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Cooperative education: learn more, earn more, prepare for the workplace.

Studies show that few people learn to drive a car without getting behind the wheel. Imagine a nonmotorist just reading a book about driving and then zooming off to Albuquerque. That would be hitting the highway the hard way.

As it happens, clever college students also learn by doing, and, in the United States, about a quarter of a million of them choose cooperative education. Co-op jump starts classroom study by alternating it with periods of work. Students gain hands-on experience related to their major field of study and career goals by following a school-approved plan.

Co-oping has many benefits. It helps students map out a career path. The money they earn as co-op employees pays some of their academic tolls along that path. After graduation, their work experience revs up a resume and may lead them to permanent employment.

The road ahead offers a view of cooperative education starting at orientation and moving through graduation and finding employment afterwards. A section called "Transfers and Career Changers" looks at co-op students who transfer from a 2-year to a 4-year school and those who change careers. Along the way, you'll see real-life experiences of co-op students, past and present, from around the U.S.A. For them, co-op was the trip of a lifetime, and it might be for you.


To get things rolling, co-op coordinators often orient students to the program in one session. Like cars, co-op programs have their own custom features, so coordinators cover the particulars about their school, as well as the basics.

Students first learn the magic number for cooperative education. It's the number three, because co-op depends on a partnership between three players: Student, college (represented by the coordinator), and co-op employers who hire students for work lasting from 2 to 6 months.

The scheduling of this work varies at the 900 or so U.S. colleges offering co-op. Not all schools alternate between separate periods of work and study. Some have students go to class in the morning and work in the afternoon. Community colleges most often do this. Certain colleges mix the two modes of scheduling.

Programs leading to an associate's degree take at least 2 years. For a bachelor's degree, schools offer 4- or 5-year co-op programs. The total time spent on co-op work ranges from 6 months to 2 years, depending on the degree and the school. Some colleges grant academic credit for the work experience.

Get Ready, Get Set

Co-op gives students a headstart on learning job search skills. Students write resumes and then interview with employers to compete for available co-op positions. Luckily, they have help from coordinators like Rubye Guest at Mississippi State University. "Most of these students have never done a resume or had a formal interview," says Guest. "We try to work with them in group sessions and with each student individually whenever we possibly can."

The timing and mode of job search training differs from one program to another. Students can't wait too long to polish their resumes and interviewing skills, though, because they need to start work quickly. Two-year schools may allow students to go to work after only one term of study. In bachelor's programs, co-op work may begin after a year or two in the classroom and sometimes sooner.

At Mississippi State, Guest does brief seminars on interviewing tips. Students might sign up before or after scheduling a job interview. After the seminar, Guest refers students to a mock interview for practice, if they're interested.

At other schools, such as LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, students take a one-credit course that blends orientation with tips on resume writing and interviewing. M. Rafiqul Alam, a LaGuardia graduate now working for IBM, thinks the course helped him zip into the fast lane. "It helped me present myself as a good candidate," he says. "I never had a job interview, so it prepared me to compete."

Once students learn how to interview, they need jobs to interview for. Even if they've already chosen a major, they might not know what sort of job they want at first. Coordinators usually maintain a listing of available co-op positions and files telling what previous holders of the positions said about their experience. Using these aids, students explore their options. They also meet with their coordinators, who help them define what they want to learn at work. Students do this to match themselves with jobs that would foster the desired learning. In some programs, students may hunt for jobs not on the official list or even attempt to convince an employer to create a suitable job. The coordinator helps steer the student here, too.

After students identify jobs they might want, the real interviewing begins. Once again, the process varies by school. At some, coordinators forward students' resumes to the employers. Then it's up to each employer to contact individual applicants to arrange an interview. Other schools take an all-at-once approach. Mississippi State, for example, invites co-op employers to campus twice a year to conduct most of the interviews over a 3-day period. Students submit their preferences, which Guest and the other coordinators use to assign all interview slots.

After years on the job, Guest still marvels over her students' performance at interviews. "It's just amazing," she says. "You can just tell they're nervous wrecks at the first interview. But by the third day, they come in like they're old pros. It really builds their confidence."

