Cooperative Education Opens Doors for Students

Cooperative Education Opens Doors for Students

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Cooperative Education Opens Doors for Students

As the college application deadline draws nearer, high school seniors across the country will make their final decisions as to what handful of colleges and universities will receive the applications they rigorously spent their autumn weekends working on.

Each year students consult different college prep tools to aid them with their continual search for the “right” school. Whether it city versus suburban, large versus small or public versus private; high school seniors today have a schmorgous board of options for furthering their education. However, a trend in education that is growing more popular in recent years, perhaps most notably at Northeastern University, is cooperative education. Northeastern was ranked #1 in 2003 among institutions that require students to combine classroom learning with real-world experience by U.S. News and World Report.

Cooperative education, more commonly known as co-op, is emerging as a poplar way to stay ahead of the competition while in college. Started in 1909, one of the first co-op programs in the United States, Northeastern has a unique program that alternates periods of classroom learning with period of “real world” working experience outside the classroom. Students work full time in fields that are related to their future education pursuits and these are usually paid jobs. The co-op job allows the student to try out various jobs while still an undergraduate. The typical Northeastern student graduates with as much as two years of on-the-job experience already on his resume.
Katie McDonald, 19, a sophomore at Northeastern is currently going through the process of beginning co-op. McDonald, who is a nursing major, will start her first job this January at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“At first I was shocked at the whole process of interviewing and finding a job. Freshman year I looked forward to it, but once it came I was a little overwhelmed. Once I got started with it though, I found the process relatively easy. Now that I have interviewed and have a job I am really excited to begin,” said McDonald.

Although students aren’t guaranteed a job every co-op period, known among students as “No-op”, there are faculty advisors who stay in close contact with employers to develop and maintain interesting salaried positions. Finding a co-op job, similar to any competitive job hunt, depends upon the candidate’s qualifications as compared with others, the current needs of the organization, the specific demands of the position and the job market in general.

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Almost all co-op jobs through Northeastern and related programs at other colleges pay a salary. How much one earns depends upon the particular profession, the demands of the position, skill level, and the local economy.

Most employers who participate in cooperative education require student employees to work for a full six-month semester so they become familiar with the company’s operations and gain experience for possible advancement beyond an entry-level job. In past years, students on co-op at Northeastern were usually placed in three-month internships, because it fit better with the quarter system. However, now that the school has converted over to semesters, students in the last few years have begun to switch over to six month co-ops as well.

John Malgeri, the director of system operations and engineering at the Orange and Rockland Utilities for Con Edison, believed that three month placements were too short and was a downfall of the university’s program.

“I didn’t like the quarter system as it pertained to co-op. You really couldn’t get much accomplished in three months, the semesters will fix that,” said Malgeri. “Also, I think the school should encourage the students to repeat co-op assignments with companies. I think that makes it more attractive to the company in trying to fill future full time positions, as they see more of the student and can better judge their potential.”

Besides the bevy of local and national companies such as The Boston Globe, General Electric, and Microsoft, that offer students co-op jobs, international co-ops are also available in numerous countries including Australia, Ireland, Thailand, and France. A few of the top employers that hire students across the globe are AT&T Network Systems, Arthur Andersen, British Airlines, IBM Europe, and INTEL.

A typical Northeastern student spends five years at school paying the “big school name” price of approximately $35, 356 a year. But is it worth the extra year and extra tuition at the end? Are Northeastern students getting that competitive edge needed upon graduation?

The school itself thinks so. According to its website Northeastern’s cooperative education program has grown into one of the most successful in the world. Over 7,000 students and 2,200 co-op locations are involved, making it one of the largest as well. Using students in the work place makes it a cost-effective means of employment to meet human resource needs for businesses. Students are paid a salary, but do not require expensive benefits, such as health insurance. “Students are hired as employees, not as independent contractors, freelancers, or consultants. Co-op periods are six months, so students spend time working, not just training. Co-op brings classroom theory to life. Through real-world experience, students have the opportunity to apply what they have learned, test the waters in different workplace settings, and develop a network of professional contacts.”

