Co-Ops vs Internships

Co-Ops vs Internships

Co-Ops vs Internships

In the competitive world of graduate employment, students are always looking for ways to get the edge over their peers to help increase their chances of securing work after graduation.

A popular way of standing out from the crowd is by gaining valuable work experience through either co-operative education (known as a co-op) or an internship.

Some degree courses, particularly in the engineering and technology fields, require the students to complete one of these options to graduate.

Both co-ops and internships provide the opportunity for a student to experience the realities of working in an industry they’re interested in. These elements typically run alongside the academic component of a degree program and the balance between classroom and workplace hours varies depending on the course you choose.

It’s important to note that there is some ambiguity between the terms ‘co-op’ and ‘internship’, particularly with employers, so rather than get hung up on the terminology, make sure you investigate what an opportunity involves and what is expected of you before committing.

It’s also crucial that the placement meets any requirements set by your degree program.

What Is Co-Operative Education?

As the name suggests, co-operative education, or co-op, is the complementary partnership of real-world experience of the workplace and academic learning.

The premise is that students take what they learn in the classroom and apply it immediately to real-life situations.

Co-ops are usually paid placements.

Typically, the student alternates between university and the chosen company, spending one semester in school and the next semester in the workplace. This format develops both academic and practical skill sets simultaneously.

The student has the opportunity to build relationships with employers and experts within their chosen industry which often returns benefits later on.

A co-op placement must fulfill the academic course criteria, so it is usually arranged with the help of the educational organization and selected from a pre-approved list of companies that have close ties with the university.

There are three types of co-ops:

The most common is a full-time co-op which involves alternating semesters in school and in the workplace. This gives a fully immersive experience where the student can focus entirely on their work during placements, without having to attend classes.

Sometimes the placement can occur over the months of summer break to reduce the overall length of the degree course.

Full-time co-ops don’t usually start until the second year of university to allow the student to settle into college life and make friends before embarking on outside work.

Less common are part-time co-ops that run simultaneously alongside classroom work, usually expecting around 20 hours per week in the workplace and the rest of the time in the classroom.

Lastly, one-semester programs take place over the summer break, not during the standard academic year.

What Is an Internship?

Internships offer students the chance to gain on-the-job training and work experience that contributes academic credits towards a degree.

Internships are generally unpaid (although not always).

Perfect for testing out a possible career while studying, internships require little commitment and are short in length.

Many internships run during term time and consist of part-time hours to allow the student to continue with studies.

Alternatively, and very commonly, they can also take place during summer break so as not to interfere with academic studies at all.

Students can expect to spend between six weeks and four months taking part in an internship.

Internships help a graduate stand out among their peers when it comes to job hunting. They also provide an opportunity to forge links with industry professionals.

One of the biggest advantages of an internship is gaining insight into different careers, without commitment. The student has a valuable opportunity to develop professional skills with the support of the working team and can use the experience to create an impressive resume.

Internships can be undertaken in almost any industry and can be organized by the student. However, the concept of unpaid internships has been criticized by some as unfairly benefitting affluent students.

Many low-income students can’t afford to work unpaid and have to dedicate any spare hours to paid casual work to help fund their studies.

What Are the Key Differences Between Co-Ops and Internships?

Time Demands

One of the biggest differences between internships and co-ops is the time commitment required.

Internships tend to be relatively short, lasting anywhere from six weeks to four months. They often consist of just a few hours per week in the workplace.

Co-ops are almost always much longer than this, with students spending multiple semesters with the company, totaling three to 12 months at a time.

When the student is on placement (rather than in the classroom), they are usually expected to work full-time weeks of 35 to 40 hours.

Level of Pay

Another serious consideration is whether a placement is paid or unpaid.

Co-ops offer paid workplace attendance. Also, students are not required to pay tuition fees to their university while they are in a work placement.

In contrast, internships are often unpaid (although paid internships do exist).

This has obvious implications for some students around accessibility and affordability. Always check whether a position is paid or unpaid before applying as there is no industry standard and companies sometimes use the terms ‘co-op’ and ‘internship’ interchangeably.

Level of Commitment Required

Co-ops involve the student committing to work within one industry and usually with one employer. This means the student builds relationships with industry key players and gains valuable experience and skills that they can carry over into employment.

Internships require less commitment and students can undertake many different internships in various industries throughout their degree program. This option offers the chance to try out different careers before committing to one, so is ideal for students who don’t yet know what career path they want to take.