Some co-op students receive offers from more than one employer, so they have a choice of jobs. However, co-op programs never guarantee employment, and not all students find jobs they like. A lot depends on the economy and the local job market.

Some students accept positions far from their residence and must find a place to live, negotiate the rent, set up housekeeping, and learn to schedule their time. Like most coordinators, Guest sees this as part of the learning experience.

Go to Work: The Co-op Job

Before co-op employees report to work their first day, they know they'll be driving on a two-way street. They will benefit from the experience, but their employer expects to benefit as well.

"Co-op," says Leo Peters, president of Weston & Sampson Engineers, "allows us to get people who we know are dependable to do pre-professional work. We get a very productive workforce that can hit the ground running." All co-op employers share this expectation, whether they're mom-and-pop shops, Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, or government agencies. For students, the co-op tour brings multiple benefits. As employees, they learn technical skills, develop people skills, and earn some green while they're at it.

Getting experience. Students of every major learn technical skills. Those studying very technical subjects -- like engineering or computer science -- go further in this direction. Still, those in the liberal arts, social sciences, and business glean practical know-how from the experience, too.

Emily Waggel, a student at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, worked for a company that makes conveyor belts. In class, she was studying motors, encoders, capacitors, and much else relating to electromechanical engineering technology. At work, she applied her knowledge, using computer aided drafting to design the circuits for control panels. "If I had just been in class," she says. "it would have been just numbers and words. But when I was out in the field looking at how everything fit together, it made more sense."

Monica Posey thinks Waggel's experience is the norm for co-op students. Posey serves as Assistant Dean for the Engineering Technologies Division at Cincinnati State. She says co-op students learn more by going beyond theory to application on the job. "When they go out to the worksite," she says, "it's sort of like they have another set of teachers. Now, they have teachers in the industry who can help them see how what they've learned in class is used in troubleshooting and problem solving."

Civil engineer Cynthia Lee agrees wholeheartedly. "You're going to have tons of questions," she says, recalling her days as a co-op employee. "There's always someone there who will answer your question for you." Lee learned much from the answers she received from colleagues at Weston & Sampson Engineers. When she finished her bachelor's degree at Northeastern University in 1995, she left with technical savvy she could not have gained just by attending classes.

Amy Killoran recently graduated from Antioch College with a psychology major and some technical savvy of her own. Located in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Antioch became the first liberal arts school in America to offer co-op in 1921. One term, Killoran worked in Antioch's Office of Institutional Research. "I did a lot of number crunching." she says, "and I was also put in charge of a research project on campus." One of her goals was to learn to use spreadsheet software and overcome her "computer phobia." She achieved it. "Immediately after that job," she says. "I got an e-mail account and started surfing the Net and everything."

She toots co-op's horn for people skills, too. Through experience, she learned to express herself well. On her fourth job, she chaired a conference in England with 160 attendees. Preparing for this gave her much practice dealing with people. She had to consult with workshop presenters, caterers, building and maintenance officials, hotel staff, and the researchers employing her.

Robert Krinsky thinks the co-op experience does even more to improve people skills than it does to teach practical know-how. After graduating from Antioch in 1957 as a math major, he went to work as an actuary for The Segal Company in New York. "I remember," he says, reflecting on his early co-op work, "the first time I had to call a rather low-level person at one of our client firms to check on some data. My palms were sweaty, and I prepared for about 15 minutes for that phone call." By the end of his senior year, however, he could palaver with mia-level officials without overheating. Today, he does his talking at the top. Still at The Segal Company, he's now the guy heading the table in the corporate board room.

Mark Morgan, one of Guest's students at Mississippi State University, is just starting out in the business world. Like many co-op employees, he played a customer service role. Morgan worked in an IBM call center, aiding laptop computer users with hardware problems. "I'd have to talk to customers day in and day out," he says. "so I learned to communicate better that way." Lane McKinney, another of Guest's business students, did similar work. Employed by Fidelity Investments in Irving, Texas, she processed requests to transfer mutual fund accounts by phone in cases of marriage, divorce, or death.

Both Morgan and McKinney received training from their employers at the start. Morgan learned how the company's products worked. McKinney was taught procedures for making account transfers. Some initial monitoring and coaching from experienced employees helped both students as they began speaking with customers.

The two of them agree that their experience gave them more than skills and knowledge. "I feel like I grew up a lot," says McKinney. "It gave me maturity," echoes Morgan. "In a co-op job, you learn how to be on your own."

Earnings. Going on your own takes money, though. Back when Americans drove Studebakers to work, colleges boasted that co-op earnings could finance an entire education. But that was over 25 years ago. Today, students find that their paychecks cover some college costs, but, usually, the money pays only part of the sticker price on a diploma.

Earnings vary by major. Technical majors, like computer science, command more money than nontechnical ones in liberal arts, social sciences, or humanities. Some jobs pay only a small stipend or nothing at all. These positions are typically in less technical areas, like human services.

In some cases, students do earn enough to pay their own way. Those who attend a community college with low tuition or opt for a very technical major like engineering technology might manage fine. Someone pursuing a bachelor's degree in sociology at a costly liberal arts school, however, might afford to buy little more with co-op earnings than books and a few days worth of tuition. Most students will find themselves someplace in between these two examples.

National data on co-op earnings are not available, but a Wayne State University survey sent to co-op schools in nine midwestern States offers a useful measure. The accompanying tables show initial and final earnings for co-op employees by major. The survey also shows that 25 percent or more of the employers provided benefits such as medical insurance, retirement credit, and paid holidays, vacation, and sick days.

Reflect, Ask, Seek a Career

Half the fun of any trip happens after returning home, when the travelers fondly recall all the things they saw and did. The value of the co-op experience is like that, too. Half the benefits come to students by thinking purposefully about the work they did. Reflecting on their experience helps students learn more. It also guides them in exploring, altering, and confirming career options and plans.

For nearly 40 years, James Wilson has thought about the way this reflection profits co-op students. A professor of cooperative education now retired from Northeastern University, he stresses that good co-op programs find methods of encouraging students to mull things over. He notes that reflecting on experience is not just silent self-study. It often involves social activity, and it actually begins during a term of work.

At Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, students do weekly reports during their work experience. Each week, the students describe their on-the-job learning, how it ties in with their classroom studies, and any problems they run into. The coordinators read these reports and make worksite visits two or three times per quarter, according to Bob Way, the director of co-op at Lane. Once in a while, instructors drop by to see students at work, as well.

At some colleges, like Lane and LaGuardia, students attend weekly seminars during their work terms. They chat about how they interact with supervisors or coworkers, adapt to employer expectations, and deal with problems. This way, they benefit from each other's experiences. Seminars like these are more common at community colleges, because their students usually work nearby. For the same reason, worksite visits might also occur more often at these schools. Students at all types of colleges may have to write a final report when the job is done.

After the work ends, students return to classes but now attend the lectures and read the books in a brighter light. Experience increases learning by revealing new questions, ideas, and views. Lori Mingus studied computer networking at Lane, and for her co-op job, she helped install a wide area network linking the computers in an entire school district. Instead of alternating terms of work and study, she shuttled between work and class daily. On the job, she thought about what she had learned in class; this helped her ask questions of coworkers and learn more. In the class, she pondered what she had learned at work. Again, this increased her grasp of the subject, proving for her that work and study reinforce each other.

All co-op students may experience what Mingus did in some way. The insight she gained on the job, however, affected her course work more than it does for the average student. "Because of my co-op work experience," she says, "I decided that a couple of the classes required for my degree weren't as appropriate for computer networking as some electronics classes would be." Enlightened with the knowledge only experience can teach, she convinced the college to let her swap classes.

When students come back to campus after a work term, they may talk to their coordinator. Some schools require this. Wilson thinks coordinators -- and faculty -- should have a strong role helping students reflect on their experience. Talking it over helps students understand what it means, so they can let that experience guide them towards future learning and the right career.

Why do career explorers benefit from the experience? As Way puts it, "You really don't know what you want to do until you've done it." Co-op lets students take a career out for a test drive to see if it suits them.

