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Cooperative education: working towards your future.

College costs continue to rise. Pressure to choose the right career grows. Employers look for talent, drive, and experience. What's a student to do'?

Try co-op.

Last year, more than 200,000 college students did. They worked as accountants, engineers, newspaper reporters, and physical therapy assistants as well as in many other jobs. Then they returned to the classroom armed with the knowledge that only experience teaches and with money in the bank to pay their bills.

Education Plus Work Equals Co-0p Co-Op is short for cooperative education, a program that links the classroom with the workplace to provide an education with career relevance. Many students make career decisions with little practical experience. "That's why co-op is a very powerful idea," says Dr. James Wilson, director of the Cooperative Education Research Center at Northeastern University "It offers an education with long-term implications." For the fortunate few who have a clear idea of what kind of work they would like to do, co-op provides a chance to get real experience before they graduate. For students who are unsure about their future career, co-op can be a tool for discovery, an opportunity to test their interests, aptitudes, and abilities in a variety of jobs. Co-op builds on the partnership between students, schools, and employers. All share the responsibility to make the program work; all benefit from its successes.

Dr. Herman Schneider, an engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati, introduced the idea in 1906. He believed that practical experience would not only help his students in the classroom but would advance their professional prospects as well. Other universities soon initiated co-op programs on their campuses. In 1909, Northeastern University in Boston opened its engineering school and incorporated co-op into the curriculum; the University of Detroit followed suit in 1911. Antioch College instituted co-op in its liberal arts program in 1921. Today, co-op programs are booming. Since 1970, when 150 colleges and universities offered co-op, the number has increased sevenfold, to over 1,000. Schools adapt co-op to their particular needs and programs; the adaptations vary but the basic principle remains constant-to integrate college studies with work assignments to provide an education with career relevance.

Co-op should not be confused with simply working your way through college. Nearly all colleges offer workstudy programs to help their students pay for their schooling. Internships, which give students the chance to work in a job related to their academic interests, are widely available as well. But work-study jobs generally provide only a paycheck with no career relevance. Internships offer relevance but frequently no paycheck, last for a term or less, and usually occur at the end of a college career. Cooperative education provides the best of both-resources and relevance-in a systematic approach to career development.

Co-Op Programs

If you're interested in co-op, you have many different options to choose from. There are 2-year, 4-year, and 5-year coop programs offered in practically every academic field. Two-year programs are found in community and junior colleges, which account for slightly more than 40 percent of the co-op programs around the country, These schools generally employ a parallel classroom/work schedule; participating students spend part of the day in class and the remainder with their co-op employer. Most participating colleges and universities offer co-op on an optional basis with students alternating terms or semesters in the classroom with work assignments. In these programs, students may spend two or three terms working during their 4 years at the school. Some universities offer 5-year programs. Students spend 3 to 6 months at a time altemating between school and co-op assignments. They graduate with a traditional 4-year education augmented by 2 or 3 years of work experience.

In nearly all schools that offer coop, a professional staff manages the program. In those that don't have a separate co-op department, the responsibility rests with one of the academic departments, such as engineering. Coop administrators recruit employer participants, help students determine their academic and career objectives, and monitor their progress through the program.

College Credit for Co-Op Work

More than two-thirds of the country's co-op programs award academic credit for co-op. Each program determines how this credit is distributed. At the University of Detroit, which requires participating students to complete three co-op terms, students earn three credits per term. At Antioch College, where all students co-op, students earn 1 credit per co-op term; 6 are required to graduate.

Awarding academic credit for co-op emphasizes the educational value of the experience and highlights the important role the faculty plays in establishing a strong program. "Faculty support is vital to a successful program," says Bob Way, cooperative education director at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, "and that support does not always come easily" Traditionally, some of the strongest opposition to cooperative education has come from college and university faculty concemed by the "vocationalization" of the college curriculum.

Michael Gorden has frequently faced these faculty concerns. As director of the Northwest Cooperative Education Center, a regional training center located at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington, Gordon travels through the region promoting co-op. He says, "Faculty members frequently argue that 'we shouldn't give credit for work.' I respond that they don't give credit for simply sitting in class either. It's applying the principles that earns the credit. Science classes have labs to test theory The workplace is a living laboratory for learning." Dr. James Wilson at Northeastern University also argues that "the criticism of co-op education as vocational is not valid. Co-op improves students' attitudes and skills irrespective of vocation and enhances their academic performance."