Ken McLaughlin, an operations manager for Manulife Financial, is quoted on the school’s site as saying, “The caliber of people that we have seen from Northeastern has been incredible. These students have a work ethic and energy that is infectious. We treat them like we would any regular full-time employee. More often than not the co-op students exceed our expectations.”

One of the Boston Herald’s writers, Jordana Gustafson, wrote a piece about the co-op experience last June. Besides highlighting a few success stories, Gustafson also included in her article, “A study of 13,000 new-hire transactions in the college labor market showed that employers favor graduates of cooperative education programs, that is, college programs in which students alternate semesters between the classroom and the workplace. Employers report that, compared to other hires, co-op graduates tend to stay with their organizations longer and are more productive workers. On average, the salary of these employees is 10 percent higher than those who did not participate in a co-op program.”

Two of the students Gustafson included in her story, were the successes of Robert Miller and Brian Mullins. Both 22 and juniors in Northeastern’s program, they have been working in the electronic engineering department at Hasbro Inc., which includes such toy lines as Playskool, Tonka and Milton Bradley. Miller and Mullins have been employees of Hasbro for a total of one year during two co-op periods. The engineering department treats them similarly to full-time engineers. “We do everything they do, except not as well,” said Miller. If all continues to go well for Mullins, his Transformer Energon Sword with special sound effects and lights should hit toy stores nationwide soon.

Northeastern prides itself on its long list of notable names that employ students for co-op positions in the greater Boston area, as well as nationally and internationally. Among the top co-op employers are businesses such as Gillette, Children’s Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess, John Hancock Financial Services, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Walt Disney World, Spaulding Rehab Hospital, M.I.T. Lincoln Laboratory, and Price Waterhouse Coopers.

In a recent fall career fair, over 90 companies were present representing all of Northeastern’s majors. Students preparing for co-op as well as seniors looking for interview connections were able to converse with representatives from companies such Abercrombie and Fitch, IBM Corporate Accounting, The May Institute and Reebok.

The graduating class of 2001 was surveyed by the Northeastern University Class of 2001 –Employment and Enrollment Status by College and Major, as to their employment and enrollment status by college and major. In arts and sciences, 71% were employed full time, 6% part time, 11% unemployed, 12% not employed and not looking and 16% were enrolled in graduate school.

Graduates from the Bouve School of Health had a 60% rate of full time employment, 4% employed part-time, 16% unemployed, 17% not employed and not looking, and 42% who were enrolled in graduate school. The School of Business Administration had slightly higher statistics with a full time employment rate of 80%, 0% part time employment, 13% unemployment, 3% not employed and not looking, and 4% enrolled in graduate school.

According to the National Association of College and Employers Salary Survey, the average starting salary of a Northeastern business administration/management student was approximately $36,634; an accounting average was at $42,005, and economics/finance at $40, 413. Graduates with a computer science degree were found to have an average starting salary of $44,678 and 94% were full-time employees.

So is Northeastern’s co-op program as unique and cutting edge as it proclaims? Do Northeastern graduates have a more impressive resume?

The Department of Career Services reports that nearly 71% of NU graduates obtained permanent employment through one of their co-op employers or as a result of on campus recruiting. More than 8,000 students each year are placed with more than 3,000 employers in Boston, the United States, and throughout the world.

For the fall of 2003 at Northeastern, more than 21,000 students applied, up 26% from 2002. The average SAT score for an applicant was 1200, up from 1153 and the average high school GPA was a 3.51 up from 3.18. With the student body getting more and more competitive with every passing year, Northeastern must have actual substance behind their glossy “Higher Learning, Richer Experience” signs all over campus if the students keep flocking in.