Tom Davila, a sociology major at Cincinnati State, works with kids at the Emanuel Community Center. Many come from troubled homes. Davila organizes activities for them and acts as a big brother they can talk to. He says this experience confirmed his desire for a career in social work. Similarly, Killoran has decided she will pursue graduate study in clinical psychology, in part because of her co-op assignment in a shelter for battered women.

Chris Allgier had a slightly different experience at Cincinnati State. He majored in chef technology. On his first co-op job, he discovered that he actually wanted to be a dietetic technician. He changed his major and did work relating to dietetics during the rest of his co-op days. Since graduating in the spring of 1996, he has worked happily in the career he chose.

"One of the greatest benefits of co-op," says Guest, "is not the work experience but the fact that the student finally has that feeling, `This is what I really want to do.'" She thinks the work usually confirms students' career plans, but she does recall a student who made a much sharper turn than Allgier. "He loved his employer," she says, "but he hated accounting, and he didn't realize that until he went to work."

After discussing the matter with Guest, the student decided he liked working with computers much more than keeping books. Soon after, he switched his major to business management information systems. Students like him save a lot of time and money. Less lucky students would finish an entire degree before starting their first job and learning that they hate their field.

More fortunate co-op students let their own carefully considered experiences direct them. When they return to work, the learning process starts over. What they learn in the next work experiences, however, depends partly on who they work for, and each co-op program influences this somewhat. Some programs encourage students to stick with the same employer all through school. Others suggest staying with an employer for at least two terms of work. Yet others invite student's to seek a variety of experience.

Graduate and Find the Job

Co-op creates a rich mixture by blending academic degrees with work experiences, but does it really fuel success in the labor market after college? There's some reason to think so. Co-op may help recent graduates obtain their first job because their co-op employers sometimes offer them permanent positions after college. If this does not happen, the grads still have solid work experience on their resumes, something all employers look for. Furthermore, some research supports claims about the economic benefits of co-op.

Like many of the approximately 50,000 participating U.S. employers, Weston & Sampson Engineers relies on co-op as part of its recruiting strategy. That's how Lee landed her job there after graduating from Northeastern. Having spent a year and a half as a co-op employee, Lee had plenty of chances to prove her abilities on the job. Some employers actually think of a student's work term as a paid job interview which lasts a few months. It enables employers to make more informed hiring decisions. As Peters says of Lee, "Her evaluations were exceptionally good, so there wasn't much doubt in our minds as to whether we were going to hire her."

All types of employers use co-op to recruit. In the private sector, 85 of the Fortune 100 companies (the top companies in the better known Fortune 500) employ co-op students, according to a survey recently done for the Directory of College Cooperative Education Programs. Many do so partly as a way of meeting long-term personnel needs, though sometimes companies just want temporary help.

In some cases, smaller companies depend on co-op for recruiting more than the corporate giants. Peters describes Weston & Sampson as a medium-sized firm, with 150 permanent employees and 3 or 4 co-op employees. He notes that larger firms can afford to do more training of new recruits. "The importance of co-op." he adds, "may be a little greater to a smaller firm. If it can get a co-op student who has some experience, it doesn't have to do as much training or teaching."

In the Federal Government, agencies employing co-op students can hire them upon graduation without the competition usually required for civil service. In the past, this made co-op a popular recruiting source, but Government downsizing and a rule change by the Office of Management and Budget have sharply curtailed co-op employment in recent years. According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Federal Government still employed 14,826 co-op students as of September 1994. After that, OPM merged cooperative education with other student work programs, so no more recent statistics are obtainable. For those who find co-op jobs in Federal agencies, it's still an inroad to permanent Federal employment.

The percent of graduating students not receiving job offers from former co-op employers varies among schools. Luckily, the many grads not snapped up by their co-op employers still benefit. Mingus did, and she knows why. "Not only did I have a 2-year degree to go look for work with," she says, "I had a year's worth of work experience in the field." That experience fortified her resume and gave her professional references. It also gave her confidence at job interviews. "Having proof about what you can do puts you at ease," she explains. Mingus easily found a job doing technical support for a small software maker.

