The “no experience–no job” cycle

Experiential learning is becoming more important as the gap between school and the workforce grows

Jessica Klymchuk, News Editor Ω

Students enrolled in the co-op program can make between $14 and $30 per hour during their work terms. Jessica Klymchuk/The Omega

Students enrolled in the co-op program can make between $14 and $30 per hour during their work terms. Jessica Klymchuk/The Omega

Imagine your surprise when, after you graduate, you realize that your degree won’t necessarily get you a job. Experiential learning and the ability to analyze the job market are becoming more and more important for finding meaningful work, even with a post-secondary education.

A report released by CIBC in June 2013 said, “while more education is positive, increasingly, students are completing their education without any work experience and are more likely to be caught in the no job–no experience, and no experience–no job cycle.”

The author of the report, CIBC’s chief economist Benjamin Tal, told the Canadian Press that the transition from school to the workforce is a major problem for youth and “policy makers need to create options in which education and work-related training are combined.” His report says “statistics show that youth who gain work experience and receive on the job training while studying are much more likely to find suitable and sustainable employment.”

Opportunities like TRU’s co-op program, which is regulated by the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education (CAFCE), connects students to the labour market before they graduate, providing experience in their chosen field and analytic reflection of their skills and how to leverage them.

“If you get the education, it used to be that work would follow relatively easily,” said TRU student employment co-ordinator Susan Forseille, “and that’s definitely not the case now.”

Co-op runs in science, arts, business, computer science, tourism and the bachelor of interdisciplinary studies. With four co-op coordinators, Forseille said career education is a “very small” department but she would like to see co-op grow to run in every program.

In November the Globe and Mail released the 2014 Canadian University Report, saying students at TRU “complain of few internship and co-op opportunities in some programs.”

“In a way that hurt, because what more can we do with the resources that we have?” Forseille said.

The department is currently going through an evaluation to identify its strengths and weaknesses, a process Forseille described as “invasive.” But the end results will provide a clear path for the expansion of the co-op program into areas such as animal health technology, journalism and the master of business administration, programs which have currently shown an interest in offering co-op to their students.

Forseille said there is also potential for co-op to expand into diploma programs, as all the current opportunities are in degree programs.

Experience can also come from volunteer work, summer jobs, service learning or internships, but Tal’s report says summer jobs are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, while Forseille says internships are inconsistent and unregulated.

“There is nothing official at TRU with internships,” Forseille said, also noting that they have a less defined role than co-op – sometimes they can be a six-week job shadow and sometimes they can be one-day-per-week shifts for an entire semester. They can also be unpaid.

“We’ve taken the stance that we love internships, but we want them paid,” Forseille said.

Meanwhile, she said TRU has representation on both the provincial and national bodies for co-operative education making it “excellently represented” and “a part of the big dialogue.”

Depending on their program, students can do up to four co-op work terms, earning three credits per term. Some programs allow them to earn upper-level credits, others lower-level credits. Co-op students gain access to exclusive job postings that are often unavailable to students outside the program and earn wages ranging from $14 to $30 per hour.

Although students might enjoy earning money and academic credit simultaneously, the program also aims to offer them significant insight into their skills and career goals.

“When they are in co-op we have a series of activities designed to help enhance what they are learning,” Forseille said, “so that’s the students setting goals and learning what they want to happen, working with their supervisors to find out what is the scope of learning that can be done.”

Students are required to return to a full-time academic semester after their work term and use their last few classes to solidify their knowledge.

Prior to their work term students take the Co-op 1000 class, a career management class that teaches career development theory, labour market analysis, networking through the career mentoring program and sees them develop a career portfolio. Forseille said they try to take a holistic approach that looks past the status and wages of careers and rather what careers suit each student’s personality and aptitudes.

“We try to teach them to question some of their career beliefs,” she said.