A Question of Experience

University co-op programs provide the key to opening Canada’s deadlocked engineering labour market.

0 March 5, 2015
Mike McLeod

15-March-co-op-engineering-Canada-625Engineers in Canada, and the firms that employ them, are caught in a Catch-22. According to studies conducted by the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE) and Engineers Canada, the profession is locked in a labour supply and demand puzzle that could have serious consequences in the coming decade.

On the one hand, employers complain of a broad skills shortage, in particular a lack of engineers with at least 5-10 years of experience. But while industry struggles to find suitable candidates, it is also facing a looming deadline. A 2012 labor study conducted by Engineers Canada projects that as Baby Boomer engineers reach retirement age, the number of experienced engineers in Canada will begin to decline significantly by 2020.

Part of the problem, says Ontario Society of Professional Engineers CEO Sandro Perruzza, is that employers are reluctant to hire those unable to “hit the ground running.” This leaves many engineering graduates struggling to find jobs in their field. In fact, OSPE’s recently released report Crisis in Ontario’s Engineering Labour Market, finds that only 30 per cent engineering degree holders in Ontario work as engineers — a percentage that doesn’t differ radically in other provinces.

“Industry has tried looking for engineers within Canada so they go to the government and say there is a skill shortage here,” he says. “So they asked to open the borders and let in engineers from other countries who have the skill set they’re looking for. Well, they have done that and we are currently immigrating as many engineers as we graduate, but as our studies show, [internationally trained engineers] have even less chance of landing a job in Canada.”

“So if the existing workforce isn’t there and looking [outside Canada] isn’t working, then how much longer do you have to wait before you realize that it’s better to develop your own talent,” he adds. “A co-op program is a great way to get a student who, while they are learning, comes into your company and also learns your work processes and culture. You develop a relationship with them and also see if they’re a good fit for your organization.”

For Dr. Wayne Parker, P.Eng., Associate Dean of Cooperative Education and Professional Affairs at the University of Waterloo, that sentiment is central to the university’s engineering program philosophy. With nearly 7,000 students enrolled in 14 engineering programs, U of W requires all its engineering undergrads to complete up to two years worth of co-op placement as a graduation requirement and has done so since its founding in 1957. Today, in partnership with approximately 5,200 Canadian and international companies, the university operates the largest post secondary co-op program of its kind in the world.

The results, Parker says, speak for themselves. A survey of 2010 graduates conducted in 2013 for the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, found that 92 per cent of U of W engineering degree holders landed a job six months after graduation and 95.9 per cent after two years. In addition, the university says, on average, co-op students earn 15 percent more post graduation.

“Employers come to co-op for a number of reasons: Some are doing talent scouting for permanent employment and some have short term needs for people to step in and take on particular tasks,” Parker says. “The best employment situations are when the students are given tasks that have real meaning and where, at the end of the day, the student and the employer can see that the work has made a contribution to the organization.”

Making sure students have a chance to contribute meaningfully during their placements is key, agrees Cheryl Hulme, Co-op Coordinator for Engineering at the University of Guelph. The biggest obstacle she finds when talking to prospective partner companies is overcoming a previous bad experience with a co-op student.

“If an employer has had a student who wasn’t suited for the position, didn’t get the support they needed or simply wasn’t ready to work, the employer is likely to say, ‘co-op students are more work than they’re worth; I’m not getting enough value,’” she says. “Some of that comes from the fact that a traditional co-op program just has four-month work terms. So an employer brings them in, trains them up and in 16 weeks, it is time for them to go. But as companies have become leaner and leaner, everyone who comes on board has to be adding value. In four month, it can be hard to find that value.”

In response, Hulme says the University of Guelph has moved toward 8-month work terms beginning after the second year for its engineering students. She says the longer term is not only more attractive to employers but also allows students to get up to speed in a position before they rotate back to their academic studies. At the same time, it still provides the opportunity for students to “sample” a spectrum potential career tracks before graduation.

Unlike U of W’s program, however, University of Guelph’s isn’t mandatory. In total, the program ran 395 unique engineering workterms last year. Having an optional program, she says, tends to attract only highly motivated and committed students who have had an opportunity to consider all their options.

“And in some engineering programs, students go out in the January of their first year so their feet are barely wet in university life,” she says. “Our students don’t go out until they finish two full years of their program. So not only have they taken half their courses but they have also begun to think about what they really want to do.”

Rather than break work placement into alternating four or eight month stretches, some engineering programs prefer a paid internship model. In Ryerson University’s Industrial Internship Program, for example, students work for 12 to 16 months after their third academic year. When the term is up, they return to university to complete their degree.

Dr. Liping Fang, P.Eng, Associate Dean, Undergraduate Programs and Student Affairs at Ryerson University says that while internships limit students to a single employer, they also provide ample time for students to become fully contributing employees. Currently, approximately 30 percent of the Toronto university’s engineering track students seek internships.

This extended placement also benefits employers, Fang says, by reducing the cost of recruitment, as many interns are offered permanent positions by the end of their term. In addition, he says employers, whether they participate in a co-op or internship program, can offset some of the costs associated with hiring an engineering student through the Ontario Co-operative Education Tax Credit and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Awards.

“In Canada, we have a lot of new graduates from engineering programs but we have companies that want people with five years experience,” says Fang. “For people graduating in this type of program, they may not get five years, but this way companies are providing experience gaining opportunities. I think this is one way to fill this five-year experience gap.”

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