Why co-ops are rocket fuel for your early engineering career

What if you had a dollar for every time someone grumbled about a young engineering grad creating impossible to manufacture designs due to lack of practical experience? And what if you also had a dollar for every engineering grad that wished their degree program gave them more job relevant skills and/or some viable experience? You'd probably have something like two times infinity dollars, and I'd be writing your biography for a perfectly reasonable six-figure retainer. If you're in engineering school now, there's no reason to wait for a miracle in education reform. Take matters into your own hands and be part of your school's cooperative education (co-op) engineering program.

Solar Mirror located in the Solar Collector Laboratory at the Lewis Research Center, now known as John H. Glenn Research Center

A snapshot of the author's co-op. He's the guy staring directly into the light.

Co-op > internship

While internships are excellent for your nascent engineering career, co-op's are even better. What's the difference? Most internship opportunities are relatively short in duration, either a couple months over the summer or several hours of part-time work a few days a week during the school year. Most co-op programs, in contrast, are geared to provide you with a full year of full-time engineering work experience, often with a single company. Because you'll be working full time, it typically adds a full year to your degree program, but you'll retain your student status while working and earn a few extra credit hours to boot. Most programs typically work on an alternating semester basis, to keep you from getting too disconnected from your studies.

Win2

Companies will commit to the year through your school's Co-op program. After an initial offer letter has been secured, the company typically ensures employment continuity for each alternating semester, unless you're just really awful at the job or if you somehow manage to set the building on fire. But why do companies commit to a co-op program and agree to carry students on for a full year? It's because co-ops are likely the biggest win-win arrangement you'll find in engineering education. Here's why:

Advantage you

  • Money: Yeah, you're not going to be making what you'd make as a degreed engineer, but as a student you're comparatively rich. Which means less student loans, and more splurging on computer hardware.
  • Free your mind: Frame your theoretical education into real world application. Ah, so that's what DiffiEq is for.
  • Exposure to many different roles: The best companies often rotate their co-op students to different assignments, or – better yet – even give them a choice. What better way to determine if you like analysis over design, or mechanical systems over liaison.
  • Career understanding: Studying engineering in school and working in the real world are two very different things. Nothing better to reinforce whether you want to be an engineer than working as one. After all, maybe you really want to be a lumberjack.
  • Exposure to tools and facilities: including software, laboratory equipment, and computing hardware not affordable by your school or that may be entirely proprietary. Experience with production software setups, even if you've used the programs in school, is some of the most useful experience to have. Plus you might just get to save the day by figuring out how some old homegrown COBOL application's functionality maps to a new SaaS the company just subscribed to.
  • Hiring advantage: The experience you earn through the co-op is truly invaluable; it's a huge advantage in getting a full time job almost automatically with offers in hand well before you've taken your last round of finals.

Advantage them

  • Cheap labor: On the off chance you learn quickly, the company benefits from getting real engineering work done at bargain basement prices.
  • Building a pool of future hires: Successful co-op students are known quantities, and consequently first on the list to hire post graduation, often without even bothering to interview again.
  • Pipelining: Building a positive relationship with the school and reputation among the student body is a great way to ensure a steady stream of new engineering graduates willing to work for you.
  • HR feedback: The company gets to sample feedback on the company's visibility/reputation among students, to help attract the best candidates.

Think about how nice it would be finishing up your final semester, when some of your buddies are competing hard to get an offer and you're already sitting on one or two. The job market fluctuates for a whole host of reasons, all of which are largely out of your control. Rather than lament the inherent unfairness of the job market, arm yourself with an indisputable advantage: real world engineering experience. Both the quality and quantity of job offers will be world's different.

And yes, I was a co-op too not all that long ago. So heed the advice, and if you're not in engineering school, pass this on to someone who is.


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