Morgan did not receive an offer from his former co-op employer, either. IBM didn't turn him down, however. He declined to interview. Even though Morgan had a very positive co-op experience with the company, he decided to pursue programming work in a client-server environment instead of the technical support work he had done at IBM. By the time he earned his bachelor's degree in business management information systems, he had interviewed with 10 companies, received 2 firm job offers, and cultivated additional prospects as well.

All the co-op graduates portrayed here have tested co-op through their own personal experience. They're just a few people, but researchers have also put co-op to the test, studying outcomes for thousands of co-op graduates. The results are mixed. Some studies find that co-op grads have shorter job search times, receive slightly higher starting salaries, and advance more quickly compared to their nonco-op counterparts. Other studies fail to confirm such findings. On balance, though, the research lends modest support for these economic benefits.

Wilson views these findings in a broad context. Once a researcher and now the editor of The Journal of Cooperative Education, he speaks often of the less tangible benefits of co-op. He sees it as much more than a method of jacking up starting salary or finding a job a few weeks sooner than the average graduate. It's an avenue wide open for learning, and it fosters independence, maturity, and the ability to adapt. Co-op graduates don't always finish first in the workplace, but they've learned how to drive, they know where they're going, and they know how to get there.

Transfers and Career Changers

Cooperative education serves as a bridge between college and the workplace for the typical co-op student. But it can also serve as a bridge for people in other situations. Some students. like Alam and Davila, use it as a link from an associate's to a bachelor's degree. Others, like Mingus, use it to cross to a new career.

Alam emigrated from Bangladesh to the United States at age 20. He wanted a bachelor's degree but knew that a degree did not guarantee a good job. Some of his friends had bachelor's or even master's degrees but no work experience, and they had trouble finding work. As a result, Alam decided to try co-op at LaGuardia in 1985.

He studied computer science in class during the day and worked for IBM as a computer operator on the evening shift. He also did a 3-month tour with Chemical Bank, where he did COBOL programming. After that, he returned to IBM, which offered him a permanent job after he graduated. He took it.

While working at IBM, he attended evening classes at Teikyo Post University in Waterbury, Connecticut. He finished his bachelor's degree in management information systems in 1993. Now a systems analyst, Alam concludes that his 2 years in a co-op program gave him the best start toward a bachelor's he could have had. For him, the co-op experience led to a job that enabled him to earn enough to finish his journey.

It's not just engineers or computer pros like Alam who find co-op a bridge to further education. Davila is counting on that. He wants a master's in social work but knows he can't do it all at once, so he adopted a plan similar to the one Alam used. The community center Davila worked for as a co-op student hired him as a permanent employee before graduation. After completing his Associate of Arts program, he expects the job to carry him toward the next degree down the road.

Cooperative education suits some career changers because their previous employment experience inclines them toward hands-on learning. Maintaining an income while crossing from one career to another is also vital for many students, such as unemployed workers with families. Co-op bridges offer options for career changers, even those in unusual or extreme situations. Lane, for example, offers individualized co-op for injured workers to prepare them for something new.

Mingus suffered no physical injury, but when her husband abandoned her and their four children, she felt the sting of change. At first, she went on welfare and worked as a bartender to support the children. After graduating from high school in 1975, she had performed many jobs. She had assembled and packaged products, operated machines, sold jewelry, and even run a small business, among other things. Now, she needed a new career that could pay the bills -- and fast.

"I decided I needed a degree to prove my abilities," she says. "I was talented and skilled, but nobody believed me." She concluded that a degree from a co-op program might do the convincing. It would at least let her continue earning money while she was earning her degree. At the beginning of 1996, Mingus finished her associate's in computer networking after 2 1/2 years of co-op work and study. Shortly after obtaining her current job, she helped install a new local area network for her firm. Her employer made her network administrator after seeing what co-op had taught her.

An Executive's Summary

Besides being chairman of the board of directors at The Segal Company, Krinsky also chairs the board of trustees at Antioch University. As someone who has scanned through the resumes of graduates and made hiring decisions, Krinsky stresses the need for students to gain some experience at work. "Cooperative education isn't the only way of getting this kind of experience," he says, "but it's sort of an automatic way. If you go to a college that doesn't have cooperative education, you probably have to work harder at finding those experiences, but if you do, that's also good."

