In Germany, the economic powerhouse of the European Union, its century old Apprenticeship program, also called the Dual System, is a critical component in its current economic prosperity. The program integrates apprenticeship with ‘vocational schooling,’ and involves the cooperation among businesses, government, and ‘chambers’ (employers’ organizations). This apprenticeship program transitions students, year after year, into world-class workers with real responsibilities. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the US had something similar?
While the German apprenticeship program begins in the high schools, the US has ‘coop’ programs available in certain colleges. In a coop program, a student spends six months in class and then takes that classroom knowledge and works, either domestically or internationally, for a company the next six months. The benefits accrue to both companies and students.
Companies that sponsor coop programs enjoy having talented and motivated students work for them for 3-6 month periods. If these students perform, the company might then opt to hire them upon graduation, as studies show coop students often have high rates of productivity (after all they already know the company), and have a strong interest in the company (coop students focus their company search on those in their field of interest). Companies also gain a firsthand understanding of which colleges, and departments within these colleges, provide the best, most promising workers. Such a relationship for a company can prove a goldmine.
The students also benefit. As part of a company, students learn to apply classroom theory to work challenges. They can also begin to establish professional networks, gain valuable experience to add to their resumes and expand their job search options (should companies in which they’ve cooped not retain their services). Better, students earn wages as they work in coops. At Drexel (PA), RIT (NY), and the University of Cincinnati, six months of coop wages can add up to an average of $15,000. Better still, unlike earnings from a summer job, coop wages are not counted as student earnings by FAFSA, so whatever a student makes in a coop program will not affect his or her financial aid package. This is why many coop students gain their degrees with little to no debt.
As mentioned, the coop experience can even be with an overseas company. The World Association for Cooperative Education (WACE), based in Lowell, Massachusetts, provides for global work opportunities, and contains over 50 US member institutions. Additionally, 80 of the Top Fortune 100 companies have coop programs both domestically and overseas, to attract talented students.
Northeastern University (NEU) in Boston, MA, which was founded as a YMCA educational program, today has one of the leading coop programs in the country. At NEU a student can elect to take two 4-6 month coops and graduate in 4 years, or three coops and finish with a degree in five years. NEU has coops in over 37 states and 60 countries. The way the program works, students are assigned a coop coordinator and are required to take a ‘coop preparation course’. The Coop course includes requirements of a job search: career exploration, writing resumes, interviewing, proper decorum at work. Students attain coop positions just like most job searchers, submitting resumes and going through the complete job search process. Employers make the final selection decisions. When in a coop, a student cannot combine it with studies- work is usually demanding enough by itself. NEU does not charge students tuition when they are involved in their coop efforts. 90% of NEU students participate in the coop program.
Coop programs can also be found at Elon University (NC), NYU, USC, and Purdue, among the dozens of institutions.
The intent of Leland Stanford, and his wife Jane, when they bequeathed their 8,000 acres of farmland 35 miles south of San Francisco, to found a university in the name of his 15 year old son, Leland Junior, who died of typhoid fever, was “to qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life.” The entrepreneurial spirit at Stanford, consequently, flourished. The coop programs equally aspire to this same end.