Tight budgets and the emerging capability of skilled workers in low-wage regions are putting more pressure on corporations to get the most out of new college graduates hired in the U.S. For a growing number of companies, that means hiring students who have some work experience, either in house or at a company in a similar field.
Many students gain real-world experience by participating in internships or co-ops, which differ primarily in length of time. Internships are generally a summer or semester long, often part time, while students in co-ops often work full time for a few semesters, typically with the same employer.
"An internship or co-op experience gives employers the confidence that students have the skills to take an assignment through to completion," says Bruce Kramer, director of National Science Foundation's Division of Engineering Education (http://rbi.ims.ca/3850-572).
Though there's little record-keeping on the number of co-ops and internship programs, some proponents feel that companies may start asking for more co-op students, which offer more work time in increasingly demanding roles. "As we go to more and more globalization, companies need fantastic upper talent to remain competitive. That is a good reason to have a corporate relationship," says Win Phillips, a University of Florida professor, and past president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (http://rbi.ims.ca/3850-573).
Corporations find work-study programs a good way to take a look at potential new hires and train students in the corporation's style. There are also solid reasons for students to participate in these work programs, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers of Bethlehem, PA (http://rbi.ims.ca/3850-510). Interns and co-op students earned an average of $12.43 and $13.95 per hour. More importantly in the long run, nearly 40 percent of interns are hired by the company they worked for, while half the co-op students are hired.
Texas Instruments is among the companies that put stock in co-ops. "Assuming a good economy, TI plans on extending offers to at least 76 percent of its graduating co-ops. During the downturn we extended offers to probably 65-70 percent of the graduating students," says Kim Quirk, a TI spokeswoman (http://rbi.ims.ca/3850-530).
IBM doesn't have a co-op program, but is bullish on its Extreme Blue internship program, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year (http://rbi.ims.ca/3850-539). In 2003, IBM brought in 602 interns worldwide, hiring 70 percent of them upon graduation. The payoff goes beyond getting a look at potential employees. One crop of interns filed 74 patent disclosures during a single semester. Students are competing to get a chance to put IBM on their resume. The company only had 360 internship openings in the U.S. this year, but had more than 2,000 student applications, a spokesman said.
Even in more upbeat times when jobs are more plentiful, companies pick interns and co-op students with as much care as regular employees. "We get to know the candidate through a series of interviews and screenings designed to see if they align with our organization and goals," says Bruce Parkinson, director of Salaried Human Resources at Delphi Electronics & Safety (http://rbi.ims.ca/3850-540). That up-front effort results in a high percentage of post-graduation job offers for these students, he adds.
Even when students are not hired by the company where they work during college, the experience generally pays off well. "Other companies recruit our co-op students just as heavily as the ones they work for," adds Robert Stwalley, director of the cooperative education program at Purdue University in West. Lafayette, IN (http://rbi.ims.ca/3850-553). Students who take part in Purdue's optional five-year co-op program typically earn 15-25 percent more than other graduates with equivalent GPAs, he adds.
No agency or group keeps track of the number of colleges that offer optional co-ops or internships, though there are a handful of universities that require all engineering students to participate in co-ops.
But most observers think that a growing number of students are spending some time in the corporate world. "Ninety-two percent of our graduates have internship or co-op experience," says E. Dan Hirleman, a department head at Purdue's School of Mechanical Engineering.
It's fairly easy for colleges and students to arrange internships. However, co-ops are more complex. The number of co-op programs grew during the 1960s and 1970s, but has been largely static since the 1980s, some observers say. One reason is that colleges must offer every course every semester, since students are away at companies for a full semester. There's also overhead associated with finding student housing and keeping track of when students are on campus, causing budget-strapped colleges and corporations to shy away from new programs.
One key drawback is that co-ops extend the length of time a student spends in college. At Purdue University, co-ops have traditionally been defined as 10 months total experience working full time. That extends the minimum collegiate stay to five years, which promps many students to opt for traditional internships. "Around 25 percent of MEs participate in co-ops, which take five years. The rest can get through in four years," Hirleman says.
Internships are most common due to their simplicity. Colleges that offer co-ops usually offer internships and both short and full co-ops. "The benefit of co-ops is that co-ops offer multiple work terms. The benefit of internships is that students don't have to delay their graduation," says Richard Coddington, director of engineering career services at the University of Illinois, Champaign (http://rbi.ims.ca/3850-554).
Some colleges offer parallel co-op programs in which students do coursework while they're at companies. Though Purdue doesn't offer that, "data show no real difference between the two," Stwalley says.
In this era of worker mobility, there can sometimes be an unexpected benefit for companies and employees. Students who do a full co-op with one company and then take a full-time job there often find they are senior employees shortly after their senior year.