The number of student co-op jobs is rebounding after a pandemic-related slump this past summer, but challenges remain and students, post-secondary institutions and tech leaders in Waterloo Region are urging employers to keep hiring.

“Students bring new ideas and fresh perspectives and an enthusiasm that helps level up any department’s culture,” said Julie Forsythe, Vice-President Engineering at Auvik Networks, a Waterloo company that typically employs between four and six co-op students. “The challenges that we may experience as part of the pandemic right now – onboarding and working 100-per-cent remotely – it is so worth the additional effort.” 

All three post-secondary institutions in Waterloo Region reported a decrease in summer 2020 co-op opportunities as COVID-19 bit into company revenues, necessitated workplace restrictions, and created challenges around hiring, onboarding and supervising student employees in a remote-work environment.

The University of Waterloo, Conestoga College and Wilfrid Laurier University all put additional supports in place to help co-op students and to make it easier for employers to hire them. 

The extra effort has helped – co-op employment rates increased in the fall term. However, they aren’t quite back to past levels and there is concern that this year’s decrease in summer and fall co-op jobs may have a ripple effect that will impact students for another year or so.

“Things are getting better but not rapidly,” says Andrew Dickson, a third-year student in mechanical engineering at the University of Waterloo and Vice-President Communications for the Waterloo Engineering Society. “I wouldn’t say things are returning to normal within the next year.”

First-year students have borne the brunt of the pandemic fallout as junior-level co-op jobs go to senior-year students with more experience, says Dickson. That creates a back-up in the normal flow of the co-op system that may leave current first- and second-year students scrambling to fulfil all their co-op requirements toward the end of their degrees.

The message to employers from students, post-secondary officials and a number of tech leaders in Waterloo Region is: Thanks for all the support… and please keep hiring! 

“We need to keep talent moving along,” said Nora McRae, Associate Provost, Co-operative and Experiential Education at the University of Waterloo. “We don’t want our young talent in co-op programs or new graduates to be stalled in the progression of either their degrees or their careers, because once you stall, that makes it a lot harder to get going again.”

The co-op employment rate at UW dipped to 86.4 per cent in the summer, down about 10 per cent from past years. For the fall term, the rate rose to 95.4 per cent and appears to be holding strong for the winter-term cohort, McRae said.

Wilfrid Laurier University says its co-op employment rate dropped to 93 per cent in the summer, rose to 99 per cent in the fall, and is currently on track to exceed 93 per cent in the winter term, according to Karen McCargar, Director of Laurier’s Co-operative Education and Workplace Partnerships.

The situation is different at Conestoga College. Many of its co-op programs, such as construction, are geared to on-site work terms that are not easily transitioned to a remote-work environment.

“One of the hardest hit areas from Conestoga’s programs from a co-op perspective is probably our hospitality program,” said Kristine Dawson, Director of Co-operative Education, Career Services and Work-Integrated Learning. “Basically, the whole industry shut down.”

Conestoga’s co-op employment rate dropped to 44 per cent this past summer, down from 95 per cent the summer before. The fall term rate is 75 per cent, Dawson said.

Those numbers reflect the experience of many colleges across the country, not just Conestoga. Dawson, who is Past President of a national organization called Cooperative Education and Work-Integrated Learning (CEWIL) Canada, said CEWIL analyzed co-op employment numbers in October and found that the impact on colleges and polytechnics across the country has been about 20 per cent greater than on universities.

“What we found is that university co-op positions were more easily able to convert to online,” she said. “So, we’re all faced with the challenges of the contracted labour market but the colleges are additionally faced with the challenge that the work that students do is more likely something that has to be done on site.”

All three post-secondary institutions in Waterloo Region acted quickly in March to put additional supports in place for co-op students and employers – things like training for online interviews and adjusting co-op timelines and requirements to be as flexible as possible.

They also hired more students themselves. At UW, for example, co-op students were hired to help professors adapt their courses to online delivery as the university transitioned to remote learning due to the pandemic.

The federal and provincial governments have also provided supports. 

Ottawa made temporary changes to its Student Work Placement Program (SWPP) – which offers wage subsidies to employers – to make it easier to access funding to hire co-op students. 

And both the federal and provincial governments are funding the Digital Main Street initiative, which employs co-op students and recent graduates to help small- and medium-size businesses adapt to e-commerce and enhance their use of social media and website technology.

Communitech, which is administering the Digital Main Street program in Southwestern Ontario, hired 275 students and recent graduates in the first cohort of the program this fall, and expects to hire 230 for the second cohort in January.

Judy Hutchison, Director of Recruiting for Arctic Wolf Networks, a cybersecurity company in Waterloo that typically employs 12 to 15 co-op students, said she understands how challenging it can be for some companies to take on co-op students during the pandemic.

However, she said the contributions students make to an organization – and the importance of supporting the talent pipeline that post-secondary institutions facilitate – is important for students, individual companies and the community.

“The University of Waterloo, and all the schools really, have done a phenomenal job (preparing students for remote work),” she said. “I think if you want to make it work, you can. I also feel that students really want to make this work. They really want the experience, they are comfortable with technology, for them to be able to work from home and to interact and get into a team, they can do it very easily and seamlessly.”

Auvik Network’s Julie Forsythe concurs.

“As good corporate citizens of the Waterloo Region,” she says, “it’s our job to ensure that we are creating opportunity for students in this region. They are such an incredible component and create a really lovely deck as part of any engineering organization specifically, but I think right across the board.”

Officials at all three post-secondary institutions said they are eager to assist employers with their co-op needs and inquiries. You can reach the co-op offices at the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University and Conestoga College through their websites.