CO-OP: Test-driving the future

Esther Kim stands in front of a window, smiling.

“It gives you the opportunity to try different things you wouldn’t have imagined. That’s one of the benefits of CO-OP. You get to enjoy exploring different areas of learning.”

— Esther Kim

By Bryan Demchinsky

The world is an increasingly complicated place, and we can all use guidance systems to find our way in it. This is especially so for young people starting out on careers that will sustain them over the long haul. And that’s where the University of Ottawa’s Co-operative Education Programs come in.

CO-OP puts students in the workplace while they study, allowing them to try out the very jobs they may be seeking after graduation. With 2,583 placements in 2015, the uOttawa program, now in its 36th year, is the second largest in Ontario and among the top five in Canada. It has become a mainstay of the University’s profile.

Listen to participants, both students and employers, and the advantages CO-OP brings to uOttawa become apparent.

Esther (Min Ji) Kim was born in South Korea and moved to Vancouver with her parents at age 8. When it came time to pick a university, she searched institutions all over Canada, opting for uOttawa because it was bilingual and in the capital, but mainly because of its CO-OP program.

Kim’s discernment reflects the high-achieving types CO-OP attracts. She speaks five languages — Korean, English, French, Spanish and German — and is working on a sixth, Mandarin. She’s studying international development, in the Faculty of Social Sciences, with a minor in Asian studies. Her ultimate goal: to be a Canadian ambassador.

Chance to explore

After two years of study, Kim has begun her first work placement, at Global Affairs Canada. She could hardly have landed a job that better aligns with her ambitions.

She’s working in the office of the chief audit executive, which evaluates government programs to ensure they are run efficiently. While she doesn’t have an accounting background, the position exposes her to various facets of the work to which she is drawn.

“It gives you the opportunity to try different things you wouldn’t have imagined,” Kim says. “That’s one of the benefits of CO-OP. You get to enjoy exploring different areas of learning.”

Employers gain equally from the program, says David Coulombe (BSocSc ’91), who heads the media department at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. His office at CIHR began hiring CO-OP students 10 years ago, when it took one. Now it has six for the year, two per term over three terms. That’s significant when you consider that Coulombe’s is an office of seven people.

But the advantages are evident. Important for a federal department, most CO-OP hires are bilingual and, Coulombe says, “technologically, they are so advanced. Their enthusiasm, their openness, their good will, their hunger to learn, the new energy they bring, invigorates an organization. We offer them a good place to learn, but they bring a lot of stuff to us.”

Mentoring new recruits

Cynthia Allan, responsible for hiring in an office of 600, agrees, and sees another plus for employers. She is at MD Financial Management, a company owned by the Canadian Medical Association that provides wealth management services to doctors.

Allan says that in her office, which employs between 50 and 60 students a year, both CO-OP and temporary workers, the students provide a chance for full-time employees to hone management skills as they train and mentor the new recruits.

CO-OP students are employed for four-month stints, but these are far from the equivalent of summer jobs or internships. Gaby St-Pierre (BSocSc ’92, BCom ’95, MBA ’00), director of CO-OP and Careers at uOttawa, emphasizes that it is an academic program.

All courses offered as CO-OP are credited by the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education. They follow a formula, alternating study and work terms for a total of 16 months of paid work related to a student’s field of study. Six faculties take part: Arts, Engineering, Law (Civil Law Section), Science, Social Sciences and Telfer.

Students pay an additional fee of $3,500 for a four work-term program. But the pay while on the job is pretty good, and students can earn between $32,000 and $48,000 over the four terms.

Location, location, location

Ottawa, as the national capital, is an ideal place for a CO-OP program. The public service hires 58% of CO-OP students who are placed, and various employers in the capital region — including other levels of government, businesses and NGOs — account for most of the rest.

In fact, St-Pierre would like to see more students reach for national or international positions. CO-OP placements, he says, offer young people a chance to embark on an adventure, not just a job.

“We’re telling students, ‘Don’t fall into a job. Try to choose,’” he says. “Do you want to work local, national or international? Do you want to work in a small, medium or large business? Do you want to work private, public or para-public?

“You don’t get many chances to try different organizations before you graduate, but if you do, you will have a much clearer idea of where you want to work.”

Esther Kim is on board with that. She’s hoping her next CO-OP job takes her abroad, and that one day we’ll be hearing about Ambassador Kim.

Main photo:
Faculty of Social Sciences student Esther Kim chose uOttawa mainly because of its CO-OP program. Photo: James Park Photography


Gaby St-Pierre speaking at a podium.

Gaby St-Pierre, director of CO-OP and Careers at uOttawa, says work placements offer students a chance to embark on an adventure. Photo: Robert Patterson

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