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Luna Kawano, left, a software engineering co-op student at the University of Waterloo, with Rachel Thompson, founder of Waterloo startup Marlena Books, which publishes materials for people with dementia. Ms. Kawano helped develop a new reader app and promotional materials.

Glenn Lowson

Even before entering second year at the University of Waterloo this fall, Luna Kawano had racked up résumé-worthy work experience and sharpened her career goals.

She has done so as a co-op education student at Waterloo – one of the pioneers of Canadian learn-and-earn opportunities that combine academics and relevant work experience – landing her top choice for paid placement this past summer.

At Marlena Books, a publisher of books and online tools for people with dementia that operates from Waterloo's Velocity Garage incubator for early-stage startups, Ms. Kawano helped develop a new reader app and produced a promotional video and website materials.

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Working for company founder Rachel Thompson, Ms. Kawano says she gained confidence about her own aspirations for a startup that combines technology and social good. “It seems really realistic to me and it is something I want to pursue.”

Like Ms. Kawano, a growing number of students are pursuing co-op education and other forms of work-related learning as integral to their degree. Beyond the classic model of co-op that alternates in-class studies and paid employment, universities are adding an array of academic programs with built-in employment features.

"It is a no-brainer for the postsecondary institutions in terms of the value-added for students," says Matthew McKean, associate director of education at the Conference Board of Canada, of the growth in what he terms "structured work experience."

Unease over the future of work, employer desire to recruit and retain top talent and student interest in road-testing careers before graduation are among the factors driving demand, fuelled further by new government funding for "career-ready" experiential learning programs at postsecondary institutions.

"One narrative is the need to keep Canada competitive," says Mr. McKean. "The other is that people are asking for this kind of experience in ways they didn't before."

The organization Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada recently defined 10 different types of workintegrated learning. Co-op is the most established example, with national accreditation standards and a total of 73,800 placements (78.3 per cent at universities) in 2017. But apprenticeships, internships, field placements and community-based "service learning" are also growing in popularity.

A big attraction of co-op and related forms of work-integrated learning is the low-risk opportunity for students and employers to check out each other.

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"We call it the four-month interview," says Norah McRae, who is executive director of co-operative education programs and career services at the University of Victoria. "It is a good way to sort out if someone is going to fit with your workplace and it is also good for the student to see if it is a good fit for what their goals are."

Internships, shorter and often unpaid compared with co-ops, also provide a dry run for students and employers.

"I have three to six months to evaluate the skills, talent, teamwork, attitude and spirit of these young men and women before I make them an offer," says Muhi Majzoub, an executive vice-president of OpenText Corp.

The fast-growing Waterloo-based software company offers 40 to 45 internships a year in Canada and plans to double its roster in the next three to five years, scouting future employees from multiple disciplines, not just software engineering.

Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. is introducing its first co-op programs – conservation biology and computing systems – this fall. It already offers a range of curriculum-related work experiences, including internships, applied research and service learning, with community-identified projects carried out by students.

This year, through the Ontario government's Career Ready Fund, Trent received almost $600,000 over two years to expand school-relevant work opportunities, including field placements and internships.

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Trent officials aim to deliver experiential learning to all graduating students by 2021, up from one-third currently.

Meanwhile, Waterloo remains the dominant Canadian player in co-op, with 21,000 of its 33,000 students enrolled in 12 to 16 weeks of school-relevant work experience.

“Over 70 per cent of students who enroll here say [the reason] is basically because of co-op education,” says Ross Johnston, Waterloo’s executive director of co-operative education, with enrollment up 18 per cent from five years ago. Through work terms, students take an extra year to graduate but can wind up with up to two years of job experience. In 2016, 79 per cent of Waterloo co-op students earned more than $50,000 two years after graduating, well above 39 per cent for all Ontario graduates.

This fall, the university plans to offer flexible work terms to recognize a wider range of jobs than currently permitted to meet criteria for co-op credentials. For example, a student now can arrange several placements in one term to earn the necessary credit.

Also available this fall for the first time is a co-op research certificate that recognizes relevant projects carried out over three work terms. A student would work with a professor, for example, completing professional development classes and a capstone project to earn credentials.

For non-co-op students, Waterloo last year introduced a certificate program designed to teach them to identify skills, gain work experience on a community project and communicate their credentials to an employer.

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As for Ms. Kawano, who expects to switch this fall into a multidisciplinary “knowledge integration” program with co-op-like work experience, the opportunity so far to “learn and earn” has been “really, really awesome.”

International experience

Maggie Sainty is doing a dual degree program through Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and France's Neoma Business School. At Neoma, she landed a six-month placement at a smartphone company in Paris.

HANDOUT/Handout

For some students, working abroad during their undergraduate studies is an ideal way to see the world, stand out from the crowd and find a career.

Maggie Sainty, 21, who loves to travel, chose Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., for its co-op education options and its dual-degree agreements with overseas universities.

Next spring, the undergraduate business student expects to graduate with degrees from Brock and France's Neoma Business School, which have a dual-degree agreement. She spent two years at Brock, with a co-op education stint at a Niagara Region winery. For her two years of studies at Neoma, she landed a six-month placement at a smartphone company in Paris.

As a result, she will graduate with two undergraduate business degrees and studies-relevant work credentials in two countries.

Ms. Sainty, who speaks French as a second language, says her experiences have shaped her decision to pursue law and work on refugee issues for an international organization. “When I applied to university, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life at all,” she says.

At Brock’s Goodman School of Business, which reported 1,045 co-op placements in May, up more than 40 per cent from a year earlier, adding international co-op positions is a priority for dean Andrew Gaudes.

Earlier this year, Goodman announced an agreement with the United Nations Association of Canada to send several eligible Brock students on an eight-month co-op work term at an overseas UN agency.

“I think it really broadens out the opportunity for personal and professional fulfillment for our students,” says Mr. Gaudes. Today’s students, he adds, “want a place where they can find meaning and contribute in ways that go toward more than the bottom line.”

In Ms. Sainty’s case, she says she was given responsibility to organize trade shows and other marketing activities, working with retailers and distributors in several countries at her Paris smartphone job.

The on-the-job experience convinced her to pursue a career that taps her language skills and her interest in refugees.

At the company, where she spoke French and English in equal measure, she worked on a marketing team with employees from five countries. The placement, she says, reinforced the value of tolerance.

In Spain, Italy and France, she says long lunches are the norm, while work conversations in France often begin with personal discussions before addressing the task at hand. “It’s something I have definitely grown to appreciate,” she says.

Ms. Sainty, who will return to Brock for a final semester next spring, is eyeing other international experiences and plans to apply for one of the new co-op positions at the UN.

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