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What Is a Co-Op Program?
A co-op (short for cooperative education) program involves a close three-way partnership between an employer, a university and a student, designed to give the student intensive, lengthy real-world work experience.
However, there does not seem to be any universally agreed-upon structure or definition for an effective co-op program. Every university and company treats co-ops differently. This lack of consistency can be frustrating! Fortunately, that translates into flexibility for you to construct your program in a way that makes sense for your organization.
Co-Op Program vs Internship
There are several critical differences between co-op programs and internships.
Length: Students in co-ops typically work full-time for a longer period than they would on an internship. They usually take at least one semester off of full-time school. Programs can be as short as three months or extend to over a year. Students in some programs alternate repeatedly between semesters at school and semesters in co-ops to apply new information they are learning in classes.
Integration: Partly as a result of the extended length of co-ops, they typically require a closer partnership between the three parties (employer, university and student) than internships. Since a co-op is meant to align closely with and provide an opportunity to apply classroom knowledge, employers need to know what is being taught; universities need to know what kinds of work experiences they should prepare students for; and students need to know that what they are learning from both other parties is truly relevant. Ideally, internships would also involve this kind of relationship between the three parties, but it is far more typical of a co-op than an internship.
True work experience: To reduce onboarding and training time that would otherwise eat up much of the internship period, many internships assign the intern work that will naturally end after completion of the internship. Internships sometimes fail to help a student know whether they would like the actual day-to-day work at a certain company, since they are not working in the equivalent of a full-time role. In contrast, co-ops include more complete training and plug the student into the real work of a regular full-time role, providing a more realistic job preview.
Salary: In addition to providing more realistic job experience, a co-op involves compensation that more closely reflects what a student would be earning if they were a permanent employee working full-time in the role. Internships are often very low-pay or even unpaid, while co-ops are almost always paid at or close to a normal entry-level rate.
Why Organizations Participate in Co-Op Programs
There are a variety of reasons organizations create and participate in co-op programs, ranging from financial drivers to long-term recruiting motivations.
- Recruiting pipeline development. Co-ops build a pipeline of students that can be initially vetted through a lower-commitment partnership than permanent full-time work. Ultimately, those students who are successful in a co-op program will be more likely to accept full-time offers upon graduation. Students who look for and accept co-op opportunities also tend to be top-level performers, so co-ops can be great for building a pipeline of especially talented and successful candidates.
- Lower-cost labor. A typical co-op program will likely pay somewhat less than permanent full-time positions (though it will usually pay more than internships), resulting in cost savings.
- Short-term or temporary coverage. Co-ops can sometimes provide an opportunity to fill a needed role that is known to be temporary or short-term and would be difficult to make a full-time hire for. Given that there is no long-term commitment inherent in hiring a student into a co-op role, this can sometimes be a great win-win for both students needing experience and organizations needing a stopgap talent solution.
Does It Make Sense for My Organization to Start a Co-Op Program?
Evaluating the need for a co-op program should include getting clarity on several points:
- What are the talent needs of my organization? Do we have entry-level roles that would align well to certain college majors? Are those entry-level roles basic enough that a student could be trained relatively quickly and be effective working full-time in the position within three to six months? Would we feel comfortable having people rotating in and out of those roles relatively regularly?
- What programs do potential university partners already have in place, and what expectations do their students have of quality co-op programs?
- Is my organization struggling to recruit top-performing students? A new co-op program might be seen as a prestigious and valuable opportunity for the kind of students you want to recruit.
- What are competitor organizations doing to recruit students? Do they use co-ops to great effect? Is this an area we might be able to stand out in, or are we behind the curve already?
How to Create a Co-Op Program for Your Organization
Once the questions outlined in the prior section have been comprehensively researched and a decision has been made to move forward with creating a co-op program, consider the following steps to building it.
