Rethinking IT projects: Co-operative labour

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In this final post of a three-part series (read part one and part two), I will describe our experience using co-op, as well as the concept of developing a ‘co-op culture’ in a workplace.

Co-operative labour

The activity

It is perhaps predictable that a project centered on work-integrated learning made extensive use of student workers from our co-operative education program. They were employed by Enterprise Architecture for project planning, by WatCACE to collect the needed information, and by Science Computing (SciComp) as developers on the production system.

This speaks, on the one hand, to the breadth of work to which co-op labour can be applied. With a conservative investment in wages and training, students can assist in most of the tasks the University performs, and indeed for activities that are unspecialized, formulaic, or repetitive, hiring a co-op employee is a far better use of resources than using full-time staff, whose time is better spent on work that requires particular skill sets. Such activities might include project documentation, scheduling and communication, record management, data cleaning, and alpha testing. For more particular work, seeking student with a background in research, design, user experience, development, or specific technologies further expands the roles they can fill. Ultimately, the only real limitation to how co-ops can be employed is their willingness to learn and the employer’s willingness to train them.

Implicit in this, though, is the process of hiring and onboarding a co-op student, and in this regard two different models were used in this project with very different effects.

The single-term co-op

For Enterprise Architecture (despite grand plans to the contrary) having a student worker was an anomaly that had not occurred before, and has yet to occur again. This is not due to a lack of interest in procuring a co-op, but rather a product of the culture of the department. While far simpler than hiring a contract or permanent position, engaging a student is still an HR process, requiring the same set of steps:

  • Secure funding for position
  • Produce a job description
  • Post the job
  • Review applications
  • Conduct interviews
  • Select a candidate
  • Complete paperwork
  • Obtain accounts/access levels/keys
  • Acclimate them to environment…

The difference is that the process takes place in a much more constrained and less flexible timeline, which can be problematic. It is easy to miss the first round of hiring if approval of a budget or job ad is delayed, to struggle identifying the right candidate if the needed skills and qualifications are unclear, and to stumble through their orientation if the steps are unfamiliar. At all stages, getting a suitable candidate in place within a reasonable timeframe can be a challenge under this model.

In addition, once hired, finding a co-op enough meaningful work also proved to be a problem, as staff were not used to identifying and handing off appropriate tasks. While this improved as the term went on, and what was completed was exemplary, the value for both the student and the organization did not reach its potential.

A co-op culture

In contrast to the experience above, both WatCACE and SciComp have what I would term a co-op culture, where it is understood that part of their workforce is co-op employees, and at least one student is hired every term. As a result, part of their budget is always set aside, a selection of job descriptions already exists for re-use, they know what qualities to look for in a candidate, and getting the new hires set up at the beginning of the term is second nature.

Furthermore, knowing in advance that a co-op is coming allows tasks to be pre-planned, often in the form of projects that the department would like to have done, but permanent staff don’t have enough spare time to accomplish. This not only maximizes the benefit to the employers, but provides a truly meaningful experience for the students to which they can refer in their future job-hunting endeavours. This can also encourage co-ops to return for multiple terms, further easing the hiring/training process and increasing the value for the organization.

Developing such a workplace culture is not an instantaneous shift. It can take a few terms to produce the needed documentation and experience to truly make this arrangement function efficiently, and it thus requires a commitment to the concept that is not abandoned when the first try isn’t perfect. Putting in this time and building up a capability as a co-op employer will provide the best return on investment for this business strategy.

The value

The benefits of using co-op students for a single project vary from a reducing the cost of hiring additional staff, to maximizing the efficient use of existing staff, to simply providing our students with a chance to expand their experience, any of which is independently a worthwhile reason for engaging co-operative labour. The value of developing a co-op culture, however, runs somewhat deeper. Budgets are shrinking, we are downsizing through attrition, and increasingly every unit on campus will have to do more with less. Utilizing available student workers, not just for menial tasks, but as an important addition to the staff, may soon be a necessity for any number of departments. This should be viewed, though, as an opportunity rather than a threat. Our students have a lot to offer and, after all, if we aren't going to trust their abilities why should any other employer?

For more information, please visit the Work-Integrated Learning website, https://wilresearch.uwaterloo.ca/.

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