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Co-op programs increase chances of landing jobs

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Since the recession started in 2008, many college graduates have struggled to find suitable jobs in their fields. Parents and students, who have started to doubt a degree’s value, may want to consider colleges where students rotate between classes and jobs.

The students there gain valuable experience that helps them land jobs after graduation. The dozens of schools that offer cooperative education, or co-op, have maintained their high rates of placing graduates since 2008.

“It’s been demonstrated, and I speak broadly, throughout North America as well as many other countries we work with, that co-op students do very well in the job market,” said Paul Stonely, CEO of the World Association for Cooperative Education, which is based at UMass Lowell.

“My experience has been, even during a recession, or I’ll say particularly in a recession, there is more of an inclination of companies to hire the co-op student because they know they’re hiring someone with professional experience,” Stonely said. “If they’re hiring fewer, they obviously want to be very selective. We didn’t experience any downturn in hiring co-op students during the recession period.”

Northeastern University, which has one of the oldest co-op programs in the country, is an example. From 2006 to 2012, 90 percent of Northeastern grads were in full-time jobs or graduate school within nine months of commencement.

Fully 87 percent of those who were working had jobs related to their majors. Of those, half had received a job offer from an employer where they worked as co-op students.

“Co-op, we continue to hear, is a big draw,” said Kara Shemin, media relations manager at Northeastern. “I think the word, ‘jobs’ and knowing the job market is tough is a draw. It’s also the experience. Kids are going to be better prepared for the workforce because of their time on co-op.”

Henry Nsang left Cameroon in West Africa to attend UMass Boston, taking engineering courses. Then he learned that the school has only a two-year engineering program. Most of its students transfer to other colleges to get their degrees.

After a year and a half, Tsang transferred to Northeastern.

“I chose Northeastern because I was really interested in the co-op program. I’m a very hands-on type of person, so I wanted to get that experience before graduating — just to make sure it was what I wanted to do,” Nsang said. “I wanted to make sure that the decisions that I make are the right decisions and the investment I’m making is going to pay off, maybe not immediately, but definitely down the road.”

They did. After graduating in 2010, Nsang’s six-month experience on co-op as a junior engineer in New York helped him land a similar position in Cameroon.

Nsang returned to Northeastern for graduate school the next year, earning a master’s degree in environmental engineering in May. Since September, he has worked as a project engineer for Janey Construction Management & Consulting on Huntington Avenue near Northeastern.

Of his co-op experience, Nsang said: “I would say it definitely helped in getting my current job.”

Cooperative education began in 1906 at the University of Cincinnati. Northeastern started its program three years later. Initially, the rotating work experiences were in engineering, but then expanded to business students, and then across other academic majors.

About 50 American colleges have participated in programs of the World Association for Cooperative Education. Besides Northeastern and Cincinnati, schools that have large co-op programs include the Rochester Institute of Technology and Drexel University.

Drexel’s numbers on post-graduation placement are similar to Northeastern’s. Of Drexel’s class of 2012, 92 percent were employed or enrolled in graduate school, and 44 percent received job offers from former co-op employers.

At least 10 historically black institutions offer co-op programs in some academic areas, including Howard and Hampton universities. Spelman College started a program two years ago.

Typically, employers pay students to work fulltime for as many as six months at a stretch. Then students spend a similar period in classes. Some schools permit part-time co-ops. Colleges build relationships with potential employers, but students must apply and compete for jobs.

Northeastern, for example, has almost 3,000 employers as partners. They include retailer TJX, the Boston Globe and data storage giant EMC, as well as state and federal government agencies.

At Northeastern, the standard options for undergraduates are two co-ops in four years of enrollment or three over five years.

Students are heavily advised to do co-op jobs, Shemin said, but have flexibility in how many. Transfer student Tsang, for instance, did one in two-and-a-half years.

Stonely said the recession did have one limited impact on co-op education: companies offered fewer positions for undergraduate students.

“But those co-op students they did hire, they tended to hire them (permanently) and, obviously, they continued to do well,” Stonely said. “In that perspective, certainly the recession did not hurt the cooperative education field.”