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Opinion: Why the professional experience year fails — and how we can make it better

EngSoc PEY negotiator responds to the controversial revamping of FASE co-op
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Hundreds of students rely on the PEY program for modern and relevant professional experience. CINDY CHEN/THE VARSITY
Hundreds of students rely on the PEY program for modern and relevant professional experience. CINDY CHEN/THE VARSITY

The Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering (FASE) is close to implementing a massive overhaul of the Professional Experience Year (PEY), its main co-op program, which roughly 1,750 engineering and computer science (CS) students applied to this year. News of the overhaul sparked outrage in the engineering student body for the sharp increase in fees from $1,100–$3,600 and for not addressing student concerns regarding job availability and services.

The Engineering Society (EngSoc) president was nearly removed, and the EngSoc Board of Directors unanimously voted to elect two new representatives to handle the negotiations, barring the president and vice-president academic from participating in further negotiations.

As the newly elected Upper Year PEY Program Representative, I hope to shed some light on why co-op programs are so important to engineering and CS students, and why the current offerings need a revamp. I will then demonstrate how the new program fails students, and I will offer a realistic path to a better program.

The importance of experience

In the current competitive entry-level job market, employability is the top concern for many students. Students in engineering, CS, and related fields need to have professional work experience by the time they graduate to find entry-level, full-time jobs in a reasonable amount of time. This is why engineering and CS faculties across Canada are putting more and more emphasis on their co-op programs.

For engineering and CS students at UTSG and UTM, the Professional Experience Year (PEY) program — run by the Engineering Career Center (ECC) — is U of T’s main co-op program. During PEY, students can do a 12–16-month full-time internship at one company after their second or third year of study.

The ECC separately offers the Engineering Summer Internship Program (ESIP), which allows students to do a four-month full-time internship in the summer after their second or third year of study.

It is no secret that both PEY and ESIP need an overhaul. In 2017, a 55-page EngSoc report captured the shortcomings of PEY and ESIP in great detail and offered concrete pathways to improve the program. 

I won’t talk much about ESIP because ESIP as a standalone is a fundamentally flawed program. ESIP does not have full-time staff, relies exclusively on companies reaching out to U of T to post positions, and few people actually find jobs on it. The credible co-op opportunity at U of T is PEY.

Current fundamental issues

There are three main problems with the current PEY program. The first issue is the skewed distribution of jobs between fields. While the distribution of jobs is influenced by job market trends, proactive business development and corporate relations can significantly improve it. The diversity and quality of companies and positions brought to campus by student groups routinely outstrips that of companies on the PEY job portal. 

Second, the requirement that PEY positions must be at least 12 months long is a huge barrier to growth of the PEY job portal. Many companies, particularly tech companies or Canadian offices of US firms, offer internships that are less than 12 months long. The merits of a four-month or 12-month internship can be debated, but such debate is irrelevant when the best firms in certain fields don’t offer 12-month positions.

Even an expanded ESIP cannot fill this void because students are most competitive for internships when they finish third year and typically enter the PEY program. Despite the talk of the Toronto tech boom and the many high-caliber tech companies opening offices in Ontario, an embarrassingly small number of these companies are accessible through PEY because work terms must be at least 12 months long. 

Finally, the quality of professional development services — such as networking sessions, résumé workshops, and mock interviews — is simply not adequate in comparison to the fees. Many students feel that staff are inadequately trained, with 73 per cent of respondents in a 2017 survey held by the EngSoc Academic Advocacy Committee feeling that EEC counsellors “lacked the industry experience to offer insight beyond the superficial.” 

Future fundamental issues

Student groups such as You’re Next Career Network and the Sustainable Engineers Association not only host their own career fairs, but they also bring recruiters, engineers, and managers to campus to connect with students and give them feedback. The services provided by these student groups are free or of negligible cost. 

The proposed revamp of the program can be summarized as more of the same at a higher cost. It combines ESIP and PEY and increases the total fee from $1,500 — $1,100 for PEY and $400 for ESIP — to $3,600. Students will be expected to pay 50 per cent of this fee prior to going on their work term after third year.

This creates a huge accessibility barrier for students from low-income backgrounds and effectively nullifies much of FASE’s accessibility efforts. The proposed revamp does not allow for more work-term flexibility or a concrete path to improving job opportunities for low-availability fields.

Much of the fee increase is intended to finance doubling the head count of the ECC staff. This is at odds with the demands of the student body, whose primary concern has been the quality of ECC’s services and not the quantity. Overall, this revamp does not meaningfully improve the program for students.

A better program is possible 

To see the potential of what PEY could be, we can start by looking at McMaster University’s Co-op Program. At McMaster, students of any year can go on work terms of four, eight, 12, or 16 months. The only requirement is that they get 12 months of work experience prior to graduation. Additionally, the fee structure is such that engineering and computer science students pay $100 per year and an additional $300 for every four months of work experience they go on.

This is a significantly more flexible system for students and employers, and would make it much easier to get more companies into the system. Additionally, the fee structure does not impose significant accessibility barriers for low-income students. 

In order to prevent an exorbitant increase, it is important to contextualize the role of the ECC in providing professional development services. Given that many student groups already provide specialized and industry-relevant services, the ECC should instead focus on supporting these groups and filling in gaps by providing services that they are uniquely equipped to offer.

There’s no need to duplicate effort by having ECC full-time staff deliver résumé workshops or mock interviews when it can simply ask its partner companies to do these as recruitment events or put them in touch with student groups. ECC staff only need to be directly involved in providing one-to-one counselling, administrative and visa support, and services that are entirely absent from the professional development ecosystem.

To improve access to relevant jobs, we must first develop systematic ways to categorize jobs and identify underserved industries. Simply hiring more business development staff and setting an overall job-to-student-ratio target is not sufficient. EngSoc and affiliated discipline clubs would be happy to assist in developing the criteria and performing the analysis. It is only after we have a clear picture of each industry that we should talk about setting targets or hiring additional staff.

A better PEY program is possible, sorely needed, and good for both student careers and the reputation and prestige of the Department of Computer Science, FASE, and U of T. Such a program is not radically different, financially infeasible, or in any way incompatible with regulatory requirements. It does, however, require a greater degree of collaboration with student groups, and a more student and employer-centred perspective on the role of the ECC and PEY.