A cooperative education program, commonly known as a co op program, is an educational experience which blends academic training with work experience at a particular employer.
Unlike an internship, a true co op student will often remain with the same employer over a longer period of time, potentially advancing to a higher level co op assignment. For example, you could start your first semester as an assistant, similar to a traditional internship, and be given responsibilities as a junior technician as you learn.
The intent of a co op program is to prepare you for a job in that field during your work term, so you are employable once you finish your co op course at the university. This is useful for fields where there is substantial body of applied knowledge which cannot be easily delivered in a classroom setting.
Is Co Op Employment Paid Work?
Unlike many internships, many co op programs are paid jobs. This is because it is expected that higher level co op students are performing the same type of work a full time professional would do, albeit with additional supervision. Most pay competitive wages for the level of the student.
Co Op programs are frequently found in engineering and technical fields. Most college career services groups have specific standards for a co op credit (ask for your school’s co op requirements). Talk to your career advisor.
Why Do a Co Op Program?
The ultimate goal of a co op position is to prepare the student for a career in that field. To that end, these can offer valuable work experience, references, and a “brand name” to help your job search. You may receive academic credit as well.
From the perspective of an employer, investing in co op programs provides an opportunity to ensure there is a ready supply of workers with the skills that your industry needs. It is also an opportunity to connect with high potential talent early in their careers, enabling you to build relationships and recruit the best prospects directly to your team.
How is a Co Op Program different from Internship Programs?
So the bad news is… employers have a bad habit of using these terms interchangeably. So be very careful to ask about the details and expectations of a co op program before you apply.
That being said, most internship programs are short – often a single summer or semester. An ambitious student will rotate through multiple internships over the course of their college career, allowing them to “try on” a couple of different career options and broaden their skills. For example, my internships included direct sales (door to door), scientific publishing, and finally a corporate business development analyst role. Not really a simple or consistent path.
A proper co op program should move you along a path towards learning “the craft”. You will likely be returning to the same co op employer multiple times as you progress through the program. In software, you may start in testing or data “housekeeping” during your initial term. Once you understand how the process works, you may advance to building components of a working software application in your later terms. Finally, you might be asked to get involved in gathering user requirements and building use cases in your final term, giving you perspective on the social side of the craft. By the end of your co op program, you will have learned the fundamental skills of being a professional software engineer and will be fully trained to perform in an entry level engineering role.
The latter will carry a lot more weight with prospective employers, since you truly have “done the job” at a higher level and demonstrated greater commitment to the craft. When you are done with the academic program, you will have a year or more of work experience on your resume.
And that’s paid work experience, by the way. While there are many unpaid internship opportunities, most co op students are doing “real and valuable work” and are paid for their services. (Unpaid co op programs may, in fact, be a violation of labor laws, since it would be hard to justify the student is the “primary beneficiary” of the more advanced work typically given to a co op student). Co op earnings are taxable and could affect financial aid, so make sure you fill out the appropriate forms…