Op-ed: Cutting back on co-op students is a short-term solution with long-term repercussions

chantal yelle - co-op

In times of economic slowdown, it’s easy to overlook the immense value that co-op students bring to our local industries and economy. While the job market may be tightening up, it’s vital for employers to continue engaging and supporting the talent of tomorrow, now more than ever.

The cyclical nature of the job market has most recently led to challenging times, with major companies reducing their workforces across North America. This ripple effect has impacted various sectors, including the tech industry. However, cutting back on hiring co-op students is a short-sighted solution that could have long-term repercussions. Co-op programs are designed to address long-term needs and provide organizations with a pipeline of skilled and test-driven talent ready to contribute effectively from day one.

Engaging co-op students benefits organizations in multiple ways. These students become familiar with the company’s processes, technologies and culture during their placement, making them highly efficient and productive once they transition to full-time roles. Moreover, supporting co-op programs ensures that critical projects can continue even with staff reductions, maintaining momentum and innovation within the company.

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There are other benefits that are not as obvious. Hiring local co-op students is crucial to the local economy and to being able to retain talent in Ottawa after graduation.

Some common concerns raised about hiring co-ops include resource limitations, shrinking budgets and the effort required for onboarding and training. However, investing in co-op students pays off in the long run by reducing the risk and cost associated with hiring unfamiliar full-time employees. It’s about enduring short-term challenges for significant long-term gains.

Consider the trajectory of your current team leads, managers and executives. Where were they five to 15 years ago? Many of them started their journey in school. By hiring co-op students, you’re not just filling temporary positions, but nurturing future leaders who understand your organization inside out.

Of course, co-op programs must evolve to meet changing needs. For example, the co-op recruitment experience can be enhanced by transitioning from a rank-and-match process to continuous placement. This is what we have done at the University of Ottawa as of the fall 2024 work term, addressing a key request from employers. We are also developing a new recruitment tool expected to go live for students and employers within the next year. The project lead on this is a former co-op student (yes, we practise what we preach!) who totally gets what we are trying to accomplish: simple, user-friendly and modern technology.

These types of efforts make co-op opportunities more accessible and mutually beneficial for students and employers alike, ensure better alignment with industry needs, and help to prepare job-ready graduates. And co-op programs should not forget essential soft skills, a priority identified by our industry partners.

The message to industry is clear: have faith in local schools and co-op programs that aim to deliver high-quality talent. By supporting co-op initiatives, you’re investing in your future workforce and ensuring your organization remains competitive and resilient, regardless of market fluctuations. Embrace co-op students as a strategic asset and you’ll reap the rewards both now and in the years to come.

Chantal Yelle is supervisor, business development and partnerships, at the University of Ottawa.

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