Schools adopt different methods to strengthen the link between the workplace and the classroom. At the University of Detroit, students must obtain the permission of their faculty advisor to participate in co-op. The co-op experience must be related to the student's classroom work. To complement their experience, students are assigned a topic related to their work, research it, and then write a final report or paper that is graded by their advisor.

At American University, in Washington, D.C., faculty advisors review and approve job descriptions and then work with the students to develop an academic component that will help them assess the learning during an assignment. Erin Scully, a senior at American University majoring in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis in govemment, co-ops with the American Society for Training and Development, where she works as a national affairs intern. She keeps track of legislation, writes briefing papers, and does "a lot of reading." This year, she helped organize the society's annual conference.

For the co-op program at American University, she says, she had to present "a portfolio of all my work, write a 5page paper on the organization, its programs and goals, and a 10-page paper on any personal insights or changes that occurred." Additionally, the university requires each co-op student to keep a daily journal during the coop term.

Lane Community College, a nationally recognized innovator in co-op education, has more than 2,000 students participating in co-op, nearly 65 percent of the student body "We require that students keep a log or journal during their co-op job, and, usually, they write a final paper," says Bob Way, the program director. His staff includes 40 coordinators who monitor students in each of the academic programs, or departments, in which co-op is offered. Each of these coordinators is housed with the department's faculty rather than in the co-op office. Says Way, "That helps the faculty see co-op as an integral part of the Lane community"

Preparation Before Participation

In most co-op programs, coordinators serve as liaison between students and employers, handling job development and placement in particular fields. At Drexel University's Center for Cooperative Education, for example, 18 coordinators, each working in a specific academic area, usually provide counsel throughout a student's stay in the program. This relationship enables a coordinator to make the best match between students and employers.

Before any matches are made, students must demonstrate a commitment to their studies. Generally, students must have at least a C average and eam 30 academic credits before they can coop.

Most schools also require that students take career preparation prior to co-oping. Job hunting demands certain skills, too. The University of Detroit requires all students to take a Career Training Preparation course, which includes workshops in self-assessment, interviewing, and resume writing. Robert Stromayer, the Dean of the university's program, says, "We feel that one of the skills students should acquire is the ability to market themselves." The coop program at American University also offers a career development course. Taught by faculty members and geared to particular disciplines, the course has two objectives: That students define one or more careers related to their major; and that they develop an outline of a 4-year curriculum that will help them prepare for the careers they identify. Job- skill workshops supplement the course. Jennifer Hunt, a veteran of two co-op jobs, finds this preparation valuable. She says, "I think I'm far ahead of my friends at other schools who haven't participated in co-op. Some of them have never written a resume. I'm on my fourth version."

Students, get the chance to test these skills when they interview with employers who participate in their school's coop program. Nancy Tumblom, director of personnel for Gayle Research, Inc., a Detroit publishing company, likes what she finds. "We've employed co-op students for 6 years and have had a long string of successes. The students know how to interview They are practiced and polished," she says.

What Students Gain

Many co-op education professionals are reluctant to tout the financial benefits of co-op. To them the monetary advantages are secondary to the educational value of co-op. "Also, I guess the feeling exists that maybe it's not exactly polite to talk about money," says John Dromgoole, Vice President for Training with the National Commission on Cooperative Education. "But," he adds, "in days of rising college costs, co-op is a marvelous idea." The figures point out how true that is. In 1986, average earnings per co-op student were more that $7,000. "In all, co-op students earned nearly $2 billion," says Dr. Stan Patterson, program specialist for cooperative education with the Department of Education. "And," he continues, "they paid more than $250 million in taxes and Social Security That's quite a return on the $14 million that the Federal Government spent to support these programs."

Many co-op students and graduates will say the financial benefits of co-op first attracted them to the program. But most will acknowledge that the experience has more significant implications. "The principal reason at first was the money," says Maria Di Mare, an assistant account executive with Saatchi, Saatchi, D F S Compton, an advertising agency headquartered in New York. "But," she hastens to add, "there's no way I would have gotten this job without co-op."

As a business student at Northeastem University, Di Mare was unsure which direction to take. She had a clearer picture of what she didn't want to do. "Sales and marketing didn't appeal to me. My co-op advisor suggested advertising," she says. She interviewed with several firms before finding a position at Saatchi.

