Counsellor’s Corner – Co-operative Education: Hands on learning at its best

Back, many, years ago, when I was a high school student, Ontario had five years of secondary school. In my fifth and final year of high school, I took co-operative education.  My post-secondary goal at that time was to study journalism, specifically broadcasting, but wasn’t sure in what capacity.  I loved everything about media and print.  My then co-op teacher, Ms. Motta, found me a coveted placement at 1050 CHUM AM.  I am not sure how many people out there remember the radio station, 1050 CHUM – it was the oldies station and sister-station to CHUM 104.5 FM, featuring pop music.  I worked for the promotions manager, and she was the embodiment of the fast-paced, exciting corporate media world where journalism and business come together.  She wore brightly coloured blazers that matched her lipstick, and all black clothes underneath.  She had a personal assistant which, I thought at the age of 18, was the coolest job in the world.  And then there was me: a shy, awkward student who knew nothing of this world but was eager to learn everything.

In co-op, students earn credits for work experience.  The grades are based on various assignments, activities, and projects that the employer and high school co-op teacher assigns.  I aimed to please both.  I filed reports, made labels, sat in on meetings, and did coffee runs like the best of them.  I answered phones, worked on projects and one day I was even allowed to sit in the studio with a real-life DJ.  To this day, this is one of my fondest memories of high school.  Although I was invited to many different areas within the organization to gain a more comprehensive understanding of how the station ran, I realized: the media life was not a fit for what I wanted for myself moving forward.  So, when my year at CHUM ended, I was saddened but happy too.  I thanked my supervisor and all the amazing people I met and left with a clearer understanding that I was not going to go into this field.   

The great thing about having our students today take co-operative education is that no matter what, they will learn something.  For me, all those years ago, I learned that this wasn’t an environment that I was well-suited for.  I loved working for my supervisor—she was fantastic.  I equally admired her assistant who was always so kind and helpful, but I could not see myself in that environment professionally.  What co-op offers high school students is an opportunity to get their feet wet—to allow them to test-drive a profession.  And guess what?  If it’s not the profession for them, all the better.  They now have that knowledge.  But what if it is the profession for them?  Then that decision has been confirmed and they already have experience in that field. 

From the guidance perspective, there needs to be value in the experience for our students.  Whether you walk away with a yes or no, those are both equally valuable.  If students choose a post-secondary program, there is the financial commitment (which can be measured) along with the time commitment (which is more difficult to measure).   How many adults do we know that have a degree in something that they are not specifically using today because it is not what they expected?  Further, the much talked about skill gap is greater than just in the skilled trades. There is a skill gap in employability, particularly in the area of soft skills. This is an area of growth for high school students who take co-op.  Many of our students have never had to speak to an employer, go for a job interview or network.  In high school co-op experiences, the focus is also on those transferable skills because regardless of where you land, the skills you have gained you will be able to use. The high school student’s ability to communicate in a professional manner and the work ethic developed in their placement are skills they will use in any profession moving forward.

At our school, Co-operative Education is part of the Guidance Department, and this is a fitting place for it because, as we discuss pathway planning with our students, often a discussion of uncertainty in choosing a career path emerges.  Co-op is a great option for our senior students to try a job out, earn credits, gain valuable experience, and ultimately help them in their pathway planning.  When speaking with representatives from the various trades, colleges and universities, many of them will advocate for students to continue to select post-secondary programs that offer a co-op placement as it is in these programs where students will get job experience, an opportunity to network, and be exposed to different areas they may not have been aware of in their selected industry.  Co-operative Education is a fantastic program offered in high schools that can only benefit students who seize that opportunity to try out a new job of their choosing, practice various skills, learn new skills, and ultimately decide if that path is the one for them. 

By: Anna Macri