BY RYAN B. LAWRENCE
University of Alberta
The University of Alberta Engineering Co-op
Program, now well known to most students and employers, is
one of the finest ways to meld what students learn in the
classroom with what the working world has to offer. And not
only has co-op been a benefit to universities and students,
but it has also provided employers with another way to recruit
young minds and prepare them for post-graduation.
Founded in 1906 at the University of Cincinnati's faculty
of engineering, co-op was set in place to help students learn
what they could not in a classroom or lab. It was created
as another way for students to get the hands-on experience
to be more fully prepared to enter the engineering workforce
I met with Dr. Ken Porteous, P.Eng., Associate Dean, Student
and Co-op Services, in September to discuss the program. It
began at the U of A in 1981 and there were two reasons that
it was set into motion, he explained.
The first was that during this time, the University of Waterloo
in Ontario was sending between 200 and 250 students to Alberta
per year on co-op work terms. With the engineering program
at the U of A, Alberta employers couldn't see why they had
to recruit from Eastern Canada.
The second reason was that U of A grads found themselves
at a disadvantage, competing with grads with 20 months of
work experience through a co-op program.
So with the help of a government grant, the U of A co-op
program took root. Since 1981, co-op has grown to more than
1,100 work terms per year.
Also, with the last parts of an expansion taking place in
the program, expected to be complete within five years, the
engineering program will find more than 50 per cent of the
placements in the traditional program moved into co-op.
At that point, it is expected that more than 1,500 work terms
will be provided per year. This availability of the choice
to take either a traditional four-year degree or the co-op
five-year degree is one of the details that makes U of A co-op
Also worth mentioning: "The quality of our engineering
students is as good as or better than that at any other engineering
school," said Dr. Porteous.
Beyond reinforcing the concepts learned in the classroom,
co-op provides students an environment with more technical
materials. Even junior students on their first or second work
term are involved to some degree in a hands-on way. Senior
students often have a more involved role with their co-op
Co-op also provides a way for students to see the inner workings
of an engineering environment. And students learn to be comfortable
with other employees, who may not be engineers but have essential
skill sets that young engineers need to learn to appreciate.
"Today, more than ever, engineering is about being able
to communicate," said Dr. Porteous. Learning to communicate
with all types of co-workers is a key essential of co-op.
Co-op also helps students choose their career. Different companies
have different corporate cultures. It is important that students
find a culture that they enjoy and fit into. "Co-op is
not only learning things about engineering, it's also about
learning things about yourself," said Dr. Porteous.
The way that students find co-op jobs varies and has recently
been reconfigured. It used to be that students looking for
co-op jobs would read through a book called Co-opportunities,
which listed available jobs. Recently, all those jobs have
been posted in a recruitment management system called Place-Pro.
Students can now find all available jobs online as well as
apply for these jobs, request an interview and see if an interview
has been granted.
Gone are the days of digging deep into the student budget
to mail resumes. In addition to this system, students are
free to search for their work-term jobs on their own accord,
through their own contacts or through Career and Placements
Services, an on-campus summer job bank.
The only stipulations are that work terms must be engineering
related and, if they're senior work terms, discipline-specific.
To ensure placements are available, full-time coordinators
with the U of A Faculty of Engineering spend much of their
time job developing. Coordinators meet with the regular employer
base already committed to the co-op program, as well as search
for employers not yet involved.
Although these coordinators do their best to
ensure maximum placement, "the Achilles heel of any of
these work experience programs is the economy," said
Dr. Porteous. Lately, it has been difficult to reach 100-per-cent
As it gets more difficult to find jobs, not only the placements
go down. The quality of the work found can be compromised.
But through networking and active recruitment, co-op coordinators
are continually working to reach 100 per cent placement of
the students every work-term.