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Is co-op all it’s cracked up to be?

Options differ by campus, program
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Julian Balbontin/THE VARSITY
Julian Balbontin/THE VARSITY

“Applied, or work-integrated learning is one of the fastest growing areas for universities in Ontario,” according to a 2014 report published by the Council of Ontario Universities (COU). Given the increasingly competitive market and the growing controversy surrounding unpaid internships, it is no wonder that there is a growing demand for co-op and similar work programs.

Sophie Wang, a computer science student, is currently in the second year of her co-op program at UTSC. She has completed her work term of eight months, during which she worked as a test developer at CaseWare International, an accounting software solutions company. She described her overall experience as extremely positive. “I learned an incredible amount about automated testing and how a legit commercial software is written, which by the way you’ll never learn at school.”

Considering the options

UTSC currently runs two major co-op programs, one in the Faculty of Arts & Science and one in the Management Faculty. The placement process for both programs is very similar.

In their first year, students are first required to attend a co-op class where they learn the skills necessary to navigate the pressures of job recruitment. Both Wang and Hazelmae Valenzuela, co-president of the Co-operative Students Association (CSA) for UTSC, found the process beneficial in finding employment placement.

“They go really hard on us with the co-op class, resume critiques, and mock interviews but I think that’s really beneficial. They’ve recently made it compulsory to meet with the student development coordinator as they’ve found that students who do so are more successful,” said Valenzuela. She explained that the Arts & Science Co-op program has expanded to almost double its size since her first year, from a figure of 400 students to 700 students.

Christine Arsenault, director of the UTSC Management Co-op program, mentioned a recent addition that allows students to work and study abroad. “Although it’s only four years old, the Management International program has been quite popular,” she said. Students in this program are required to spend at least one work and study term abroad, in Germany, the UK, Singapore, or Hong Kong, giving them valuable work experience abroad.

Wang and Valunzuela also commented on the relative ease when it came to looking for placements in their respective fields. “I find that on the website, the jobs listed are specifically tailored to our fields of study, so for example, those studying science would only find placements relating to science” said Valenzuela.

Humanities vs. sciences

Lisa Chen, a third-year student studying at the St. George campus, encountered similar circumstances while looking for jobs through the Career Learning Network (CLN), but saw it as a disadvantage to students who take more humanities-oriented courses.

“As someone who has extensively used the CLN, I find that while the people there, the workshops and services offered are great and useful, the events that I’ve gone to seem to be more geared to the sciences. For example, I went to this really large career day fair where they split the room into one for the Arts & Science students and the other for engineering and sciences,” Chen said.

“The kind of offers I saw in the former weren’t relevant to our fields of study, there were people looking for babysitters and Panda Express looking for cashiers, but in the latter, there were companies like Microsoft and Uber looking for software developer engineers,” she said.

Chen interned with IBM this past summer, during which she handled market research and client acquisition. She found that a lot of the ‘soft skills’ she had built up from her program, such as effective communication, presentation abilities and so on proved useful to her internship.

Interestingly enough, these ‘soft skills,’ also known as ‘people skills,’ are especially the kind of skills employers look for in new hires, according to a 2014 survey by the Canadian Council of Executive Chiefs, also included in the COU report.

“I’d really like for the university to perhaps widen their network, and maybe look at positions in municipality and the government, and just keep communicating, to allow students with strong written and communication skills the opportunity with business roles,” said Chen.


The St. George campus is known for its Professional Experience Year Program (PEY) and Engineering Summer Internship Program (eSIP).  “The only negative thing about the PEY was having to get back to school and remember everything I learned after a long 16 month break,” said Akshaya Pragadeeshram, a fourth-year engineering student at U of T. Pragadeeshram referred to the 12 to 16 month term that the program offers as opposed to the more common four month work terms offered by most other engineering co-ops. She said that she found the placement process fairly straightforward and secured her internship with 407 ETR after attending a number of career information days and handing her resume to as many companies as possible.

At UTM, there are co-op opportunities for students in Management, accounting and biotechnology. UTM also provides internship opportunities for upper-year level students; however unlike PEY which assures a salary, these internships are sometimes unpaid.

Ekas Rai, a fourth-year student at UTM, is currently interning with the communication, marketing and business departments of the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM). “This internship is a course credit for which I am required to complete a minimum of 100 hours,” mentioned Rai who discovered the job through the help of her coordinator.  She found that working with the CCRM despite being a Digital Media specialist has broadened the scope of her job search.