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Cooperative Education Programs and Engineering

There's a resounding "Made in America" sentiment throughout the United States these days. Nothing echoes it more than cooperative education programs.

There’s a resounding “Made in America” echo throughout the United States these days. National television networks dedicate primetime news stories to the concept, and communities recruit their neighbors to support it. A consumer sentiment of “Made in America” makes perfect sense as the unemployment rate continues to flutter and U.S. workers are increasingly vocal about their need for sustainable jobs.

But how do you prepare the next generation for a “Made in America” economy, especially for the top-paying jobs in technology and engineering? Here’s one suggestion: professional cooperative education (co-op).

“Co-op has come of age again,” says Dr. W.L. Scheller, department head of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan. “Co-op isn’t new among engineering students. What has stepped up is that business and industry executives are hungry for competent, young talent on quick learning curves. The marketplace demands it.” Scheller advises prospective students and their families to explore the strong hiring potential and salaries that experiential learning and co-op can provide.

“College graduates who have participated in co-op are further ahead in the marketplace,” Scheller says. “They are usually more mature than their peers, command higher starting salaries, and advance more quickly in the early years of their careers.” Generally speaking, the more time a graduate has spent at a co-op job, the more he or she experiences these advantages. “And jobs in engineering are plentiful in comparison to most other professions,” Scheller adds.

What is co-op?

Co-op, or cooperative education, is an educational model where work experience is integrated into the student’s academic program. Bob Nichols, Director of External Relations at Kettering, says professional co-op is better known in the East and Midwest portions of the United States than it is in the West. “Hardly anyone knows about co-op west of the Mississippi,” he says. Nichols suggests the words “co-op” and “internship” not be interchanged. “Typically, internships are shorter in duration, and an intern may or may not be paid. Professional co-op experiences are usually recurring, can range from a summer co-op to two and a half years, and—most importantly—professional co-op jobs are always paid,” Nichols says. “The goal is to link today’s companies with tomorrow’s talent.” 

A program offering a true co-op experience assists students in finding placement with a company in a paying position in the student’s field of study. Different from an internship, co-op programs have work experience incorporated into the academic curriculum, and the level of learning increases as the student progresses. The student can also expect to alternate between work and school for a period of time.

Co-op experiences often begin in a student’s junior year and provide a total of six to 12 months of work. This can extend the student’s college program to five or more years. (Keep in mind, program requirements vary.) For example, Kettering University’s cooperative education model begins work experiences as early as the freshman year, provides two and a half years of paid co-op salaries to offset college expenses, and helps students develop a professional network for their job search.

Key factors for prospective students and their families to consider when looking at co-op programs include:

  • How many months and semesters of co-op experience occur during the undergraduate program?
  • What level of institutional support is given to co-op? Is there a dedicated co-op office and staff?
  • How much will co-op earnings contribute toward tuition and other college expenses?
  • What services will the institution provide to the student to find, maintain, or, if necessary, change co-op jobs?
  • Does the institution actively solicit partnerships with businesses, or are students left to work by themselves?

The employer’s perspective

Paul Peabody, who spent 30 years as the CIO at Michigan’s Beaumont Hospitals, is a strong co-op advocate. He watched as co-op grew from “a conceptual experiment” in Beaumont’s IT department into a solid business decision. “It proved to be positive for Beaumont, our IT staff, and the co-op students,” says Peabody, who is now CIO at Palomar Pomerado Health in San Diego.

Peabody tapped diverse academic majors for the hospital, including students in industrial engineering, computer science, and management degree programs. “These bright young people contributed substantially during their college tenure. Many decided to become full-time employees upon graduation, which provided a continuing source
of immediately productive talent,” he says.

The student’s perspective

James MacClaren, a mechanical engineering major from Davison, Michigan, says co-op adds perks to his student job at Delta Airlines in Minneapolis. “The best part for me is learning firsthand about the airline industry, which I’ve wanted to be a part of since I was a kid,” MacClaren says.

“And then,” he adds, “there’s my flight benefit, which lets me travel the world.” MacClaren has day-tripped to Hollywood, traveled to Phoenix for golf, and met his friends in Las Vegas. “I’ve also been able to explore Europe and Australia,” he says. “How many college seniors do you know who get to experience the ins and outs of their industry and tour the world?”

Alexander Masters, a business major from Flushing, Michigan, says co-op prepares business students to become emerging leaders in new and existing industries. “Your professors should be industry experts, with insight and real-world application of theory and knowledge,” Masters says. “Co-op students are more than just interns—they are an integral part of daily operations with co-op employers.

“Co-op creates a business environment for students to have the knowledge and willingness to become an asset to any company,” Masters says. “I encourage those who are shopping for a college to consider one that specializes in co-op.”

Computer engineering major Isaac Meadows agrees. “Classroom training alone is unlikely to imbue a student with the understanding necessary to plan and pursue an optimal career,” the senior from Longview, Texas, says. “Job titles like software developer, hardware designer, test systems engineer, calibration engineer, applications engineer, systems development engineer, automation engineer, and many more bespeak a bewildering variety of disciplines and specializations. Cooperative education is a compelling way to let students discover how industry works and how your student will fit into it.”

Meadows says co-op is particularly helpful for students who want to explore computer engineering. “They may work as programmers or systems engineers in a modern manufacturing plant, a precisely programmed behemoth that never sleeps. Still others may take jobs in information systems, turning raw data into valuable information and making it available and applicable in innovative ways. These opportunities and more enable students to better plan their career path by letting them experience the challenges, stresses, and rewards of a particular job while comparing it with the experiences of those around them at work and school.

“For me,” Meadows adds, “cooperative education has proven to be an experience of great personal growth. It has been challenging, but it has also been constructive, exciting, and deeply rewarding. I am well prepared for my career goal, which is to be the CEO of an engineering or technology company someday.”

Co-op advice

Nichols says the best path to a good job is work experience. “What is the #1 thing employers want? Experience! Co-op is the answer,” he says. “Experiential learning gives students both experience and active, hands-on career exploration opportunities. It’s ideal for helping students blend their interests with what they want to do
for the rest of their careers,” Nichols says.

Co-op programs have many benefits, Nichols says, such as allowing students to earn good wages that offset educational costs. “It also gives your student an opportunity to develop a positive reputation at the company they work for, while gaining up to two and a half years professional work experience before they graduate.

“[Students] can then take that experience anywhere in the country or the world,” Nichols says. “That’s why we see top graduates earning more than $100,000 just a few years out of our university.”

Nichols concludes by saying that there is a pent up demand to hire Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) graduates in today’s job market. “Demand exceeds supply in the marketplace, especially for engineers, scientists, and technical workers. The high-paying STEM jobs will be a great place to look for employment for many years to come.”

To read more about cooperative and work-integrated education, visit www.co-op.edu.

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