Looking back at 4 Years of UW Co-op


Map of the University of Waterloo in Waterloo Ontario Canada

For many students at the University of Waterloo, the third weekend of class is spent applying to co-op jobs for their next 4-month semester.  Thousands of students polish up their resumes and log onto JobMine (our campus co-op job posting server) to look for opportunities that resonate with them.  This past weekend I did the same thing, but this semester is a little different.  Fall 2010 will be my last co-op term before I graduate.

Looking back at my experiences with co-op, I sometimes wonder what my degree might have been like without it.  It’s hard to imagine, because co-op has been such a huge part of my university experience.  Here are a few reasons why I think co-op is so essential – and why I can’t imagine having an education without it.

Interview IQ

Some of the greatest opportunities available to us in life require an interview – but how often does the average person get to practice interview skills in real life?  Answering questions appropriately, dressing to impress, and preparing intelligent questions are all difficult skills to master by studying theory alone.

Co-op students may have up anywhere from 5-15 interviews every academic semester, both in person and on the phone.  Completing a battery of three interviews in one day between classes, projects and presentations isn’t rare.  Interviews have taught me how to present myself professionally to not only potential employers, but also clients and business partners – an important skill I’ll use for the rest of my life.

Learning How to Hit the Ground Running

In just 4 months, co-op students have to learn a new job quickly so we can become productive as soon as possible.  Unless employers have a strong co-op orientation program, it’s usually left up to us to learn on the job.  In a new environment, we need to quickly integrate into a new work culture and master new skills depending on what is expected of us.

One thing every student learns at university is how to learn.  Each academic semester and work term builds a portfolio of professional skills we can draw on, and we always keep learning new things.  The Microsoft Office suite quickly becomes second nature to most co-ops.  Programming languages are practiced and picked up, as are soft skills like writing effective emails and telephone etiquette.

It’s often said that most 21st century professionals can expect to change their career at least once in their lives.  Knowing how to quickly adapt to new environments allows co-op students to embrace these changes and succeed no matter where they go.

Clarifying Career Goals and Objectives

Entering university, every student has lots of ideas about what they might be one day.  Co-op work terms help clarify those goals with each 4 month experiment.  Trying different industries, work cultures, and company sizes helps university students discover their passions before they graduate and commit to a full time job.  If they are lucky, a co-op may stumble on their dream job half way through their degree and return once they graduate.  The diverse group of people we meet in each workplace helps us find both role models and people we never want to be.

In essence, co-op helps define our ideal career by letting us try up to six different ones.  And that has helped me define my own career path, starting April 2011.

Start Up or Join Up?

Recent graduates from post-secondary schools across Canada have an interesting choice to make: should they start up a new enterprise or accept an offer to join an established one?

The student start-up dream has been immortalized by wild success stories.  Legends abound of university drop-outs like Mike Lazaridis (creator of the BlackBerry) and Bill Gates, as well as graduates like Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerburg – all students who left university to pursue technology start-ups that changed the world.

Intelligent and creative students across the country are faced with a choice when they graduate.  They may have innovative and ambitious ideas for new businesses, but are inundated with offers from businesses that need the best and brightest new graduates to survive. When faced with the choice between working for an established enterprise like Research In Motion (RIM), Google or Facebook, and starting their own venture, how should a student decide?

The price of failure – risk – is often the largest deterrent for anyone considering an entrepreneurial venture.  Students who finance their education with student loans (about 26% of Canadian students according to StatsCan – I think it’s closer to 50%) might have no choice but to accept an offer of steady income that helps pay down their debt.  Even for those rare few students that manage to graduate debt-free, sometimes a steady paycheque is too tempting to resist.  When you graduated university/college, wasn’t money your largest concern?

Students might also be concerned about missing the opportunities for networking, training and resume building that a large enterprise might offer them.  There’s no doubt about it, yesterday’s start-ups are now large firms with fixed budgets that have attractive perks for new hires.  The trade-offs are similar to the differences between working for a small company vs. big company – only with added risk and potential reward. So what’s stopping young entrepreneurs from getting hired?

A new wave of student organizations have started promoting youth entrepreneurship, encouraging students in high school, college and university to pursue their innovative ideas. Impact, UBC’s Enterprize Canada and EPIC Tech are three examples of student run not for profit organizations that are fostering a new community of student entrepreneurs that aren’t afraid to innovate.  These organizations are supported by venture capital and consulting firms looking to foster a new generation of clientele, as well as government agencies that (like the rest of us) would like to see more jobs created on Canadian soil.

Universities are catching on.

The University of Waterloo has created an entrepreneurship-based student residence called VeloCity, where students form teams that develop actual mobile media businesses over the course of the academic year.   This business community holds seminars and information sessions about starting a successful venture, and acts as a gateway into venture support networks in the wider community, like the Accelerator Centre.  This is a trend that is sure to continue.

Now when asked the question, “start up or join up” what would you do?