Her first term at the agency wasn't to her liking. "I worked as a 'floater' doing a lot of odd jobs for a soap opera that the agency was producing," she says. "The work wasn't too satisfying." After a second co-op term with a temporary employment agency, she accepted another position with Saatchi. Her retum coincided with the arrival of a new company president, Ed Wax, a co-op graduate himself, who understood the potential of the program. "Employers," he says, "have the responsibility totrain a co-op employee. It pays off. If you handle it right, you have a great employee who's miles ahead." He and Maria devised a plan designed to expose her to every facet of the business. She started in the mailroom and worked through nearly every office. She graduated from Northeastem in May 1987 and, after a summer off, returned to the office she now occupies at Saatchi.

Many co-op students find that, as with Ms. Di Mare, their experiences lead directly to a job after graduation. Statistics developed by the National Commission on Co-op Education show that 40 percent of co-op students continue working for their co-op employers when they graduate. Another 40 percent find work in fields related to their co-op job, and 15 percent go on to graduate and professional school.

Several studies have also shown that co-op graduates, by virtue of their experience, command higher starting salaries and are promoted more rapidly than students without a co-op background. Additionally, statistics show that co-oping has a positive effect on students while they are still in school. Co-op students are more likely to complete their college studies than other students. A series of studies conducted in the 1970's found that co-op students scored higher on Graduate Record Examination achievement tests. One study found that "small but statistically reliable differences in grades between coop and non-co-op students were found to favor co-op students."

"My work at Saatchi definitely affected my performance in the classroom; it helped me become a better student," says Maria. Her experiences helped her develop a class schedule suited to her new interests. And, she says, many of her classmates did the same thing. "After the first co-op term, many people switched their classes and began to make educational decisions based upon their work experiences."

The effect of co-oping on Maria and her classmates helps to counter an argument that some faculty skeptics of co-op raise, namely that a student who co-ops might not return to school. "There is no evidence to support that," says Roy Wooldridge, Vice President for Co-op at Northeastem University "If anything, co-op increases retention because the students are able to relate their experiences to the classroom. They usually retum to the classroom with increased motivation."

Dr James Wilson would agree. He asserts that some of the most important benefits of co-op can be the attitudes that students bring back to the classroom. Wilson says that "co-op does enhance academic performance. Co-op students, on average, eam more academic credits than non-co-ops."

Payoffs in Experience

Motivation may be hard to measure, but one benefit of co-op is certain: Experience. John Blaum, a civil engineering major at Northeastem, has worked for six co-op terms with Camp, Dresser, and McKee, an international engineering firm based in Boston. During his first term, he helped design a sewage and drainage system for Amherst, Massachusetts. Recently, he's been working on a water treatment project for Cairo, Egypt, and he expects soon to be doing some industrial design work. Co-op studies in engineering at Northeastem are a 5-year program. Some of his friends at other schools grimace at the thought of an extra year. "It doesn't seem like a long time, and I believe that it really has helped me. I could never have gotten the breadth or depth of experience in a 4-year program," he says.

Engineering is the focus at Camp, Dresser, and McKee, but, as in every successful company, it employs professionals in a wide variety of fields. Leslie Blank works in the company's Human Resources Division. Before coming to the company, she had worked three co-op temis with the Bank of Boston and a stint with GTE-Sylvania. "Here, I'm doing a little bit of everything. I do employment interviews, benefits, and, lately, I've been working in the college relations section arranging schedules for campus interviews," she says. She's still undecided about her future career but is positive about the benefits of co-op. "I'm comfortable in the workplace," she says. "I know what expectations companies have of their employees. I like to be able to rely upon myself, and co-op has helped me develop that confidence."

Tom Medlin, an accounting major, helps manage the company's books. When he began the program, he says, he "was not very school oriented, but my motivation was increased by my work experiences." Tom was attracted to co-op because he wanted to eam money for school, "My family would have helped me, but it was something I wanted to do myself," he says. "Coop has taught me things that you can't learn in a book." Like his other class

mates at Northeastern, he is in the 5year program and glad of it. "My friends who've graduated from other schools are now in their first jobs. But they had no real experience to offer Even after working a year, I don't think they'll match my experience."

