An editorial in The Globe and Mail on Saturday, May 8, 2015 by David McKay, President and CEO of Royal Bank of Canada got me thinking about the challenges faced by young people looking for work. Entitled “For students and employers, co-op education is a bridge to a wider world“, McKay presents a strong case for the co-op education he acquired at the University of Waterloo in the early 1980s.
Although it’s been several years since I hired students while working for one of Canada’s top employers (EllisDon Corporation), it seems things haven’t changed all that much. Although I’m not in a position to speak on their behalf now, I clearly remember the factors we took into consideration when hiring students who were predominantly from engineering programs. Interestingly, top marks were not a determining factor in the recruiting process, although excellent marks definitely helped. Employers are looking for individuals who have a combination of that something special—strong interpersonal skills, a high energy level and a knack for creative thinking and problem solving.
Co-op programs also offer employers a number of benefits not available in the traditional semester system. For example, the ability to hire students to start a work term in September or January is extremely valuable. Construction is a year-round business with new projects frequently breaking ground in the fall and winter. The ability to place students for work terms during these off-times not only helps employers, it gives students a leg-up by reducing the number of young people competing for jobs in April and May by spreading hiring throughout the year.
When I worked for EllisDon, we recruited from a wide range of colleges and universities but University of Waterloo, Fanshawe College and George Brown College students were particularly valued for their relevant experience in the field. Instead of spending summers working at McDonald’s or cutting lawns (also important and not to be underestimated experience), the Waterloo students most often had already been on a construction site and understood the demands and expectations. According to David McKay, “Co-ops also enable students who don’t have the cultural and family ties that sometimes lead to the first job.” In my own experience, young people who grew up on farms, worked from a young age in family businesses or were the children of immigrants were often short-listed as they clearly understood the concept of a strong work ethic. They knew that it was important to be on the job site very early in the morning and were prepared to work late into the evening when a concrete pour was scheduled. Any student who understands these requirements is valued and their marketability is upped. The real world of business does not punch a clock.
Co-op programs are offered in many professions beyond construction, such as accounting and midwifery. Whatever field a student chooses, I’m a confirmed fan of co-op education and its associated work placements. Not only do they improve a student’s job opportunities, but they are a valuable way for employers to gradually integrate young people into their businesses. And it provides students with the opportunity to assess their temporary work placements as a potential career path. It worked very well for David McKay. Not all education happens in the classroom.