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The Employer Guide to Building a Successful University Co-Op Program

Finding the right talent for your organization can be tough. Especially when your organization is actively looking to fill an urgent open role, it can be daunting to sift through countless applications hoping to find a diamond in the rough. The best strategy to solve this problem is to build a talent pipeline, so that as needs arise, recruiters can simply contact qualified candidates to slot into open roles.

To help build an entry-level pipeline in particular, co-op programs are an excellent choice. Hiring co-op students provides organizations with short-term assistance during busy seasons and projects and creates a network of tried and true talent that recruiters can call upon to fill permanent entry-level roles. Continue reading to learn more about the types of co-op programs and how to implement one in your organization.

Full-Time vs. Parallel Co-Ops

Though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, co-ops differ substantially from internships. In most cases, students alternate co-op work with classroom instruction, instead of simultaneously working and taking classes as they do with internships. Co-ops tend to be much longer in duration, ranging from a semester to an entire academic year, and most students work full-time during this period. The additional time results in more opportunity for students to become deeply involved in complex projects.

There are situations in which co-ops run concurrently with classroom instruction. This method is referred to as a parallel co-op. Typically, students in this type of program work part-time during the semester, with availability to work full-time during summer and winter breaks.

Identify Resources Required to Build a Successful Co-Op Program

Before approaching local universities regarding participation in a co-op program, the first step is to determine whether the organization has appropriate resources to support such a program. Consider staffing needs, as well as which departments have the time and capacity to train and supervise a co-op employee. Note centers of excellence within the business, and choose those best able to provide a student with meaningful work assignments.

Connect With Career Services on Campus to Help Build Your Co-Op Program

Schools often have specific requirements for co-ops, and you should plan to take these parameters into consideration. Some colleges and universities have a department specifically focused on managing co-ops from both the student and the employer perspective. Others incorporate this function into their career services department. Locate the appropriate contact through the campus directory, which most schools publish online.

Creating a Co-Op Job Description

Creating university co-op program job descriptions is similar to writing standard job descriptions, but additional information is typically required. Start with the basics:

  • Job Title
  • Location of Work
  • Necessary Competencies
  • Required Skills (e.g. language proficiency, knowledge of specific software)
  • Description of the Role and Responsibilities
  • Compensation

Next, list information specific to the co-op objectives and requirements:

  • Work description – Describe the work or the specific project the student will embark on. For example, The student will support the marketing department on the development and roll-out of a new campaign.
  • Expected outcome – Specify the expected outcome of the student’s work term. For example, it could be that the project they are tasked with will culminate in the campaign launch at the end of their work term.
  • Employer benefits – Determine what benefits you will gain as an employer - for example, extra support for a large, resource-intensive project.
  • Student benefits – Outline what benefits the student will receive from this opportunity. Focus not only on tangible benefits, but also think about hands-on experience and valuable skills they will obtain.
  • Tie-Ins with Academic Training – For example, for a Marketing Co-Op student, the tie in could be as follows: This assignment will support student understanding of how marketing concepts are applied in real-world situations. Students will work with marketing professionals on the "five P's" -- product, price, promotion, place, and people.

Setting Pay Rates for Co-Op Hires

Students are often hopeful that their co-op pay will offset some of their education expenses, so competitive pay is important for attracting top talent. Benchmark similar programs before setting compensation rates, as students are likely to compare their options when deciding between multiple offers.

There are a number of ways to determine what a co-op employee will be paid. In some cases, employers elect to pay based on the amount of education that has been completed, and in other cases, employers pay an amount equal to pay rates of non-co-op entry-level hires. However, the most common method of calculating compensation is to pay a percentage of the rate a graduate would receive on hire.

For example, employers might offer 65 percent of the rate a graduate would receive if hired into a regular full-time position. This percentage usually increases if a student is selected for additional co-op assignments with the same employer in future semesters. Students grow more valuable during each subsequent co-op placement, as you will spend less time training them and they'll have more evolved skillsets and organizational knowledge to bring to the table.

This method ensures that co-op rates automatically change with the labor market as appropriate, and it accounts for increases in the cost-of-living. It also offers an opportunity to pay slightly more or less based on the student's performance - an important lesson for students in pay-for-performance practices.

Note that compensation for co-op employees must comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and state minimum wage requirements.

Selecting Students for Co-Op Placements

Because co-op programs have an academic component, a number of activities take place between the student and the school before resumes are sent to employers for consideration. For example, university coordinators are responsible for verifying students' academic standing and eligibility for a co-op position before they are permitted to apply for open positions. Just as importantly, the university handles verification and documentation of international students' eligibility to work in the U.S., which simplifies the hiring process for employers.

Once students have been approved to apply for a co-op position, they can then submit an application for your co-op opening. When employers have identified students with the appropriate skills and qualifications for open co-op positions, they contact students directly to arrange an interview.

When a student is selected for a co-op, the employer notifies the appropriate school representative to ensure the student gets credit for the assignment. In some cases, university co-op programs require a meeting with the co-op program coordinator and student to discuss responsibilities and learning objectives, and some co-op programs require a site visit to see where the student will be working.

Create Guidelines for Co-Op Supervisors

Supervisors of co-op students have more responsibilities than supervisors of regular employees, as they are expected to provide higher levels of coaching, training and feedback. Create a list of guidelines for individuals who will supervise co-op participants to ensure a positive experience for both supervisor and student.

Supervisor guidelines should include expectations for holding students accountable to standard business practices, such as work hours and appropriate office attire. Part of a student's learning includes developing an understanding of the need to be at work on time each day they are scheduled. Other examples of business expectations to review with students include timely, accurate completion of assignments and basic strategies for managing conflict in the workplace.

One of the most critical functions of a supervisor is to provide constructive feedback in a timely manner. This experience may be the student's first exposure to the business world, and supervisors have a strong influence on their future work habits. During and after the co-op, the school may also require employers to complete evaluations of the student. This is typically combined with other criteria to make up the student's grade for the co-op experience.

Best Practices for a Co-Op Student Orientation

On the student's first day at work, make sure an HR representative or delegate spends time reviewing the company's history, mission, and vision. Be sure to also review housekeeping items, such as dress code, overtime policies, holidays, vacation, and procedures for unscheduled time off. Let students know when they can take their lunch and break times. Help the student feel comfortable in the department by conducting a tour and facilitating introductions with co-workers.

Review the semester's planned activities and assist the student in understanding how these relate to the company's mission and the student's career plan. Plan activities in one-week increments, with supplementary activities in case of early completion. Finally, describe the expectations of the student's position in detail, and carefully review how the student will be evaluated.

Once you have designed your co-op program and are ready to hire, post your open co-op role to your selected campus targets using Symplicity Recruit. Symplicity Recruit is a seamless campus recruitment tool that will help you stay organized with co-op postings and applications.


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