The Straight Dope: Should my startup take on a co-op student?

If your firm needs some extra talent this summer, there’s a case to be made for going the student route


There’s more to university co-op programs than acting as talent pipelines for mid-size and larger firms. A year and a half ago, the University of Ottawa took a decidedly entrepreneurial bend on co-op, partnering with RBC on a new program that would see a few students join early stage companies – or strike out and start their own – with a scholarship to cover costs.

Six students have already taken part, joining local startups such as Welbi, with eight more going out this summer. About half have joined an existing firm, with the rest starting their own.

Techopia wanted to find out why the University of Ottawa is embracing this new take on co-op, so we talked to Marc-André Daoust, associate director of co-op programs, and Stephen Daze, the Dom Herrick Entrepreneur in Residence at the Telfer School of Management, to get the straight dope.

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(The following transcript has been condensed and edited.)

Why should a startup take on a co-op student?

SD: From a startup perspective, it’s a great opportunity to access young, energetic talent who are very motivated to gain experience in the world of work. Depending on the startup, it may be really relevant for them to bring on a younger individual who has knowledge of the latest technologies related to marketing to a new generation. (Editor’s note: they know how to use Instagram)

They’ve also got the latest information coming out of the classroom in terms of the theoretical stuff.

It provides a startup with an opportunity to, I’ll use the expression, test drive a potential student who is at the front end of their career, not making as much money as a veteran in the industry. It gives them an opportunity to gain exposure to students who will be looking for full-time employment soon.

MAD: For startups, one of the advantages of working with a co-op program, rather than just taking on any student who’s not with a program, is that in a structured program like co-op, the best and the brightest students are the ones that take part. They also have the support of the university. If there are challenges in the environment, challenges within the work term itself, they work with us, we make sure things work out. It’s more of a structured process.

As a student, if you’re looking for a co-op placement, how does the experience differ if you’re going to go to a new startup versus a traditional firm that has 50-plus employees?

MAD: One of the reasons students decide to do co-op is they’re figuring out where they want to work down the road, what they want to do. I think that’s one of the advantages for a student to take part in co-op. They can try a work term in a large-type firm, they can try a work term in the government here in Ottawa or work with a startup where they will see that there’s quite a difference in terms of what they’re going to do.

From all of the students that have worked in a startup so far, the main thing that comes back is that they enjoy being able to be involved in pretty much everything. Because if you work in a startup, you’re not going to be the sole person doing coding or the sole person doing marketing. Chances are, you’re going to be involved in day-to-day business decisions, you’re going to be involved in the entire process and really get to see what it’s like to run a company. You won’t be exposed to that in all work terms.

Not all startups make it past the first year. What qualifications does a startup need to have to take on a co-op? How do they prove that in the next four months, they’re not going to go under and leave a student out on his or her luck with the co-op placement?

SD: We have an internal committee here at the university that takes a look at all of the potential startups, with an eye to, “Do we think the startup has a long enough runway to be able to provide that experience?”

We’re not dealing with brand-new, idea-stage startups. We’re typically dealing with startups that have a little bit of traction, either in the form of sales or funding, so we have a comfort level that they’ll be around long enough.

MAD: It’s the same approach that we take for students that want to use the RBC Entrepreneurship Program to work on their own business. The committee will evaluate whether or not the opportunity will last the full four months of the work term, or is there a chance that it may even fail before it gets to the work term?

The RBC program covers costs for a student’s placement. If a startup is applying to take on a student, how does the committee guarantee that the student is going to get a fruitful experience from this and it’s not just a startup trying to get some cheap labour for four months?

MAD: That’s a very important question, and it’s one of the things that we ask all of the startups that apply to the program. One of the main things we need to see is that they’re going to make sure the student is exposed to the entire business: the A to Z of running the startup, or being exposed to all of these things, rather than just saying, “I want to bring in a student that’s going to do marketing from home and never actually be in touch with anyone here in the office.” We want to make sure it has that full experience.

When employers are submitting their applications or letting us know they want to take part in the program, they’re providing us with the opportunity they’re going to give the student and how that opportunity is going to allow the student to develop their entrepreneurial mindset and skills.

Anything else to add about the startup approach to co-op?

MAD: Most universities have focused heavily on incubator spaces. That was the idea with the RBC program, is that we wanted to make sure we were developing skills and mindsets before students might be ready to work in an incubator-type space, and trying to figure out where they can become entrepreneurs. So this is where the program is indeed innovative.

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