Despite being the nation’s most educated generation to date,1 many Canadian millennials struggle to bridge the gap between university and employment. Today’s young jobseekers contend with roughly twice the unemployment rate of older generations.2 Even more pervasive is the issue of underemployment, with many millennials settling for roles well below their level of education or qualifications.3
Why is it so challenging for talented youth to secure good jobs? It’s not because Canadian companies aren’t hiring. Rather, employers are seeking individuals with experience or skills that most new graduates don’t possess.4 And although many firms are willing to pay a premium for candidates who meet their qualifications, they are increasingly unwilling to invest in training for those who do not.5
Amidst these challenges, some Canadian employers have taken up the charge to meaningfully equip graduates with the skills they need to succeed in the workforce. In the case of co-operative education, this process begins long before students even receive their degrees.
Cooperative education combines academic learning with on-the-job training, closing the gap between theoretical knowledge and application. When done right, co-op enables students to amass the experience and skills necessary to thrive in their field of interest upon graduation. In a recent study, 82 percent of employers reported offering post-graduate employment to a former co-op student or intern who worked at their workplace.6 Once employed, these graduates are also better compensated, earning $2-3 an hour more than their peers7. Given that over 80 percent of employers believe that co-op is beneficial for developing skills in their industry, this comes as no surprise.8
Great co-op programs do more than just provide on-the-job experience; the best programs also offer students a platform to explore potential career pathways, become more conscious and reflective learners and achieve a level of personal growth.9 Canada’s top co-op employers combine all the elements of a truly transformational learning experience, rooted within a broader youth-conscious workplace culture.
The following section profiles co-op programs across various industries that display all the ingredients for success: coaching and mentorship, exposure to meaningful work, regular feedback and evaluation, generous compensation and opportunities for upward mobility within the organization. Together, these employers provide students with the tools to seamlessly connect the classroom to the world of work.
At RBC, over 1,600 co-op and summer students are able to try their hand at a career in the banking industry, with an increasing number being offered permanent jobs upon graduation. RBC’s co-op placements span numerous business units, placing an emphasis on mentorship and coaching throughout the co-op term. For those that continue with the firm after graduation, there are a number of corporate programs geared towards new employees. It’s no wonder RBC has been recognized as a top employer of Canada’s youth, a top diversity employer, a leading corporate citizen, and one of the best workplaces in Canada.
PwC’s “Accelerate CPA” co-op program is carefully engineered to maximize students’ exposure to the realities of a career in accounting. Participants are meaningfully involved in solving challenging technical problems, enhanced by the fact that they are hired during the firm’s busiest season. A longtime advocate of cooperative education, PwC combines formal training with hands-on coaching. Through this award-winning program, students are involved in everything from client interactions to community involvement, all under the guidance of an industry-leading firm.
Corporation TELUS’ co-op program is built upon the notion of enabling students to generate ideas and take ownership of projects. Whether it’s in the area of business, finance, or technology, there are numerous opportunities for students to be meaningfully involved in TELUS’ operations under the leadership of mentors and coaches. In addition to formal and informal mentoring opportunities, TELUS offers a number of wellness initiatives to its employees. For those that wish to continue with the company, TELUS’ rotational leadership development program allows new graduates to extend their professional development through hands-on experience in multiple business roles and regular interaction with senior management.
Arts and Humanities
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada
As the department of the federal government responsible for supporting social and economic development in Aboriginal and Northern communities, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada offers opportunities for Arts and Humanities students to put their knowledge into practice in areas such as governance, communications, and human resources. For those who wish to continue with the department after graduation, this award-winning employer offers an array of learning and development opportunities for new hires, not to mention the prospect of a career in an area of political priority.
Ontario Public Service
With placements in fields units such as business, communications, human resources, labour relations, policy development, and program delivery, few employers offer exposure to as diverse a suite of career options as the Ontario Pubic Service (OPS). By engaging a wide network of mentors, this co-op program provides meaningful on-the-job coaching and feedback to assist students in skill development. Recognized as one of Canada’s best diversity employers, one of Canada’s greenest employers, and a top employer for young people, OPS also offers attractive job opportunities for students who wish to continue with the organization after their co-op term concludes.
Corus Entertainment Inc.
Corus Entertainment is a creative hub with a diverse portfolio of offerings in the media and entertainment industries. Co-op students with arts backgrounds have the opportunity to participate in a unique array of opportunities, supported by knowledgeable mentors and financial programs such as a tuition subsidies and scholarships. Corus Entertainment has also been lauded for its formal diversity and inclusion policies, recognized as one of Canada’s top diversity employers for programs addressing women in management, aboriginal employees, and a commitment to cultural diversity.
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)
Shell Canada Limited
As one of the country’s top employers in the resources sector, Shell Canada offers an immersive experience for students in engineering and technology. Shell’s co-op program places an emphasis on providing in-depth feedback, with regular evaluations and assessments. For those who wish to continue with the company after the conclusion of their co-op placement, Shell also offers in-house career planning services and a dedicated accelerated career progression program for new graduates that includes structured training and placement in hands-on roles. Shell is also a top diversity employer, and is engaged in corporate social responsibility through a number of charitable initiatives.
Cisco Systems Canada Co.
Cisco Systems is a worldwide leader in IT, with co-op placements across the country that allow students to immerse themselves in challenging projects under the guidance of industry experts. Recognized as one of Canada’s top employers for young people, Cisco offers ten different mentoring programs to support its employees’ career progression, and has also undertaken initiatives such as the establishment of an Early Career Network.
Health Canada employs approximately 600 students a year in a variety of areas across the department. Students working at Health Canada have access to a number of networking platforms to connect them with peers and hiring managers, including the “Health Canada Student Network,” “Health Canada’s Student Bridging Inventory,” and a “Young Professionals Network.” Health Canada was also recognized as a top employer of young people as a result of its skill development programs. These include one- year temporary placements in different areas of the department, access to a “Science Management Development” program, and events that bring together senior managers and young employees.
Co-op Graduates by the Numbers
- University co-op students report lower mean debt amounts than their peers ($19,000 compared to $23,000), and are also significantly less likely to report carrying above-average debt loads.
- Two years after graduation, university graduates who completed a co-op program on average earned $8,000 a year more than graduates who did not participate in co-op
- 69% of co-op graduates believe their experience was instrumental in finding employment following graduation.
Source: Work-Integrated Learning in Ontario’s Postsecondary Sector: The Pathways of Recent College and University Graduates (Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario)
1. Education in Canada: Attainment, Field of Study and Location of Study (Statistics Canada)
2. Young and Restless: A look at the state of youth employment in Canada (Special Report – TD Economics)
3. Young and Restless: A look at the state of youth employment in Canada (Special Report – TD Economics)
4. The Great Canadian Skills Mismatch: People Without Jobs, Jobs Without People and MORE (Miner & Miner)
5. Youth Employment: Re-imaging the link between learning and labour (Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance)
6. Work-integrated learning in Ontario’s Postsecondary Sector: Survey of Employer Impressions
7. Work-integrated learning in Ontario’s Postsecondary Sector: Survey of Employer Impressions
8. Work-integrated learning in Ontario’s Postsecondary Sector: Survey of Employer Impressions
9. Work-Integrated Learning in Ontario’s Postsecondary Sector: The Experience of Ontario (Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario)
Author Allison Williams studied Life Sciences at Queen’s University, where she served as President of the undergraduate student government. She writes about trends in higher education.