Co-op: A jump start on life!
Aug 23, 2000
My co-operative education experience shaped the rest of my life. I truly believe I would not be where I am today, had I not made the decision to become a co-op student. I was attending the University of Pittsburgh School of Engineering and was into my sophomore year when I began hearing about other students interviewing for co-op positions. To be honest, the salaries are what attracted me. This was over ten years ago and most of the co-op salaries started at $10/hour. To many people, let alone a college student, that seems like a fortune. I decided to find out more about cooperative education.
What is Co-oping?
Cooperative Education allows a student to work on a regular basis at a company while still completing their degree at the university. The way it usually works is that a student will spend one semester on assignment at their company, and then return to school for a semester. Many large companies will rotate the student through different departments each semester, so that the student gets a look at the whole company and assignments in each of the areas. The end result is that the student will take longer to graduate, in my case two semesters more, but they will graduate with valuable work experience on their resume. The student also has a chance to acquire full-time employment at the co-op company, although it is not guaranteed. Most co-op jobs are found in business and engineering, although some schools may have additional opportunities.
The Co-op Decision
Wow! This co-op thing sounds great! Why wouldn't every student sign up? Well, there are a few other things to think about. First, is the commitment required. Do you really want to be leaving school, your friends and the university environment every other semester? For me, this was a big hang-up. I had made the best friends of my life at college and leaving them early seemed unthinkable. Sure, I could try to find a co-op job in Pittsburgh, but I would no longer be living in the dorms, I would be on a "grown-up schedule," meaning no more late nights and skipping class the next morning. It just wouldn't be the same. Plus, all my friends would graduate before me and I'd be left alone and lonely for an extra semester. Boo hoo. Seriously, at the time I was making this decision, this really was a concern for me.
It was enough of a concern that I considered just looking for a summer intern position. I even interviewed for a few. However, internships were not plentiful, the pay was not as good, and the assignments were not as high caliber as the co-op assignments I had heard of. Also, I didn't feel the company was making the same level of commitment back to the students as they did with co-ops. Most of the older co-ops I knew were offered full-time jobs with their companies. That really appealed to me.
So I began to interview for co-op positions. If the right opportunity came up, I would decide whether it was worth leaving my friends.
The Interview Process
The second company I interviewed with was Packard Electric in Warren, Ohio. At that time, it was a division of General Motors. Warren is kind of a boring little town, which is why I believe Packard recruits co-ops. It gets them familiar with the company and the area, thereby making it more likely that these students will accept full-time positions there. After a preliminary interview at school, I was asked to come to Warren for a second interview. It was only 1-1/2 hours from Pittsburgh, which wasn't too far away for me. When I got there, an older co-op took me around, explained how things worked and introduced me to the people giving the interviews.
I was most impressed with the care that they gave their co-ops. Since it was a large company, with a large student population, they had permanent, furnished 3-person apartments in town. There was always someone going in and out, so they even matched you up with roommates. According to my guide, there were also many student activities taking place: sports, trips and of course, parties. That was enough to sell me right there. But I did actually listen to the job experience portion of the interview. And again, I was impressed. I would receive at least 4 different assignments, in different areas, and with increasing responsibility. Since I was not positive what I wanted to do with my engineering degree when I graduated, this kind of experience would be perfect for me.
So my decision was made. I felt that although I would be leaving my school friends behind, I did look forward to making new co-op friends. And I was really looking forward to the co-op lifestyle in the apartments. It seemed like college fun, with money and without homework. It couldn't get any better than that!
The Co-op Experience
So did my experience meet my expectations? Well, I'd have to say it even went beyond my expectations. Not to say there weren't some downsides. I did have a few bummer assignments. One was so boring, I had trouble keeping awake, another had an engineer try to pawn off all of his work onto me without training. I did miss out on a few things back at school too, like one football season and graduating with my class. I didn't have the trouble that some other people did with living arrangements back at school. Two semesters I lived in the dorms, and the other two semester I lived in a house with six other girls. They didn't mind one more, it just helped split the rent one more way.
Even the inconvenience of the moving every semester was overshadowed by all the benefits of co-oping. For example, my several interesting work assignments taught me more than engineering concepts. They energized me about the world of work, showed me my potential and in the end made me a better student, since I saw how I could apply my studies. I formed contacts within the company, and did end up working there when I graduated. The year I graduated (1991) many students had trouble finding full-times jobs, due to a recession. In fact, it was mainly the co-op students returning to their companies who were able to start work directly after graduating.
And of course, I did make great memories there, and some life-long friends. It was a wonderful feeling to make that much money as a student. It taught me responsibility, when I was able to buy my first brand-new car. It also positioned me very well in my career. I moved into several interesting jobs within the company over the years, and am currently in a great job, working for a boss that I knew on my first co-op assignment. I probably would have never ended up where I am today without that experience. I really cannot emphasize enough the impact that cooperative education has made on my life.
If you or anyone you know is considering co-oping, I encourage you to go for it! To make it a good experience, I recommend working for a large company where you can gain a variety of assignments. Also, the larger the company, the better the chance that there will be other students to share the co-op experience with. Remember all the benefits of co-op education and the great start it gives you in your life and just do it! You won't be disappointed.