Co-op programs give students a career head start

April 28, 2020 | Business
“Here’s 50 million dollars. You’re responsible for spending it.” That’s how Terry Nguyen sums up the unexpected level of responsibility he was trusted with when he took a job placement at a large energy company as part of the co-op stream of MacEwan University’s Bachelor of Commerce.

As a Supply Chain Management major, he took on tasks like procurement and budget controls during his placement. “It was pretty daunting at first,” he says. “But then I realized this was the best opportunity to just dive right in and get some experience.”

Terry recognized that he wouldn’t have been able to get this depth of understanding in the classroom alone, and that if he made the most of this experience, it would give him an advantage when it came time to look for a permanent job. “As a co-op student, you’re allowed to make mistakes. People are more willing to help you because they understand you’re learning.”

According to MacEwan’s co-op program advisor, Cheryl Kuehn, a co-op placement is not only a safe place to learn, it’s also a safe place for students to figure out what they want – and don’t want – to do. “Unless you’ve had experience working in a certain industry, it’s difficult to fully understand what it’s like or how it operates,” she says. “Sometimes students are surprised to find they didn’t like a placement as much as they thought they would. And that’s great because they’re finding that out while they have only made a short-term commitment to the employer and still have time to refine their career path before graduating.”

Other times it works the other way around – students find elements of a placement more interesting than they expected. Shelby Samoil was having trouble finding a placement that perfectly fit her International Business major, so she decided to pursue an opening at a major bank where she works as a client advisor. “I like it so much Shelby to shadow people in various departments to get direct experience in a variety of areas, but that plan was suspended when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the bank to adjust some of its operations. The change of plan itself has proven to be a valuable experience, says Shelby. “They acted really fast in coming up with a plan and making sure we felt safe. They made sure there wasn’t a sense of panic and there was open communication from leadership. It really made me think about how I would want to lead if I’m ever in a management role.”

The companies I interviewed with were interested in my practical experience. It gave me a leg up on the other applicants.
—Tarren Smallwood

Marketing major Brandon Clark knew from the beginning that finding the right job isn’t just about roles and responsibilities – company culture is also an important factor. He saw the program as a way to determine what he wanted in a work environment. “I chose to have each of my three placements in different workplaces that would provide different cultures, leadership and experiences,” he says. “That allowed me to gather insight to what I truly valued in a workplace, co-workers and company values.”

Though each student’s goals within the program vary, most have one thing in common – they attribute their post-grad job-seeking success to the program.

“Early in my degree, I looked for relevant work, but wasn’t getting anywhere because I lacked practical experience,” says Accounting major Tarren Smallwood. “There were a couple summers where I settled for jobs outside of what I wanted to do with my life.” That’s when he decided to enter the co-op program. Placements in the accounting department of a local concrete manufacturing company changed Tarren’s prospects completely – he begins a position with an accounting firm this fall. “The companies I interviewed with were interested in my practical experience. I think it gave me a bit of a leg up on some of the other applicants.”

As for Terry, he landed his current job as a consultant after graduation. Even though this is technically his first permanent, professional job, he doesn’t see it as the beginning of his career. “Some people might hesitate to take the co-op program because it can add some time to your degree, and that can delay the start of your career,” he says. “But the way I see it is that your co-op placements are actually an opportunity to begin your career while you’re still in university. It’s a head start.”

Learn more about the Bachelor of Commerce Co-op program.

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