Has the pandemic changed the future of co-op learning?

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Last updated April 5, 2021

Neelam Sharma had concerns about finding a co-op placement when the pandemic forced all learning and most experiential learning opportunities online last year.

The international student at the Toronto School of Management (TSoM) had been studying towards a diploma in cybersecurity and needed to find a co-op placement as part of her program requirements. While she had a bachelor’s degree and experience working in India, adjusting to the Canadian job market was challenging, especially in what had suddenly become an entirely virtual world of work. Fortunately, her chosen area of study offered her the ability to find remote work opportunities.

“I had learned a lot about the different domains of cybersecurity during my program, and I felt confident,” she says. “But it was a different interview process than I was used to in India, so I learned to interview here and got the job.”

Arriving in Canada in December 2019, Sharma was just getting settled in Toronto as COVID-19 was starting to become known worldwide. She enrolled with the Toronto School of Management (TSoM) and completed her courses and co-op completely virtually — she’s never set foot inside the school in downtown Toronto or, for that matter, her new employer’s office. After completing her co-op, she started with Canadian Tire in a full-time remote role this past January as an information technology security analyst.

Sharma is just one example of how post-secondary students and their co-op learning co-ordinators rallied to beat the odds and find meaningful work experience during a trying time for both students and employers.

“The key to managing co-ops during the pandemic has been being agile and thinking outside the box,” says Yevgeniy Demchuk, associate director of academics and student services at TSoM. “We have introduced capstone projects to allow students to graduate, as an alternative, but also taken into consideration remote or virtual positions to further expand the list of options students can opt into.”

Greater openness to remote work opportunities

In March, CourseCompare surveyed a select sample of Canadian post-secondary institutions about the pandemic’s impact on work-integrated learning. Respondents included 58 co-op programs from 23 institutions, roughly split 50/50 between colleges and universities. Some of the findings include:

  • 100 per cent of respondents said they now plan to facilitate more fully or partially remote co-ops in the future than they did before the pandemic. (This is a dramatic shift from pre-pandemic figures, when co-ops might have facilitated 1-2 remote placements on average.)
  • There was an average decline in placements of 17.25 per cent in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019.
  • “Information Technology and Media” led in the hiring of students for co-op learning (67 per cent of respondents), followed by “Professional, Scientific and Technical Services,” (54 per cent), “Healthcare and Social Assistance” (33 per cent) and “Educational Services” (31 per cent). Respondents could select multiple options for this question.
  • 50 per cent of respondents said on average co-op salaries remained the same in 2020 compared to 2019; 33 per cent said they decreased; 17 per cent said they increased.

Finding flexible work arrangements

Gaining work experience while completing a college or university program can be a huge differentiator for students. That’s why when COVID-19 sent students home to learn, co-op and other experiential learning program leaders wondered if their usual employer partners would want to fulfill their commitments.

“We were already in the mid-recruitment cycle when we went into quarantine,” says Cynthia Bishop, manager of student experience, career and professional development at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton. “We saw hiring come to a stop, and that was a little scary for everybody at that point in time — not just for students but for everybody.”

Last spring Bishop was tracking rescinded offers, and things weren’t looking great.

“Once some of the federal funding came into place, we saw that come back a little, but there were some very disappointed students for about two months as we worked through that first major disruption. Once we came out of that, we didn’t see rescinded offers but just much more conservative hiring,” she says.

DeGroote, which has an MBA program with co-op, has since gone through three cycles of student co-op and internship placements: summer, fall and winter.

“What we have seen is employment continue as we came out of the first lockdown. It has been gradual but steady. We’re super proud of what we have done with our program and our students. The collaboration with different funding partners and academic leadership was extremely supportive,” says Bishop. “Everybody has been extremely sympathetic to what students are currently going through.”

Even this past winter, Bishop says maintaining flexible arrangements has been the key with employer partners.