Step 1: Develop a Program Structure Proposal
Based on your research, build a proposed co-op program structure to be approved by HR, Legal, and the leadership team. This should include:
- Clear program objectives (e.g., is the ultimate goal to recruit permanent full-time employees out of the co-op program, to find a stopgap to a short-term talent shortage, etc.)
- An outline of the co-op experience specifics (e.g., exact job role that co-op students would fill; pay and other potential benefits or perks; length and timing of co-ops; co-op supervisor responsibilities; etc.).
- A plan for working with universities and recruiting students.
Step 2: Vet the Proposed Structure with University Partners and Students
Share your proposed co-op program structure with any university partners you would like feedback from. This could include faculty members in the majors you plan to recruit from; staff, including program administrators and career services professionals; and students who might be interested in your proposed opportunities.
Collect feedback and detailed information on current structures those university partners already have in place for managing co-ops and internships. Adjust and add to the program proposal to reflect any constructive feedback received and incorporate any university requirements and processes.
*Note: Since you will likely have multiple partner universities, build your co-op program with an eye toward flexibility to ensure that students from any university you want to work with will consider your program a feasible option.
Step 3: Implement and Recruit
Once you feel good about your proposed structure and have university partners on board, kick things off. Implementing a new co-op program requires the same project- and change-management expertise that any new roll-out involves.
Change management includes ensuring that potential co-op supervisors are on board and understand the additional responsibilities they have for co-op students. Many co-op and internship success or failure stories told by students revolve around the quality of their interactions with their direct supervisor, and negative management experiences tend to be a primary reason for students looking elsewhere after one co-op or internship with a company.
Project management also includes building high-quality, detailed resources to provide both internal and external stakeholders with the info they need about your program. Students (particularly top performers) are far more likely to engage in a new program if they are provided with comprehensive and detailed information about the experience.
As you get your internal teams on board and aligned with your vision for the co-op, get the word out about the opportunity. Post detailed information on LinkedIn and on your online job site, if you have one, as well as on university career sites your partners typically direct their students to for job searches (common systems include Handshake and Symplicity). Enlist your university partners’ help in spreading the word about the new opportunity.
When students first begin their co-op roles, ensure that they feel like part of the team and company. Plug them into their roles to gain the experience they are looking for, get them great training, and provide them with opportunities to network and be mentored by excellent supervisors and peers. Finally, solicit feedback as your students move through the co-op experience, and make changes as needed.
Examples of Successful Co-Op Programs
Most successful co-op programs are with large corporations, two of which are listed below. However, that does not mean a smaller company cannot build a successful co-op. The third company listed below is a mid-sized organization with multiple professionals showing on LinkedIn as having completed their co-op opportunity. Smaller companies can play in these waters!
Kimberly-Clark Supply Chain Co-Op
This program for current undergraduate students provides six-month positions from January-June or June-December in any of six different supply-chain roles in various locations across the eastern United States. It offers paid experience plus mentorship and networking opportunities.
General Electric Engineering Co-Ops
GE often posts internships and co-ops as part of the same job description, providing multiple possible timeframes. If the timeframe a student wants would mean missing a semester of school to work full-time (e.g., if they apply for an August-December timeframe), the opportunity is designated as a co-op, whereas if they select a typical three-month summer opportunity, it is called an internship.
Malibu Boats Product Engineering Co-Op
This program is a good example of a smaller company (less than 600 employees) creating a co-op opportunity for a 12-month experience researching and developing new product designs. Multiple past co-op participants appear on LinkedIn.
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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Co-Op Programs
Tyler is an HR professional-turned-career advisor. After earning a master’s in HR and an MBA, he completed several development rotations while working for a Fortune 100 financial services and insurance company. After gaining experience in HR project management, data and analytics, and as an HR business partner, he decided the right next move was a transition into higher ed and career services. He now provides career support for students in a top-ranked supply chain management program at a large Tier 1 university, but maintains a love for the field of HR and an interest in seeing HR professionals succeed and push the envelope!