Integrating on-the-job, practical field experience with academic studies, cooperative work experiences (Cooperative Education or Co-op) offer students a chance to extend the classroom into a workplace setting. Co-op experiences are both paid and unpaid, and result in graded academic credit for students. Co-op placements can extend over several terms or years, depending on the nature of the experience and the needs of the student. When students participate over several terms at the same site, they are expected to show a progressive trend toward new experiences and competencies. Cooperative work experiences require a three-way working relationship among an employer, their school and the student. Effective communication between all parties is essential to the development of successful co-op experiences.
Definition of Cooperative Work Experience
"Cooperative vocational work experience program" means a program of work experience in an actual employment setting related to the vocational interests and educational programs provided to a student at an area vocational/technical education center. (VT State Board of Education Regulations 2378.1) Still accurate? Is there a newer definition? Cooperative education is a structured educational program which integrates classroom learning with productive, structured work experience(s) that are directly related to the goals and objectives of the student's technical/vocational educational program. To participate, students must be enrolled in a related vocational/technical education course. Schools and participating businesses/organizations develop written cooperative training and evaluation plans to guide and measure the progress and success of the student. School credit-outcome verification is awarded for successfully completed co-ops. Strong emphasis on coordination and integration between work site and classroom learning is necessary for optimum student learning. Credit hours, outcomes, and levels of intensity vary, depending on the course of study. A co-op experience is usually paid but may also be unpaid. In Vermont, a co-op experience must be coordinated by a licensed co-op coordinator.
Benefits to Students
A co-op experience provides students an opportunity to gain on-the-job knowledge, experience and technical skills. It gives theoretical knowledge meaning through practical application. Through this experience, a student can develop positive work habits and attitudes, and the ability to work cooperatively as a team member. It helps a student either focus on a specific career path or choose another. Co-op may provide financial rewards for work experience and lead to employment.
Benefits to Employers and Schools
A cooperative work experience provides employers with a student worker who already has some employability skills and occupational knowledge. It may provide a pool of technically trained employees from which to fill future positions and may reduce recruitment problems and costs. Co-op is a way to bring schools and employers together in training efforts. Schools will become aware of changes in the labor market and what skills students need to effectively compete in the world of work. As a result of the relationship, some employers become more involved in the curriculum development process.
Setting Up a Cooperative Work Experience
Identify Potential Work Sites
The first step in setting up a cooperative work experience is finding individuals and organizations who are willing to take on the responsibility of working with a student. A primary responsibility of cooperative education coordinators is contacting and meeting with business representatives to relay the benefits of cooperative education and to obtain the commitments to hire or offer a training position to students. Many schools mail interest forms to different employers and organizations within the community to establish a pool of possible work sites. Students may also identify possible sites on their own. The cooperative work experience coordinator may maintain a pool of potential work sites that match up with students' educational and career objectives. Successful sites are a valuable resource that can be utilized over and over.
Connecting students with work sites that will meet their needs and provide relevant experiences is the most important aspect of planning the work experience. Coordinators should have a clear understanding of job site requirements (a job description) and student skills and interests in order to be able to make appropriate and effective matches.
The cooperative education coordinator should arrange a work schedule that ensures student attendance to school work, has sufficient time to benefit from work-based learning, and meets employer needs. It is best if the schedule is
consistent from week to week so that the work site can prepare meaningful work experiences for the student and reinforce positive work habits.
Students need to be thoroughly prepared before embarking on a cooperative work experience. In addition to classroom preparation that focuses on career research and exploration and skills that will be applied at the work site, there are practical concerns to be addressed as well.
• Educational links. The teacher or co-op coordinator must determine the learning objectives and links to the academic standards. The work experience must also enable a student to achieve the competencies and tasks of the particular vocational/technical education program in which they are enrolled.
• Cooperative education agreements. These agreements outline the responsibilities of the work site supervisor, the student, and the cooperative education coordinator. The forms should be carefully reviewed by parents, the instructor, and signed by all. As part of these agreements, a training plan is developed and attached. The training plan outlines the
goals and activities of the experience. The list should include skills the student needs to acquire and/or practice and concepts the student needs to understand and apply. Goals and objectives should relate directly to classroom work and career development activities which the cooperative work experience supports.