Melissa Rowell, 22, senior captain of the field hockey team and soon-to-be graduate of Northeastern University looks back on her experience with co-op as a “culture shock,” but a reaffirmation as to what she wanted do with her future.

“The biggest thing I learned was corporate culture, its something you can’t learn in the classroom; you can’t talk like a college kid. Both of my co-op jobs were ‘real’ jobs –a lot of responsibility.”

Rowell held three, three-month co-ops as opposed to six month positions, due to her busy field hockey schedule. Her first job was with a small catering company in downtown Boston called New Dimensions and her second and third jobs were both at Reebok in Canton, MA. While at New Dimensions, Rowell made $12 an hour as a marketing manager for a small group of six people. At Reebok, she was a marketing intern for the United States marketing department and also made $12 an hour.

Rowell said she wouldn’t change anything about her experience had she the opportunity.

“Especially with Reebok, I knew what a great opportunity it was and I worked incredibly hard because I knew I would be graduating and I wanted to keep it as an option for the future.”

She was informally offered her job back after she graduates in the spring, but will probably have to go through the interview process again.

However, not all students who participate in cooperative education have quite the same experience on their resumes. Rowell remembered hearing students in her classes talking about horrendous bosses and “scut work” type jobs.

“I had to get Reebok on my own, because it was only three months, but I’ve heard people working at like CVS and Abercrombie and Fitch for co-op –maybe because they just didn’t care. One of my friends was in education and did his co-op at a public school in Lowell. He taught 8th grade science and hated every minute of it. He was able to switch majors within the school, at other schools he would have graduated with a teaching degree and not have known. If I was to give any advice to students preparing for their first co-op, I would say take it seriously, be proactive. Co-ops are really great opportunities, so be responsible.”

On the other end of the “co-op spectrum,” Valeria Curano, 19, a journalism major is preparing for her first co-op job.

“I think I’m ready to start working full time, although I’m not totally sure, because I have never done it. The good thing is that you get a break from school and some experience in the outside world. The bad thing is that it’s a lot of responsibility that many other college students aren’t dealing with yet. I don’t know what type of position or salary will be offered, but I hear that journalism co-ops don’t pay as well as others.”

Curano has interviewed with The Boston Globe, The Back Bay Courant, WB television station, and other newspapers or offices related with journalism and communications.

Although a Northeastern student’s experience is distinctive, other colleges throughout the country are also offering similar programs that may be just as reputable. Drexel University in Philadelphia, Georgia Institute of Technology, Pace University in NY and Rochester Institute of Technology are just a few of the names of accredited cooperative education schools; all of which are connected with corporations such as Kodak, General Motors, IBM, Johnson and Johnson, Pricewater House Coopers, UPS, and Walt Disney World.

In Drexel’s College of Information Science and Technology project planners earn an average sum of $65,000 a year, business analysts at $52,000, and web developers at $40,000. Students’ co-op at such companies like Lockheed Martin, Comcast Corporation, Independence Blue Cross, and the University of Pennsylvania. In the past, Drexel’s students have held positions as a technology and server support at Merk and Co. Incorporated, application integrator programmer at IBM Global Services, and info technology intern at SAP America.

In all six of Drexel’s colleges, those on co-op have made up to a little over $14,000. In 2001-2002, a student on co-op in the media arts and design field made roughly $9,294, a business major earned $13,143, and an engineering major was reported at $14,696.

At Pace University in Manhattan, 873 cooperative education positions were held by undergraduate and graduate students this past year. Students worked a similar schedule to that of Northeastern’s, and they were employed by 456 different employers. The average hourly salary earned by all participating students was around $13.29; for undergraduates $12.70 per hour and graduates $15.16.

However, unlike Northeastern’s graduating class, only 47% of the last graduating class at Pace received full time job offers from their employers. The Class of 2002 reported an average starting salary of $40,386 and 41 undergrads reported being offered signing bonuses of slightly over $4,000. Graduate students of the Class of 2002 reported an average starting salary of $57,306 and 29 graduates reported signing on bonuses of around $7,459.

