hard, courting employers to create opportunities for their students. The labour market demands that d’Souza speaks of, then, are heavily mediated by the competition among post-secondary institutions to place their students.

In my own work on this piece, I found “how to” articles loaded with unsubstantiated declarations that co-ops improve employment prospects after graduation. So guess what? This sends young people herding like wildebeest to institutions and programs offering co-ops. Universities, picking up on the demand, try to develop more co-op programming. Oddly missing from this consumptive spiral is the critical piece: the support of employers, who must be courted to offer the positions. Thus much of the hype around co-op placements appears to be coming not out of labour market competition for quality workers, but out of competition among universities and colleges to attract students.

Healthy Skepticism for Students

I’m not dissing co-op education, nor am I dismissing its potential. It’s a great idea – a win/win for students and employers alike. Co-ops are particularly appealing because unlike their notorious cousin, the Unpaid Internship, students are reasonably compensated while learning on the job.

Savvy students may, however, want to raise a brow when a university seems to be pumping programs with co-op opportunities, and ask whether these can actually deliver good work experience – particularly if this co-op experience is required for graduation. Instead, many universities seem to be able to offer little more than a kind of brokering: a combination of lobbying potential employers to provide opportunities, and earnestly wishing students “good luck” as they go out and apply for co-ops just as they would have to apply for jobs after graduating.[6]

For these reasons, students should also take the hype surrounding co-ops with a grain of salt.[7] As the BC students’ case illustrates in the extreme, there is potential for abuse. d’Souza claims students are missing out if they aren’t seeking these things, but it’s not quite that simple. Choosing an institution or a program on the basis of co-op components may feel like a calculated career move, but without taking a closer look at what’s really on the table, it’s more like a leap of faith.


[1] “Supply side” here just means that the focus is on workers and their initiatives to find work, rather than on the employers who represent the demand for labour. The distinction is important for policy because supply side approaches will focus on upskilling workers, while demand side approaches will seek to incentivize employers to hire.

[2] The significance of co-op placements is addressed in this Ipsos-Read poll in which almost 80% of respondents who had co-op placements said the placements had impacted their career choices.

[3] Check out the comments follow this short piece about IT co-ops in the Ottawa area.

[4] cf. Goldenberg, M. (2006). Employer investment in workplace learning in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Policy Research Networks. Goldenberg states: “At present, Canada appears to be under-performing in workplace learning in comparison with other countries. For example, international studies show that Canada has recently slipped from 12th to 20th place in terms of the priority employers place on training their workers.” The above noted Agenda panel also notes that foreign temporary workers are being brought in to provide skilled labour.

[5] University Affairs described universities “scrambling for co-op placements” in 2009 after the economic downturn. The scarcity proposition can also be supported by recent efforts in Ontario to create co-ops for law students in response to articling shortages in the field. An article in the Ottawa Business Journal (April 5, 2013) notes declining availability of co-ops in the public sector.

[6] For example, this January 2012 account of co-ops at Ryerson in Toronto states that students “typically seek employment on their own. The co-op office encourages students to do so, although they are still available to assist those seeking help with resumes, interviews, and cover letters.” At the University of Waterloo,  career support services  “help create matches, [but] the process can be independent for students, as finding a placement isn’t a guarantee.” A placement administrator at Waterloo states, “We’re not in control of the market out there, so we try to make that really clear to students.”

[7] If you can get past the hideousness of the monetization of this site, here is a nicely balanced review of the pros and cons of co-ops: “Should I pursue a co-op education?

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