How co-op can help you explore potential careers

Waterloo Engineering student working on a project

King warrior Written by special contributor 

Maybe you've known since kindergarten that you want to be a scientist or the next great video game developer but aren't sure where to start. Wouldn't it be great to gain experience in your field, make connections, AND earn money — all at the same time?

Cue co-op — a unique opportunity to integrate paid work experience with your studies while learning more about yourself and the future direction of your career.

What is co-op?

Co-op — officially known as co-operative education — gets you outside the classroom and into the workplace for hands-on learning experiences that build skills relating to your program of study and create connections with people in your field.

Co-op is typically available at the high school, college, and university levels across Canada. High school co-op programs typically arrange unpaid placements for students to "test-drive" a potential career and earn credits while college and university co-op programs such as Waterloo's are paid.

While other work-integrated learning experiences such as paid or unpaid internships and field placements help you 'taste-test' one industry, co-op can involve one or multiple work terms. At Waterloo, students alternate between school terms and four to six co-op terms. The best part? With co-op, you normally get paid for your work — a huge bonus for students.

Sample Waterloo co-op study/work sequence

  September to December January to April May to August
First year School School Off
Second year School Work term School
Third year Work term School Work term
Fourth year School Work term School
Final year Work term School  

School = 4-month school term, Work term = 4-month co-op work term
Off = Make your own plans (work, travel, vacation, etc.)

Three co-op student talking together

At Waterloo, it's common to see students wearing their interview outfits to and from class. Co-op interviews take place in the William M. Tatham Centre for Co-operative Education and Career Development, our hub for everything co-op and career related.

"I wish we had co-op when I was a student," says Ross Johnston, executive director of Co-operative Education at the University of Waterloo. "From my perspective, as a professional and a parent, co-op truly helps students prepare for their future by enabling them to make decisions based on experiences they gained themselves — and that's powerful."

Co-op truly helps students prepare for their future by enabling them to make decisions based on experiences they gained themselves — and that's powerful.

ROSS JOHNSTON, executive director of Co-operative Education at the University of Waterloo

Alexis, a second-year co-op student majoring in Communication Studies, says that "before coming to university, I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. Through my co-op terms, I'm beginning to learn what I'm passionate about and what I actually want in a future career."

Johnston says that it's common for students to take missteps or change career paths, but because co-op terms run longer and include multiple industries with different employers, it's a great way to understand if a certain job will be fulfilling.

How does co-op differ between universities?

According to Canadian Colleges and Universities, there are 80 schools in Canada that offer a co-op option to strengthen their programs. While there are many similarities, differences in co-op programs include the scope of co-op at a particular college or university, e.g. how many employers there are for you to apply to; what services there are to support you before and during a co-op term; how you apply for jobs; the number of work terms; and the length of each term.

Student taking photos on his co-op work term.

Jon, a student in Recreation and Sport Business, spent a co-op work term developing marketing, communications, operations, and event planning skills with the Ontario Volleyball Association. Co-op provides the opportunity to work with a variety of employers and organizations.

What are the benefits of a co-op program?

According to Johnston, participating in co-op at university can benefit you in many ways. "Co-op programs are diverse, which really sets them apart. Students can work with multiple employers in multiple industries, which opens the door to many more careers than they may have considered."

For example, a chemical engineering student could apply for a position in the more traditional oil and gas industry while also exploring newer industries such as craft brewing or cannabis.

In addition to discovering new and exciting possibilities for your future career, you'll also

  • gain skills related to your program of study;
  • earn money;
  • be able to build a great résumé; and
  • connect with potential mentors who can answer questions, help you navigate your new environment, and even let you know about future job opportunities.  

Ever heard the term "soft skills"? Think along the lines of communication; time-management; teamwork; resilience; problem solving, on your own and as part of a team; and conflict resolution. These skills are in high demand by today's employers and co-op is a fantastic way to develop them.

"Some universities work with co-op employers from around the world, allowing students to complete a co-op term abroad," says Johnston. "Living and working away from home, combined with learning both hard and soft skills, helps to build confidence."

Male student walking down street in New York City during his co-op job.

Working and living internationally — or working for a different employer for each co-op term — provides crucial cultural and life skills that meet the demand for adaptable and well-rounded graduates. Here, a Waterloo Architecture student works in New York City.

How does co-op work?

Some universities will admit you directly into a co-op program when you're admitted out of high school (which is the case at Waterloo). At other schools, you apply to be in co-op once you're a student there. While you don't need previous experience to get into a co-op program, the process does work differently than high school where placements are organized for you by your school.

At most universities, securing co-op jobs is a competitive process with students selected by employers based on their résumé, grades, extracurriculars, and, of course, an interview.

"At first it may seem easier to students to have their post-secondary institution place them with an employer," said Johnston.

However, by offering a highly competitive process, all employers have access to top talent and all students have access to top employers, giving students a real-to-life experience when it comes to competing against their peers for a job.

Not to worry, all universities have advisors and career centres to help you prepare for the application process including help with résumé writing, interview tips and guidance into which employers and industries suit your talent, skills, and passion.

Many co-op programs charge a fee for each work term, which covers things like recruiting employers, advisor support, job search training, specialized workshops, career counselling, and access to a co-op job portal. The fee is offset by the money earned during your co-op term.

What makes co-op at Waterloo stand out?

At Waterloo we invented co-op… sort of! More accurately, we were the first university in Canada to offer co-op and, as the largest co-op university in North America, we work with more than 7,500 employers around the world.

We offer four to six work terms so you can gain up to two years of work experience before you graduate, and on average our students earn between $9,000 to $21,500 per four-month work term in Canada. It's a great way to graduate with a smaller debt.

As a Waterloo co-op student, you'll also benefit from WatPD, a series of online courses that cover career fundamentals, communications, teamwork, ethical decision-making, and report writing to help you develop skills that will set you apart from other university graduates.

We were the first university in Canada to offer co-op and, as the largest co-op university in North America, we work with more than 7,500 employers around the world.

"Our co-op students have an outstanding employability rate after graduation. But more impressively, they are finding jobs in their field. Six months after graduation, 96 per cent of Waterloo co-op grads are working in positions related to the skills they learned in university, compared to the Ontario average of 79 per cent," says Johnston.

He adds that "Waterloo’s co-op students also do well with future earnings: 84 per cent were earning over $50,000+ two years after graduation, compared to 50 per cent of non-co-op graduates in Ontario."

So, what are you waiting for? Co-op can help you kick-start your dream career, learn valuable on-the-job skills, build a stellar résumé, connect with people in your field, and earn money to help pay for school.

Learn about Waterloo's 100+ undergraduate programs or sign up for tips and advice from current Waterloo students.


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