• Outline of dress and behavior expectation. While classroom preparation for career exploration activities usually covers this information, work-based experiences offer a great opportunity to reinforce the message that dress and behavior standards in the workplace are different than those at school. Remind students that they are representing the school as well as themselves. The coordinator should be aware of dress codes at each work site and discuss appropriate attire with students.
• Follow-up. Meet with students on and off the work site to inquire as to their satisfaction with the experience. Asking specific questions related to the training plan will provide insight relative to the need for in-school or on-site training and need for employer contact.
Prepare Work Site Supervisors
Work site supervisors must be thoroughly prepared for the cooperative work experience. Make sure that they are aware of everything that they are expected to do. Many schools/technical centers prepare a handbook or an instruction sheet for work site supervisors which contains a combination of the following:
• An overview of legal responsibilities. There are many legal issues that work site supervisors need to be aware of, such as safety concerns and child labor, discrimination, and sexual harassment laws. Make sure that work site supervisors understand their legal responsibilities and potential liabilities in advance. For unpaid experiences, all parties need to be aware of federal guidelines related to unpaid work experience/training. School personnel should ensure that all participating students are covered by accident insurance.
• Advice for working with young people. Many professionals are unaccustomed to the unique challenges of communicating and working with young people. Remind work site supervisors that they may be faced with student attitudes and expectations that may seem unrealistic in the workplace. Encourage hosts to provide as many active learning experiences as possible, and to be direct in their communication of needs and expectations. Similarly, employers should be reminded that encouragement is a valuable training tool that will often increase student performance and motivation for job duties.
• Activity suggestions. Remind work site supervisors that the purpose of co-op is to provide students with an environment where learning can take place. Encourage supervisors to allow students to participate in as many learning activities as possible, including staff meetings and trainings, and job tasks in all areas of the business.
• Checklist. Employers will probably find a checklist very useful. Checklist items might include arranging meeting times, planning with the program coordinator to insure that academic requirements are met, signing work agreements, arranging student workspace as appropriate, and informing students about company policies and procedures.
• Evaluation materials. Review evaluation forms and procedures with employers at the beginning of a cooperative work experience. Set up a time for the employer, student, and cooperative education coordinator to conduct formal evaluations. Contact the employer and student prior to the evaluation in order for all to be prepared and to avoid any surprises. Remind employers and students that the evaluation should be a positive experience that highlights student accomplishments and enables students to make plans for future training goals.
Connecting Cooperative Work Experience to the Classroom
It is important to enhance the co-op experience by connecting it to classroom learning and academic standards. Connecting activities can take many forms and should take place at all stages of the co-op experience.
• Students research the career field and specific organizations in which they will be working.
• Students write about their preconceptions and expectations related to the organization in which their experiences will take place.
• Students and teachers discuss professional standards for behavior and dress.
• Teachers emphasize practical applications of the concepts and skills they teach in class.
• Students learn the job skills they will need at the work site in their technical education program.
• Students and teachers develop training plans which outline the students' learning objectives.
• Students learn actual job and employability skills by participating in work activities.
• Students observe and participate in practical applications of academic concepts.
• Students work toward achieving individual goals and objectives.
Seminars. Seminars provide students with opportunities to better understand their co-op experiences and enhance their learning. Seminar schedules can vary from three meetings per term to as often as once a week. Curriculum can include:
• Job search skills and techniques (such as resume writing and interviewing skills);
• How to develop goals and objectives;
• Reflective assignments (such as weekly logs and journals);
• Education and discussion on workplace issues such as sexual harassment, workplace ethics, managing conflict, responding to criticism, labor laws, discrimination, and professionalism;
• Workplace skills and techniques related to student placements;
• Guest speakers;
• Round-table discussions;
• Collaborative learning activities;
• Term projects in which students extend beyond the work experience through in-depth investigation; and
• Career exploration activities, including informational interviewing and research on continuing educational opportunities.
• Students write about the difference between their expectations and the reality of the workplace.
• Students and teachers discuss the connections they see between classroom learning and the workplace.
• Students write, revise, and send thank you letters to employers.
• Students continue their career development in light of what they have learned during the work experience.
• Students and the co-op coordinator together evaluate students' progress toward their learning objectives