Two weeks ago, The Iron Warrior met with Peggy Jarvie, the Executive Director of Co-operative Education and Career Services (CECS) and Olaf Naese, the Communications and Public Relations Administrator to discuss what many students are concerned about these days – co-op employment. We chatted about numbers, recruiting, the economic recovery and the new Jobmine.
Iron Warrior: First of all, most students are interested in the numbers for spring. First round results were not out at the time of this interview, but can you give an estimate?
Peggy Jarvie: We don’t do a ton of predictions at this stage, and quite frankly the number from first round is nowhere close to the final numbers. We can say by the end of first round it’s roughly 50% or lower.
Olaf Naese: It’s been lower lately, especially because of the economy. By level it’s not the same either; the rate for younger students is lower still, and that’s typical for first round.
PJ: The 50% after first round also includes students who found work on their own or are returning to an employer. And that number is surprisingly constant given the economy. In the past we’ve done curves of the time of term students get employment. There’s a large bump right after the first match, but it’s really only until a month after the first match that it starts dropping off. We finalize our numbers for a given workterm at the end of the second month of the term. You can still get credit for the job for a minimum 12 weeks, and that can be quite late into the term. Usually the final numbers for the term are published around the same time as the first round match for the next term.
IW: Do you think different streams and programs have an effect on the lower number of students scheduled for co-op for this winter term?
PJ: That’s interesting, because overall we have more students enrolled in co-op in the winter term than any other term. We often say spring is the hardest term, because it’s more competitive with other universities, but the winter term is when we have the most students. At any rate the total engineering students employed for this winter is 2068, 60 more than this time last year. The numbers are pretty good, but I think it’s fair to say it’s taking us longer to hit numbers similar to prior years.
ON: When we look at absolute numbers, for engineering this winter it’s only about 100 more students participating. For overall, it’s about 400 more students than last year, which is a lot.
PJ: It’s another busy season for sure. Last spring was the first summer after the economy tanked, and our final numbers were in the mid nineties. We haven’t dropped by more than 1% or so since then. The percentages may have dropped a little, but the absolute numbers have not decreased, and that’s remarkable considering we have more students participating than ever before.
IW: Would you say that some faculties were hit harder than others?
PJ: I would say there are some programs that as always seem to be suffering a little more than others. Also as always, the first and second work term students struggle most. Especially the first work term students, as we’re finding that more students are arriving at university with very little work experience. That’s why so much of the on-campus funding has really favoured the students in their first workterm, with additional incentives to faculty or staff, just so they can get that experience on their resumes.
IW: So the main market crash was October of 2008; how much longer can you expect students to be facing difficulties finding work?
PJ: Professor Larry Smith is a labour market economist, so he would be the one with the answer, if there is one. It’s extremely hard to predict. We watch very carefully though, to see what sectors are doing better than others and we look for opportunities for student or graduate work. One of the things some analysts have written about was the uniqueness of this particular market crash – in that it affected such a wide variety of industries, whereas previous recessions tended to be focussed in a handful of countries or business sectors. This one hit pretty much everyone, with the exception of China and Australia actually. Manufacturing has been the hardest hit in Canada, but we’ve been fortunate that our financial sector has been relatively well regulated and stable. I think we’ve actually fared better through this mess than we had any right to expect, but we’re still in it.
IW: Speaking of a global economy, many students are interested in international work. What services does CECS offer, and are there any plans to expand?
PJ: We have about 8-10% of students who work outside of Canada each term, about half of whom work in the US and usually about another 40 countries each term. We recently expanded to a 5 person international team. This consists of 3 co-ordinators and 2 international advisors. The international advisors work with students to make sure they have visas and all the travel documents in place. They also do some cultural briefing, which depending on where you’re going can be very important. Two co-ordinators cover the US, and the third takes care of the rest of the world. A lot of the students who work internationally, particularly in the first work term, are returning home to find work and are living with family.
IW: Are these jobs through Jobmine?