Co-op, of course, can't answer all of a student's questions about careers. But, even if students complete their co-op job without a firm idea of what sort of career they would like to pursue, many leave with an increased confidence in themselves and a clearer idea of what the working world is like. A 1980 study found that a "significantly higher proportion of seniors who had co-oped were more confident in their career choices than seniors who hadn't." Research published in 1984 showed that recent co-op grads have more realistic expectations for their first job after graduation than do non-co-op grads.

Bonnie Steinkamp, a systems analyst for Weyerhaeuser Information Systems in Tacoma, Washington, shares that view While she was a student, Bonnie co-oped with Weyerhaeuser during her junior year and worked for the company the following summer After graduation she was hired as a systems analyst. "Co-op really gave me a leg up," she says. A business major with a minor in computer science, she had a strong technical background. Her experience gave her the chance to put those skills to work and, she says, "provided a realistic view of the workplace." Now she supervises several new co-op students at Weyerhaeuser

New Careers for Career Changers

The increase in the number of community colleges in the 1970's helped contribute to the growth of cooperative education. The variety of students who participate in co-op at these schools demonstrates the wide appeal of the programs. Many of the students in the community college programs are older than those found in university programs. "Most of our students are career changers," says Pat Rheams, director of cooperative education at Northern Virginia Community College. "Many have bachelor's degrees and master's degrees in other fields. Some are underemployed, some underchallenged, and some burned out in other careers. Some women are professionals who've been out of the workforce to raise their children. We get a lot of teachers, nurses, musicians, retired military, and military spouses. They find that co-op is one of the few ways to break into the technical workplace in the highly competitive Washington market." At Northern Virginia, co-op is offered in two dozen fields. The most popular are business and computer science.

Rebecca Pietz is a graduate of the co-op program at Northem Virginia. She earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Virginia Tech and worked for several years as a medical sociologist. As a single parent, sh"felt that she needed some additional training or skills to support her family," so she enrolled in the computer science program at Northern Virginia. "I had been a co-op student at Tech; when I went to Northern Virginia, I headed straight for the co-op office." Now she works for a computer consulting firm, where one of her duties is managing the company's extensive co-op program. For her, co-op provided the education and experience necessary to open the door to a new career.

The commercial art program at Northem Virginia attracted Karin Shipman. A native of Germany, she had studied art there and in Switzerland. After raising her family, she decided to go back to work. "I took courses in commercial art and advertising design to refresh my memory," she says. While in school, she co-oped with the school's graphic arts department. "The job helped me build my portfolio." Without it, she wouldn't have been able to show prospective employers the variety of her skills. On completing the program, she received several job offers and was hired as a commercial artist by a local firm. Within a year, she opened her own business, the Studio Grafik.

People change careers for many reasons. Gary Carlson had worked as a State policeman for several years before becoming a heavy equipment operator for a Colorado mining company A couple of years ago, he suffered a disabling injury on the job. He and his rehabilitation counselor began to explore new career options and found what they were looking for in the Water Quality Management Program at Red Rocks Community College in Golden, Colorado. He's confident that the education and experience he's receiving will lead to a challenging new career in the water-starved Southwest.

In Carlson's first co-op job, he worked with the city's utilities department. He combined his training as a police officer and the skills he learned in school to help develop a program for monitoring and controlling violations of water regulations during the dry summer months. Through the system he and his supervisor devised, more than 350 summonses were issued. Their actions helped ease city water shortages. In his second co-op job, he'll be taking a position at the college's Environmental Quality Center, operating a pilot wastewaier treatment center. "I'm 100 percent behind the program at Red Rock," says Gary.

Employers: Participation Brings Benefits

"Co-op has been a boon to the company," says Joseph Heany, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Camp, Dresser, and McKee. "We've been on a long growth curve for the last 35 years, growing from 12 employees to over 2,000. Co-op has been an important part of that growth." Mr. Heany speaks from the perspective not only of a manager but of a co-op graduate himself. "It opened the door to my career," he says. Today, 6 out of 13 board members of the company are co-op graduates. "My predecessor as chairman was a co-op grad," says Heany, "and so is my likely successor."

Camp, Dresser, and McKee is only one of the nearly 80,000 employers across the country that have co-op students on their payrolls. The Federal Govemment employs the most; in 1986, more than 16,000 students worked for a variety of departments and agencies. In the private sector, IBM sets the pace with about 5,000 students. Most co-op employers are smaller businesses that employ one or two students.

