Co-op education is critical to COVID-19 recovery in Canada

Waterloo helps build a resilient workforce

If the University of Waterloo had not taken a road less travelled into co-operative education many decades ago, Cindy Forbes (BMath ’79) might not be where she is today.

Cindy Forbes

Cindy Forbes (BMath ’79)
Global chief analytics officer at Manulife

As one of the top women at Manulife, a Canadian-based multinational insurance and financial services company, her career trajectory is naturally characterized by talent, drive, hard work and a willingness to grab new opportunities. But Forbes also credits something unique that Waterloo had at the time that other universities did not: the opportunity to do co-op work terms.

“Had I not been in co-op, I would not have known what to expect in the workplace. I would certainly have not gotten the job that I did when I graduated,” says Forbes, global chief analytics officer at Manulife.

That’s why Forbes, who serves as the chair of the University’s Board of Governors, is urging businesses across Canada to support co-operative education during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

“We need to keep growing the future leaders for our company, country and society,” Forbes says. “Businesses should continue to hire co-op and summer students if at all possible.

Now decades into her career, Forbes views co-op from the vantage point of an employer keen to attract bright, ambitious co-op students who are a part of the company’s talent pipeline. Work-integrated learning is often touted as an advantage for students, but increasingly companies across Canada are realizing how work-integrated learning helps industry meet business objectives.

Co-op education in a time of COVID-19

But what happens when a global health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts the world of work and learning? For Manulife, the decision was clear: “The benefit young people get by being able to apply what they learn in school and develop the skills they need to be successful in the workplace is more important than ever,” Forbes said.

Manulife hired almost 180 co-op students in 2019 and was able to keep this year’s spring term hiring on par with prior years despite the pandemic. Co-op students at Manulife have been working from home since mid-March when the Ontario government declared a state of emergency. Those students finishing up their winter term were offboarded remotely and new co-op students, who will work through the summer, are enjoying a virtual orientation with technology mailed to their home and support from Manulife’s IT team.

COVID-19 is just the first test of how the University of Waterloo can work with our stakeholders to enable an adaptable, resilient, talented workforce.

Norah McRae

Norah McRae, Waterloo’s associate provost, co-operative and experiential education says both the University and many co-op employers have responded with agility to the new realities. The University responded quickly when physical distancing measures were imposed, by supporting thousands of co-op students who had to pivot from in-person interviews to virtual ones for work terms that started on May 1.

“Now is the time for flexibility and compassion for our students, who are adjusting to massive, unforeseen changes,” McRae says.

Like Forbes, McRae sees co-operative education as critical to student learning and for employers who want to attract the world’s top talent and build their talent pipeline. “This unprecedented global crisis threatens to disrupt an entire generation of talent,” McRae says.

Norah McRae

Norah McRae, Waterloo’s associate provost, co-operative and experiential education 


Resources for co-op students adapting to global crisis

The University of Waterloo already has the world’s largest database of insights on next-generation talent, and rich data on employer and employee behaviour, says Judene Pretti, director of the Centre for the Advancement of Co-operative Education (WatCACE). As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, Pretti is leading research that examines how the pandemic is affecting Waterloo co-op students so that all new resources being developed will offer the greatest value to students and employers during this difficult time.

“Research that explores the intersection of work and learning has never been more important,” Pretti says. “University students and employers need to know how to navigate the enormous uncertainty and complexity of a post-pandemic economy.”

The impact of Waterloo’s co-operative education program on Canada’s economy is significant. A recent report from Deloitte found that Canadian employers realized $2 for every dollar invested in Waterloo co-op students. Even after wages and training, the Deloitte Economic Impact Report found that Waterloo’s co-operative education program contributed $525 million to the Canadian economy in 2018-2019.

Forbes says Waterloo students join Manulife from various programs: actuarial science students are an obvious fit, but today’s insurance and financial services companies are also becoming much more like technology companies, using data analytics and artificial intelligence to enhance their products and services. Talent in software engineering and computer science are also of growing importance to the company, Forbes says.

Co-op students not only add to the direct bottom line of companies, they are also contributing ideas and new techniques to help solve problems and open up new opportunities. “That has a huge multiplier effect for industry,” McRae says. “We will need the best and most creative ideas to help us find a way forward in a pandemic world.”

“COVID-19 is just the first test of how the University of Waterloo can work with our stakeholders to enable an adaptable, resilient, talented workforce,” McRae says. “If we can harness our research and create innovative solutions to mobilize talent, then we will be much better inoculated against future challenges that will surely arise.”