SFU’s co-op program: the other side of the story

Photo Credit: Phoebe Lim

Almost every young student lives the paradox of ‘needing experience before you get experience.’ Co-op programs present themselves as the ideal solution to this ‘experience’ dilemma, and as the ultimate way to begin in the working world. But there are many details about the process that they don’t tell you when you hand over your $125 application fee.

I saw a couple of co-op postings the other day that listed “extensive event management experience” and “at least two to three years in marketing” as requirements. I definitely feel like I missed the part where I was supposed to gain this experience while, like most other young students, I’ve been in university full-time since graduating high school. In my view, these job postings definitely don’t belong in a university co-op program.

If an employer has agreed to work with a post-secondary co-op department to hire a student, they are committing to hiring someone who has little to no work experience in the industry, but has the theoretical knowledge and eagerness to learn.

At first glance, co-op appears to be combatting classism; work terms are integrated into the school year and therefore it may be easier to pay off student loan debt with less interest. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Sure, most of the positions listed pay over $11 an hour — however, many unpaid internships are also listed. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue (aside from the fact that unpaid internships are morally questionable, especially when it’s from a corporation that can definitely afford to pay you), but SFU co-op explicitly advertises and emphasizes paid work experience.

I didn’t get a job I was apparently qualified for because my handshake wasn’t strong enough? Please.

I have also come across a posting that paid minimum wage and whose job duties involved ‘food pick-ups.’ That certainly doesn’t constitute ‘degree-related experience.’ In that case, I may as well go back to my job as a waitress, because I’d at least be making $20 an hour with the tips, and would probably enjoy myself even more.

Moreover, there have been many jobs that require you to have a class five driver’s license along with your own vehicle. When I had my one-on-one meeting with a co-op advisor, and I told him I didn’t have a car or the funds to buy one in the foreseeable future, he scoffed and said, “You need to have a car. At least get a scooter — like, you know, a Vespa.” Wow. If only it were that simple.

Another ‘great thing’ about co-op is that quite frequently, employers will send you feedback through the co-op office on how you performed at an interview. In fact, an employer once told me that I was indeed qualified for the position but “[my] handshake was not as strong as the other applicants’ were.”

I didn’t get a job I was apparently qualified for because of my handshake? Please. I’d rather you just told me you didn’t like me! At least make up some excuse about other candidates fitting in more easily with the corporate culture or whatever. However, such comments are to be anticipated in a corporate mindset where ‘fake’ is synonymous with being professional.

In the end I don’t want to discourage anyone from applying to co-op — who knows, you might be incredibly successful. But personally, I’m tired of reading articles that applaud the co-op program at SFU. There is always another side to the story; it seems to me that co-op programs no longer provide the “foot in the door” that they should, and that they are unable to offer any alternatives to the demoralizing demands of the corporate world.



  1. Love seeing someone who has a similar opinion to mine! I also have had a bad experience with the co-op program at SFU and hate how it is held in such limelight. I thoroughly regret ever applying.

    • Oh, care to share ur experiences?
      Was thinking to transfer to sfu beedie instead of ubc Sauders because sfu is rumoured to have a ‘better’ Co op program. And the advisors I spoke too seems to not talk about the negative aspect of their program, seems hard to get a real review!,

  2. To be honest, the issues you bring up is a problem every single person has, not just SFU co-op students. Getting the first ‘real’ work experience is tough, employers don’t really know what you’re really capable of. Still though, I personally think SFU co-op (at least in communications) does a great job in offering an opportunity and the necessary preparation to find those positions that are open to hiring a first-timer, more so than a person can do on their own. Honestly though, co-op can only do so much, it’s really up to the person.

    Employers aren’t going to give you special treatment as a co-op student, sure they might be open to hiring a first-time co-op student, but you’re still going against probably a dozen other students who also have the ‘eagerness to learn’ and the ‘theoretical knowledge’. All it really takes is 1 student to have relevant volunteer experience, experience writing for something like The Peak, having their own blog, etc. etc. to get the upper hand over the others. These kind of things you can do on your own, and it is seen as real experience, a showing of actual initiative… things like the handshake, or the car issue, welcome to the real world – that’s how a lot of sucky corporations function, no matter if you’re a co-op or not 😉

  3. Wow, your co-op advisor doesn’t sound nice at all. It depends on the program, I suppose, because communication co-op advisors are pretty great.

    In my experience, many employers who require one year or more of experience will still look at students who don’t have any paid work experiences. When I applied for my first co-op, I didn’t have anything significant in terms of paid work but I could show them my volunteer experiences (which count)! It still wasn’t easy, however. I was an international student, so I couldn’t apply for government-funded jobs; I also can’t drive, so I had to ignore positions that require a driving license; I had to scroll down through food pick-ups type of jobs… In a few months, I applied for over 40 positions, got interviewed (and rejected) seven times, before landing my first co-op job, that ended up hiring me right after my graduation. Most people I know who did co-op had similar experiences.

    Co-op is not for everyone, and it’s fair for some not to like it, but students shouldn’t expect the co-op program to be a walk in the park. It’s opens a door to real life, and there will be difficulties and barriers along the way.