Since she opened her commercial art studio, Karin Shipman has regularly employed a co-op student. Her reasons are the same as Uncle Sam's and IBM's. "It makes good sense," she says. "When you take in co-op students, you have the responsibility to teach and to train them. If you're prepared for that responsibility, you'll benefit from it."

Participating employers and schools frequently sign formal agreements which list each party's responsibilities. For example, employers will agree to hire students for positions that offer students a real opportunity to learn and contribute. Schools, for their part, agree to provide a selection of candidates with the basic qualifications needed to fill a job.

The Army Corps of Engineers employs many students throughout the country David Chapman supervises the co-op program for the corps' Huntington district in Huntington, West Virginia. "We sign cooperative agreements with each of the participating schools in the district," says Chapman.

Additionally, the corps also signs training agreements with the students. "We sit down with each student and help the student decide the objectives and goals of each assignment," he says, adding, "We have a very high opinion of the program. It's good for us and good for the student. It provides us with a good temporary staff, many of whomwill go on to become permanent employees."

Employers participate because they benefit from the program. The immediate benefit "is a proven program for finding qualified people for entry level jobs," says Deborah Angel, co-op program manager at Weyerhaeuser Information Services. Once a co-op student herself at the University of Puget Sound, Ms. Angel has managed Weyerhaeuser's program for 3 1/2 years. She's compiled a list of benefits that co-op programs offer employers: 1) a chance to evaluate candidates in our own environment; 2) increase retention of new employees; 3) provide better access to qualified women and minorities; 4) allow for flexible staffing to meet flexible needs; 5) enable a more effective use of highpaid staff; and 6) provide low-risk supervisory experience for present employees. In addition to these benefits, says Ms. Angel, co-op students bring "fresh ideas, high energy, motivation, and productivity" She adds that nearly 10 percent of Weyerhaeuser's present work force were co-op students.

Many of the employers interviewed for this article cite similar reasons for their participation in cooperative education programs. Companies with a brief exposure to co-op as well as those with a long history of participation are pleased with their successes. MICROSOF-r, the computer software manufacturer, began a program in June of 1987. "The program is so new that we really can't judge its effectiveness yet," says Marlyse Bonnell, the coordinator of the program, "but things have gone very smoothly so far." Bonnell had 6 weeks to get the program underway. She contacted several universities in the Pacific Northwest, and they followed through quickly "We are particularly pleased with the screening process that schools employ before sending us candidates. All the candidates have been well qualified."

IBM's co-op program has been in operation for more than 10 years. "Competition for the top students is increasing. Co-op gives us a good selling point," says Sally Odle, IBM's Manager of Employment and Recruitment Administration. "The word from our managers is that we get top quality people who do good work."

Co-op provides big advantages for a small company whose recruitment budget matches its size. Nancy Turnblom, Personnel Director for Gayle Research, says that co-op is a boon for companies that can't afford to go far afield to recruit. It's also helpful for businesses that need particular kinds of employees. Gayle publishes reference works, such as the Encylopedia of Associations and the Directory of Directories. "Detroit is not a big publishing town. But the schools provide us with outstanding talent. And," she says, "co-op students bring certain intangibles with them, enthusiasm and motivation that provide a spark for us all."

Some Final Words

Dr. James Wilson of the Cooperative Education Center admits that some criticisms of co-op do arise. "On occasion, students may not get particularly good job assignments, but that is not the norm." And, he says, "Some programs may get caught working with only one employer," leaving themselves open to charges of vocationalization. But he asserts that the gauge of success is the students who participate in co-op. "If the measure of success in college is positive change and maturation, then co-op is a success."

Learning More About Co-Oping

Nearly all of the schools that offer co-op provide materials that describe their programs in detail. If you're planning to attend college, contact the schools that interes you for their information. The best general guide to co-op programs is the Co-op Education Undergraduate Program Directory, plublished by the National Commission for Cooperative Education. The directory lists, by State, the schools offering co-op, the academic fields in which co-op, the academic fields in which co-op is available, and the addresses and phone numbers for the sponsoring office. If you're already in college, check with the placement office or career center about co-op opportunities on your campus.

To obtain the directory and other related materials, write:

National Commission

for Cooperative Education

350 Huntington Avenue

Boston, MA 02115-5005
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Author:Stanton, Michael
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 1988
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