Onward to Information

If traveling the workways of cooperative education appeals to you, find out more from the nearest career counselor. The organizations listed below also provide information.

Cooperative Education Division (American Society for Engineering Education) c/o Ms. Mary Jo Fairbanks Director of Cooperative Education Syracuse University, 367 Link Hall Syracuse, NY 13244-1240 (315) 443-4345; fax (315) 443-4655 E-mail:

Cooperative Education Association (CEA) 8640 Guilford Rd., Suite 215 Columbia, MD 21046 Phone (410) 290-3666 Fax (410) 290-7084

CEA offers the following services:

* Database searches to identify co-op schools meeting the criteria specified by an individual student at no charge.

* Fax-on-demand service: Receive by fax a 2-page article entitled, "Secure Your Place Through Cooperative Education." Call (503) 402-1307 from a touchtone phone and select item 300. Have your fax number handy when you call.

* Community College Resource Guide. Brief descriptions of 65 co-op programs at 2-year and community colleges. 53 pp.

National Commission for Cooperative Education (NCCE) 360 Huntington Ave., 384CP Boston, MA 02115-5096 Phone: (617) 373-3770 Fax: (617) 373-3463 E-mail: Web page:

NCCE offers these publications:

* Student/Parent Guide to Cooperative Education. Booklet describing the benefits and operation of cooperative education which includes a roster of more than 300 colleges offering co-op. Free, 21 pp.

* Free brochures describing the advantages of co-op.

* Directory of College Cooperative Education Programs. Profiles 461 co-op colleges listed by State and indexed by institution name and degree programs offering co-op. May be available in libraries or high school guidance offices. Cost is $49.95. To order, call Oryx Press at 1 (800) 279-6799.

Table 1 Median Monthly Salaries of Co-op Employees at the Associate's Degree Level in the Midwest by Major, 1993(1)
 Median monthly salary
 Starting Ending
All business $1,183 $1,320
Accounting 1,204 1,364
Banking and finance 1,360 1,440
Secretarial sciences 1,126 1,216
Business, management, agribusiness 1,161 1,320
Data processing 1,204 1,290
Hospitality and hotel and food management 1,226 1,469
Sales, marketing, and merchandising 1,161 1,400
Engineering and related
All engineering and related 1,275 1,429
Automotive services 1,060 1,188
Civil and construction 1,204 1,420
Drafting and design 1,202 1,256
Electrical and electronic 1,440 1,591
Mechanical and mechanics 1,371 1,548
Graphics and commercial art 1,161 1,292
Medical, nursing and related 1,393 1,613
Criminal justice and law enforcement 1,591 2,000

(1) The survey included schools in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Source: 1993 Cooperative Education Student Employee Salary & Benefits Survey (Midwest Region), Wayne State University.

Table 2 Median Monthly Salaries of Co-op Employees at the Bachelor's Degree Level in the Midwest by Major, 1993(1)
 Median monthly salary
Major Starting Ending
All business $1,337 $1,621
Accounting 1,360 1,640
Banking and finance 1,380 1,562
Management 1,238 1,548
Management information systems 1,396 1,793
Marketing 1,290 1,548
Humanities and social sciences
All humanities and social sciences 1,069 1,443
Humanities 1,079 1,548
Social sciences 1,061 1,364
All sciences 1,321 1,633
Agriculture 1,336 1,290
Biological 1,413 1,800
Computer science 1,406 1,832
Chemistry 1,462 2,040
Mathematics 1,400 1,829
Physics 1,400 1,850
All engineering 1,562 1,988
Chemical 1,664 2,193
Civil 1,400 1,672
Electrical, electronic, and computer 1,624 2,064
Industrial 1,575 2,000
Mechanical 1,585 2,039
Engineering technology (all types) 1,396 1,735
Architecture 1,119 1,473
Economics 1,400 1,470
Nursing and allied health 1,400 1,708
Criminal justice 1,400 1,500

(1) The survey included schools in Illinois, Indiana Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota. Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Source: 1993 Cooperative Education Student Employee Salary & Benefits Survey (Midwest Region), Wayne State University.
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Author:Mariani, Matthew
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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