PJ: It’s a mix, but more finding their own. We do have international jobs on Jobmine, but there are challenges with those outside of North America. Visas and timing are a big one, since it can take 4-6 weeks to process a visa application. But the biggest challenge is cost: outside North America salaries are generally lower and costs of living and accommodation are generally higher, not even including the cost to get there. We don’t do a lot of job development internationally, because we need to be confident that we’ll get students who both apply and accept offers. We tend to get too many students who will receive an international offer, then choose to accept a domestic job.
ON: We even have that issue with students choosing not to go to another area in Ontario, or other provinces in Canada now.
PJ: And that’s a challenge too. It’s very difficult to keep employers committed to our program, when they post or offer jobs that go unfilled by the students. We work very hard to get the right number of jobs in the appropriate number of fields, but if you get into a field where most of the jobs are not where you want to be, we can’t manufacture jobs out of thin air. Not all students recognize that reality check.
IW: Do you have any comments on the status of the new Jobmine system?
PJ: We’re actively working with Ken McKay’s team. We’re currently targeting a limited pilot with Architecture for the spring term, for students scheduled to work in the fall. The current plan is to go live for everyone by January of next year. The reason we’re piloting with Architecture is because they’re smaller, and the most easily isolated; we don’t want them to have to use two systems at once. Most other students work with such a broad range of employers, and most employers outside of Architecture and Pharmacy also hire across an array of programs.
IW: Can you give away any features students can expect?
PJ: We’re going to improve the search capability for both students and employers, and resumes will be pdf-able! Overnight downtime for maintenance should be reduced significantly; navigation should also be a lot more intuitive. It’s a huge process re-writing something like this, because we need to cater to the needs of employers like RIM who hire many students a term, and other employers who may only hire one. But we’re getting close!
IW: One rumour I heard was that employers are starting to lower the average pay rate. I just glanced at the salaries published for 2009, and was personally surprised to see the 6th work term average for engineering. Any comments?
PJ: No I hadn’t heard that at all. Keep in mind that the salaries are collected from students. We’re looking at how to analyze and present those, by removing outliers and such, but the way it’s being reported may be changing.
IW: Have you seen any more cancellations than usual, compared to the fall and spring terms?
PJ: Not this year. Last year we saw a lot of cancellations, mostly due to funding for co-op being cut, but that seems to have stabilized. The uncertainty seems to have subsided. We also had more jobs last year being rescinded; where offers had been made and then funding was cut, but that has stabilized as well. There is a certain amount of cancellation that we always see, due to project cancellation or other cuts. However, the quality of the jobs posted has improved, and by that I mean that employers are posting jobs they really want filled and are committed to.
IW: What are some techniques CECS has been working on to attract new employers?
PJ: We’ve hired a new Director of Marketing, and that really makes a difference to the support we’re able to provide to the co-ordinators. We also have a new full time Manager of New Business, who is responsible for developing new relationships with companies that haven’t hired with us before, and to make those leads into jobs. We participate in trade shows, such as the Human Resources Professional Association, The Top 100 conference. It takes a long time to turn a lead into a job, but we’re actively targeting associations that might be interested in hiring students.
ON: We also try to encourage companies to hire by pointing out funding opportunities. We now have identified a lot more funding opportunities that employers can apply for in order to subsidize students that they might not otherwise consider. Also here at the University, they’ve stepped up the number of students they’re hiring.
PJ: Yes, they’ve been amazing. The University is our biggest single employer of co-op students, and has been historically. This year, there was a lot more funding provided by the Undergraduate Research Internship, and incremental funding from the Provost and the Dean of Engineering specifically. When the hiring freeze was put on a year and a half ago, co-op hiring was excluded, which meant departments could hire students even when they couldn’t hire full time staff.
IW: Finally, do you have any advice for students looking for employment?
PJ: The biggest one is to think flexibly, particularly about location, the kind of work and the salary you’re looking for. We also encourage students to use their personal and familial networks to open up opportunities. Returning to a previous employer can also be a big advantage, but with context. Don’t go back to the exact same job, as that won’t be a learning experience. Look for more responsibility or work with a different team. Personally, I encourage students to do that regardless. Returning to an employer with increasing levels of responsibility demonstrates on your resume something that you can’t show by having 6 different jobs. Employers tend to like it as well, because they get a better return on their training investment.
IW: Thank you very much for you time, Ms Jarvie and Mr. Naese.