To co-op or not to co-op

That is the question— and Mel has an answer...

Photo courtesy of SFU Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

By: Melanie Hiepler 

Let’s cut to the chase: yes, it’s worth doing co-op. Shall I count the reasons why? Job experience. Networking. Resume building. Getting paid. To me, it’s kind of a no-brainer, especially if you don’t have a clear plan for life after graduation.


How does co-op work?

The entire co-op experience is designed to get students ready for the professional world. Before you begin searching for your first work placement, you’ll attend a series of workshops that will help you tighten up your resume and cover letter writing skills, and that will have you well-prepared for your first round of interviews. Throughout the whole process, co-op advisors are on hand to review and provide feedback on your resume, help you practice for interviews, and generally cheer you on as you start morphing into a young professional.

During your first search term, the co-op job database on myExperience gives you access to jobs you wouldn’t be able to access otherwise. The jobs are diverse — everything from coordinating day camps, to working in research labs, to designing software for leading tech firms, to running interpretation centres at national parks. Some of the postings are in the Lower Mainland, while others are elsewhere in Canada or further abroad. There are endless possibilities here, folks.


What is co-op like?

During your work term, you’ll settle into a full-time work week and, if your experience is anything like mine was, you’ll find yourself basking in the glory of not having to be up at all hours of the night studying. At some point mid-semester, your co-op advisor will check in with you and your supervisor to debrief and make sure things are going smoothly. Your advisor will once again be on hand to help you get the most out of your experience.

The beauty of co-op is that it’s like a safety net. It gives you a short window of time to try different jobs and work environments before launching into a full-time career. That’s why I decided to make the most of my first co-op semester by branching out and trying something new: I applied for a communications co-op job even though I’m an arts student and had little practical experience in the field. I was curious about the field, and wanted to try my hand at it.

I spent last summer working as a Junior Communications Officer at Transport Canada’s Vancouver office. Transport Canada (TC) is a department of the federal government that oversees policies, programs, and issues of safety, efficiency, and environmental responsibility as they relate to Canada’s transportation industry. I had opportunities to work with my colleagues on a variety of files that are of particular importance to British Columbia, and gained a deeper appreciation for the behind-the-scenes work that keeps our government running.

When I wasn’t supporting my colleagues with their files, internal communications was my gig. In addition to the myriad of blog posts, newsletter articles, fact sheets, and speaking notes that I worked on, my pet project for the summer was a series of “Day-in-the-Life” videos featuring Transport Canada employees. For this project, I got to film the inspection of a bulk freighter in the Vancouver Harbour, as well as a rail car safety inspection at a local rail yard and an aircraft airworthiness inspection at Transport Canada’s hangar. Definitely not your average day in the office!


From an employer’s perspective . . .

Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from co-op. When I asked my co-op manager why he hires students, his reply was succinct and sincere: “We hire co-op students because we know they bring new ideas and energy to our team.” Co-op students are viewed as an asset; employers value the fresh perspectives we bring to a changing workplace.

My manager also commented on the qualities he looks for in potential co-op students: an interest in the field, curiosity, a proactive attitude, and a co-operative “team-player” approach to the corporate work environment are key.


Advice from a former co-op student . . .

Transport Canada has a long legacy of co-op students. My colleague Sau Sau Liu began her career there almost twenty years ago as an SFU co-op student. After she completed her Communications degree, she returned to TC to work on a project that she’d begun during her co-op work term. The rest, as they say, is history. “My co-op experience allowed me to demonstrate my work ethics and skills,” she told me, “as well as build connections which led to the opportunity for full-time employment.”

When asked for advice for current students, she replied, “I encourage students to complete as many work-terms as they can so that they can explore what it’s like to work for different companies, sectors, industries, and even cities. This is one of the best ways for students to learn and decide what they want to do for a career after they graduate.” Wise words indeed — there’s no time like the present to get a feel for the real world.


In summary

In hindsight, the semester I spent doing co-op was the best possible investment of my time. I came away with a portfolio of projects I’d created, as well as a respectable list of transferable skills, an impressive-looking entry on my resume, and some know-how when it comes to networking and building professional relationships in a corporate environment. Most importantly, though, I came away from co-op with a sense of confidence that I’d lacked before. While my after-graduation plans are still hazy, I proved to myself that I have the skills needed to competently navigate the next phase of my life.


How to get involved

Getting started with co-op is easy. A great place to start is by attending a Co-op Information Session. Check out their website to register for an upcoming session.

Apply to co-op as soon as possible — the earlier you apply, the more flexibility you’ll have in planning out your degree. Review your program’s requirements, complete the online application, pay your application fee, and then wait a few days to hear back from your faculty’s Co-op program.

For more information, head on over to