Pace University promotes actively to their students their Web Referral job matching service they offer. Approximately 12,733 resumes of graduating seniors and alumni were sent to 921 employers utilizing the program in numerous employment offers. Pace also offers to their students the Pace Talent Available web page. Student’s profiles can be accessed online by employers and recruiters through the Pace Co-op and Career Services website.

At the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York, over 2,700 students co-op annually with over 1300 employers from all across the U.S. and around the world. Some of their biggest names include Hewlett Packard, Kodak, Xerox, Bausch & Lomb, Fischer-Price, Associated Press, and NASA.

R.I.T. students who graduate with a BFA in graphic design make between $25,000 and $45,000 a year. Those with degrees in computer engineering have reported making between $40,000 and $48,000 annually.

Georgia Tech established their cooperative education program in 1912. Their program is the fourth oldest of its kind in the United States. More than 3,500 of their students’ co-op; 38% of the Georgia Tech undergraduate student body. Georgia students co-op with more than 600 different employers throughout the United States annually including; Southern Company, Georgia Tech Research Institute, IBM, Delta Air Lines, and Bell South.

Although cooperative education does seem to be a mostly successful effort in its connections of students with the corporate world, what do colleges who don’t offer co-op have to offer the students? Their graduates seem to be doing just as well in the long run.

Boston College and New York University, both rated as highly competitive schools, have developed their own career oriented programs to aid in the classroom to office transition easier.

Similarly to what other universities are doing with their alumni, Boston College, created what they call as The Networking Process. The program involves students networking, or joining with professionals in a particular field that can help the student during the three stages of career development; exploring career fields, finding job leads, and building on that career. A lengthy list of alumni is listed on the Networking website with their credentials. BC graduates have been hired in such positions as an RN at the Children’s Hospital L.A.; psychologist at Grady Memorial Hospital; the CEO of Storage Networks Inc.; client services representative at Sotheby’s NY, vice president of Bank Boston, special agent for the FBI, and the producer of Court TV.

New York University, although not a co-op school either, does believe in the principles behind early experience with the reality of business. “A large majority of career development experts believe that after graduation, students who have gained career related experience during college have an advantage over less experienced graduates when the time comes for employment,” which is advertised on the school’s website for career services.

Over 80% of the students at NYU indicated part time jobs/internships during the 2001-2002 school year. There was an 86% placement rate; a 4% decline from the previous year, however with the “gloomy economic picture”, still a very decent standing. 40% of students had received more than one job offer. The Office of Career Services accounted for helping 48% of students who had found jobs upon graduation. “[These facts] reinforces the belief that networking is an integral part of the job search process and even more important in a tight market where a personal reference can make a great deal of difference.”

The 14.5% of students who were in the school of education at NYU reported in 2002, a mean salary of $34,200 –a much higher starting rate than many other colleges. The average nursing student at NYU made $56,000 annually, $18,200 more than the national average. Communications majors were reported to make $13,000 above the 2002 national mean.

As Elizabeth Matson, a journalism professor at Northeastern said referring to cooperative education employers, “These are the people that are the most important to you. You want these people to be your references. Work your but off. If they ask you to stay until 2am and you normally take the T home. Stay. Figure out the logistics later. If there are things you can be volunteering for, volunteer. Don’t burn bridges. The corporate world can be a small world.”

So does cooperative education make students more appealing and viable than a regular, four year university? In individual cases, sure; what employer wouldn’t take a second look at a student who already at graduation has two years of full time work experience under their belt? However, a student that isn’t willing to put in 110% on the job site probably isn’t going to look any better on paper than someone who graduated with a B+ average and few extracurricular activities on their resume from a normal college. Is cooperative education the wave of the future? It can be an amazing opportunity for many, but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
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