“Even if most employers are not in the office full-time, they will have occasional meetings in the office all while following public health orders. But what we see across all industries is individuals needing to feel safe, and if you don’t feel safe, then there are other ways for you to connect with the team and other ways for you to get work done,” she says.

Accessing government funding for employers

Even though international students don’t qualify for Student Work Placement Program (SWPP) funding — one of the biggest funding arms for co-op in Canada — employers brought many domestic students on board thanks to the financing that can provide up to $7,000 in wage subsidies to an employer.

As the University of Waterloo outlined on its website, if an employer hires a student to work 35 hours a week at $18/hour for 16 weeks, the cost would be $10,080. With the SWPP funding, the total cost would be $3,080. While that funding has been available for the last two years, it had greater uptake in 2020.

Respondents to CourseCompare’s survey indicated that there needs to be better coordination of government funding as there are many initiatives, but they are not well marketed.

In some cases, DeGroote and other schools sought permission to shorten the time required for a co-op term — for example, from 14 weeks to 12 weeks. The funding flexibility under SWPP is available until April 30, 2021, so shortened work terms of eight to 16 weeks may still be eligible, and students can continue to work from home.

Bishop says where she saw the most flexibility was from employers in the startup space, where businesses were more agile when it came to work from home arrangements and onboarding students virtually.

At Langara College in British Columbia, the impact of lockdown measures on co-op opportunities was immediate, but then signs of recovery appeared as the government relaxed requirements and workplaces navigated the unknown in their organizations.

“A lot of us took a big hit right off the bat, but we also looked at ways to be flexible and still allow work terms to happen,” says Heather Workman, work-integrated learning coordinator and instructor at Langara College. “It’s forced all campuses to think creatively about creating opportunities for our students and how to help students think big as well.”

Workman is also a director with Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada (CEWIL). She says colleges have had a more challenging time than universities when it comes to placements.

“We definitely saw a big drop, then saw it come back up because the flexibility kicked in,” she says. “There was a 16 to 27 per cent impact on postings and placements.”

Some colleges and universities created work term roles for their students, assisting professors in migrating course content to online platforms. Overall, Workman says employers were very adaptable.

“For the most part, I think it’s been like flying an airplane while still building it — some smaller employers said they couldn’t do it, but generally employers were very responsive,” she says.

Workman says RBC hired 1,500 students for the summer and decided last March they would honour all offers they had extended for the semester working remotely.

Opening the door to remote possibilities 

“Before the pandemic, the number of students doing co-ops from home was minuscule,” says Workman. “We would have a couple per term, if that. There are so many innovative things being done now not only because we have to but also because we’re allowed to — because you have the different goal posts you’re working with. It has allowed us to think differently and permitted us to do so. There is a lot of shifting going on at every level.”

A co-op is, for many students, their first experience working in an office or other workplace. During the pandemic, that expectation was adjusted with so many working remotely. However, according to CourseCompare’s survey of co-op program coordinators, most (if not all) co-op students still want an in-person co-op work experience. They feel if they don’t do an in-person work placement, they are not getting as good an experience.

“It’s the first real career job for many, so that was a big shift. We quickly put together a tip sheet to help some companies learn how to interview remotely, onboard and how to manage students remotely,” says Workman.

CEWIL has been surveying its member schools continually throughout the last year. Of 61 work-integrated learning programs at 43 schools, based on December data, employer-matched students for the January to April term in 2020 was 19,054.

“For 2021, we would normally have 79 per cent matched at this point, but we are down to 63 per cent,” Workman says.

Overall, Bishop says there were many opportunities to stretch and grow co-op experiences like never before.

“We had some moments where we felt it was going really slow, but the theme for the past year has been we take it one step at a time and do the things we know are the right things to do to best support our students and grow our partnerships, and we came out stronger in the end.”

Jennifer Brown Content

Jennifer Brown is a journalist and communications professional with extensive experience creating engaging content internally and externally for various B2B and consumer audiences. As a journalist, she has written about and interviewed leaders in the health care, education, legal, enterprise technology and cannabis sectors.

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