Co-Ops vs Internships
Co-Ops vs Internships

Overall Length of Degree Program

As lengthy placements must be accounted for, co-op degree programs are longer than standard degrees, usually by an additional year to allow for the time spent out of the classroom.

Internships often take place over the summer break, which means no interruption to classroom learning, so a degree can be completed within the standard time.

Varied Nature of Work Available

Due to the short nature and lower commitment level of internships, they often consist of mainly entry-level tasks.

As co-ops require a higher level of commitment and the student is more fully immersed in the working environment, they are usually offered the chance to carry out more in-depth, interesting work and get involved with bigger projects.

Some students even publish written work or are named on development panels as a result of their contribution during their placement.

What Are the Benefits of Co-Ops and Internship Jobs?

Although co-ops and internships are different, they do share many similarities in the benefits provided to the student:

Networking and Building Professional Relationships

Experience with the company in which you wish to work means you make connections and relationships with your hiring managers and superiors.

When you graduate and come to apply for work, you have a head start on your peers.

Sometimes students are offered employment upon graduation as a direct result of their placements.

An Understanding of Life in the Workplace

Whichever work-experience route you take, you are gaining very valuable insight into the day-to-day realities of working within a company of your chosen industry.

This prepares you for the standards and commitment expected of you, something that can be a culture shock for graduates not used to the fast pace and demands of the workplace.

Easier to Secure a Job

An internship or co-op can often lead to a full-time job immediately after graduation.

The additional experience you gain also means that you can sometimes bypass the entry-level jobs to start your employment in a better paid, more advanced role than your peers who have not undertaken an internship or co-op with that company.

The Opportunity for International Travel

It’s very possible to choose to undertake your co-op or internship in another state, or even another country.

If the company is suitable and fulfills the criteria of your degree program, it could be located anywhere in the world. Global companies may even give you the choice of which office you’d like to attend.

If the potential for travel appeals to you, consider carefully how you will manage the classroom aspect of your course.

A full-time co-op program and a summer internship both allow you to spend substantial chunks of time in the workplace which works well with overseas placements.

Examples of Co-Ops and Internship Programs

Almost any industry can provide opportunities for internship and co-op placements, but some are more common than others.

Engineering and technology industries are particularly involved in encouraging both internships and co-ops and offer plenty of paid opportunities to students. However, competition is high and there may be interviews and a strict selection process to gain a place.

Many other industry sectors also offer these programs, including government institutions, the arts, business, hospitality, marketing, publishing and education.

In the technology field, companies such as Intel, IBM Research and Yahoo! all offer paid internships that provide excellent experience and opportunities for students.

As you can imagine, the application process is highly competitive and requires rounds of interviews, but the associated benefits and opportunities are considerable.

For engineering students, Intuit offers paid placements, as does Walmart for the pharmacy sector and the Bank of America, KPMG, Ernst & Young and more, for finance and accounting.

Cisco Systems, Inc also offers excellent paid internship and co-op placements for students seeking overseas travel opportunities.

Which Is Right for You? A Co-Op or an Internship?

When deciding whether a co-op or an internship is best for you, there are several considerations to help you make your choice:

  • University criteria – Your first consideration must be which route your university recommends. If you have to fulfill certain criteria to graduate from your course, this will immediately narrow down your options.

  • Your schedule – You need to be clear on which program best fits in with your schedule and how you will manage your time. You will still be expected to complete high-level academic work as part of your degree, so you need to be able to balance the demands of both to get the most out of the process.

  • Affordability – A significant part of the decision-making process is whether you can afford not to be paid. Many students just cannot commit to unpaid work and prefer the co-op route for this reason.

  • Your career path – How certain you are about your future career is another important factor. If you’re as yet undecided on a career path, internships allow you to try out different places of work and explore ideas and interests. If you are set on your career path, a co-op gives industry-specific, in-depth experience to build expertise, and provides a solid foundation to build upon as you start your working life.

It’s also worth noting that it may be possible to do both.

Utilize the summer break and other vacations to try out different companies and gain additional experience. Your student years are the ideal time to maximize opportunities and make connections with industries.

Final Thoughts

Co-operative education and internships both provide you with unique and valuable opportunities to develop and grow your skills and knowledge while building relationships with industry leaders.

Universities will advise on the requirements of your course, so you can choose the option that complements your learning and gives you the best chances of success.

Although there are many similarities between internships and co-ops, there are also marked differences, particularly in terms of time commitment and pay structures, and you must consider all aspects carefully before deciding which one is best for you.

The benefits of a well-supported scheme can offer multiple advantages that can kickstart a graduate career and accelerate progression for a new starter.


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