When “business as usual” came to a screeching halt in March 2020, the University of Waterloo quickly pivoted to develop new ways for students and employers to continue to realize the co-op advantage. This resilient response helped retain 78 per cent of Waterloo’s co-op students through the beginning stages of the pandemic, and supported the shift to a remote, online workforce.

Rising to employment challenges experienced nationally and globally was not an easy feat, but demand for the Waterloo co-op program continues to rise.

In 2021, more than 23,760 students have been hired for co-op work terms— a record high for the number of employed students in the University’s history.

“We are now seeing 10,000 plus, students scheduled out for this upcoming winter 2022 work term, which is remarkable. It’s also the most ever for a single term at Waterloo and for any Canadian institution,” says Norah McRae, associate provost of Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE).

This is partly due to the number of students who enrol in co-op, which continues to increase year-over-year, but also due to the University’s strong employer network who continue to hire Waterloo students amidst the pandemic.

Evolving alongside our employer network

Waterloo has always been a pioneer in experiential learning. The University was established in 1957 in conjunction with local industrialists concerned with foreshadowed skilled labour shortages — establishing a hyper-focus on co-operative education to develop talent for the workforce of tomorrow.

Today, amid a pandemic, the value of resilient and skilled talent has never been more important. Waterloo continues to build on the strength of industry partners to create educational opportunities that tool students to become changemakers and leaders in a complex future.

“At Waterloo, we’re very fortunate to have such an extensive and global network of employer partners — and we strive to maintain strong partnerships with these employers and with our broader campus community,” McRae says. “This ongoing support and dedication for our students has offered much-needed supports through a challenging year, especially since many organizations have adapted to hire students for remote work terms.”

To help employers adapt to remote working, Waterloo introduced flexibility in the recruitment process to allow for quicker hiring cycles and the capacity to “bulk hire” hundreds of students to support their changing needs. The University also expanded its employer network by connecting with smaller businesses that needed additional support to pivot their services online.

For many employers, this was the first time they’ve recruited, onboarded and managed talent remotely. Waterloo’s Co-operative and Experiential Education team developed a tool-kit of resources to support co-op employers and ease the transition to remote managing.

Equipping students for success

Waterloo also developed resources to support students who were experiencing their first remote work term. Co-op students were offered free Digital Skills Fundamentals courses in conjunction with industry partners like ShopifyVidyard and Kiite Academy to prepare them for drastically changing workplaces.

The pandemic put many businesses at risk because they lacked a strong digital approach. By equipping students with these digital skills, it helped them to find work and make a significant contribution to organizations of all kinds.

Demand for co-ops showing no signs of slowing down

Industry partners, including Deloitte, Manulife, Microsoft, Vidyard and D2L, have enthusiastically welcomed these changes. Businesses from across sectors continue to employ Waterloo co-op students at record numbers with 7,204 placements in the current Fall 2021 term — the highest Fall term in the University’s history.

The pandemic has also not slowed down the demand from students to participate in co-op work terms. Co-op enrolment at Waterloo increased during the pandemic by more than nine per cent from fall 2019 to fall 2020. Co-op students currently make up 64.8 per cent of all undergraduate and graduate-level students.

“Waterloo’s co-op program started in 1957 with the idea that work and learning do not need to be mutually exclusive. When it is well-organized, well-integrated and supported, it empowers students to develop the most in-demand, transferable skills needed for success in an evolving and unpredictable future workforce,” McRae says. “I’m very proud of how we’ve weathered the pandemic. The future looks bright and I know our talented students will be at the forefront of our post-pandemic economic recovery.”