Waterloo Co-operative Education provides stability to companies during uncertain times

Waterloo Co-operative Education provides stability to companies during uncertain times

There’s one constant you can find at local business leaders like Stantec, SAP, and Faire and the fabled halls of Silicon Valley giants Google, Facebook, and Apple: University of Waterloo co-op students.

Since 1957, the University of Waterloo’s Co-operative Education Program has been helping employers across Canada and around the world work with the best young talent any university has to offer. Being located on the University’s campus here at the David Johnston Research + Technology Park gives us a front seat to see these amazing co-ops in action. Beyond the R+T Park, some of Waterloo’s most notable startups–including Miovision and Intellijoint–were born out of the insights their founders gained through experiential, work-integrated learning.

Ross Johnston, Executive Director, Co-operative Education, University of Waterloo

“At the University of Waterloo, we’re known globally for what we do with our co-op program,” said Ross Johnston, Executive Director, Co-operative Education at the University of Waterloo. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, post-secondary schools and institutions would visit Johnston and the University of Waterloo Co-operative Education team to learn how the program works. “They wanted to find out what our magic sauce is,” added Johnston. 

Founded by local business leaders in 1957 to create an educated post-war workforce, the University of Waterloo and its co-op program have quickly become the gold standard for work-integrated learning. “It’s what we hear from students. They’re extremely interested in the University and co-op because of the benefits it gives them,” Johnston said. “Learning is a lifelong journey. Co-op is a proven strategy to build skills needed for the workforce of the future.”

Originally from Scotland, Johnston made the move to Canada in 2004 to work for one of the major Canadian banks. In that role, Johnston led the global recruitment team which included campus recruitment. That role led to Johnston joining the University in 2009 as Director of Employment Relations. In 2017, he moved to his current role as Executive Director, Co-operative Education. Johnston is also the president of Experiential & Work Integrated Learning, Ontario (EWO).

“Co-op is a catalyst for innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Johnston. “Because of these learnings, the students start to ask questions–the what-ifs, whys. The ‘why do we do it that way’.” For Johnston, these are the questions that lead to new ideas. Ideas that can be explored, spark the creation of new startups, and make a real impact on the local, provincial, and Canadian economies.

“Co-op is a catalyst for innovation and entrepreneurship,”

Ross Johnston

The size and reputation of the University’s program creates amazing opportunities for their students. Employers range in size and scale, from nascent startups to Fortune 500 enterprises. “It’s our employer partners that enable that breadth and depth in experiences,” added Johnston. “It gives our co-op students a chance for meaningful work that has a relation to the purpose they want for their working life.”

Co-op terms give students experiences that help identify the things that truly interest them. When graduating, the University of Waterloo co-op students have a clearer direction than students who haven’t had work experience. It’s that work experience that helps the students build the ability to learn on the job and be successful. “They’re quick starters, fast studies, and require little supervision,” added Johnston. “They also help companies build diverse teams that bring new perspectives into problem-solving.”

Employers benefit from employing co-ops in several ways. While every company comes with its unique hiring needs, Johnston said there is always one constant–the need for access to young, future talent. “It’s what’s required to build longevity in organizations. It’s what helps them bring in fresh ideas and move forward.”

Hiring co-op students also gives businesses a chance to make a connection with potential future hires. “All of our co-op students remember that first work term, their first chance to get employed,” Johnston said. “It can open the door for that future talent and give you a chance to hire them when they graduate.”

Co-op students have another appealing quality for employers–affordability. “Our co-op students are very affordable top talent, especially with wage subsidies provided by provincial and federal governments,” added Johnston. The impact of co-ops on the Canadian economy is clear. Each year, over 20,000 undergraduate students participate in the program that works with more than 7,000 employers. The impact of the program is enormous. In the 2018-19 academic year, University of Waterloo Co-operative Education added $517 million to Canada’s gross domestic product and created 5,779 full-time equivalent jobs across the country. 

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Waterloo-based Faire is one company that credits its success to the University of Waterloo co-op students. The company opened a new office in Waterloo Region in February after announcing a USD 150 Series-D funding round that brought them to a USD 1 billion valuation–unicorn status (or as we say here in Canada, narwhal status). According to Faire CTO Marcelo Cortes, almost 80 percent of Faire’s employees in Waterloo Region are either Waterloo alumni or co-op students.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted businesses across the globe, Johnston said that there has never been a better time than now for companies to tap into co-op talent. Even with its size, Co-operative Education was able to virtually change overnight to address the pandemic. “We quickly moved from face-to-face interviews to everything being done online,” said Johnston. “Phone and online interviews have been a part of our program for a bit now, it helped us move to having everything done by video or telephone.” 

The move to digital by default, work from home, and online learning also necessitated changes to the co-op program. “We’re 100% committed to our students and employer partners,” added Johnston. The University reduced the number of required co-op terms and expanded the number of courses a student can take when not on a work term. 

The Co-operative Education program has seen more placements in the spring and fall terms than ever before. “It’s a real credit to the University and our senior leadership,” Johnston said. 

Changes to campus learning will likely be in place for the foreseeable future, including an emphasis on remote or distance learning. To help the university adapt quickly, the Co-operative Education program hired 320 co-op students in the spring term to work as online learning assistants. The co-op students supported university faculty in developing their courses so they could be delivered online. 

Making an impact beyond the office is also important for Johnston and the Co-operative Education team. They have been involved with the Digital Main Street and ShopHere programs that are helping Canadian retail and restaurant businesses complete a digital transformation of their operations. “We’ve also been in touch with the local chamber of commerce here to explore ideas where University of Waterloo co-op students can help,” added Johnston.

The COVID-19 pandemic might not seem like the best time to invest in co-op students, but Johnston believes that now is the best time to hire a co-op student from the university. “For companies looking for a way forward, the provincial government has a wage subsidy of up to 75% – between $5,000 and $7,500,” said Johnston. “These co-op students are resources with skills that can either help stabilize or grow your business – even accelerating it. There’s never been a better time for this.”

To learn more about Co-operative Education and to hire a co-op student for September: