Co-operative Education in Canada

by Professor Ralph M.Francis
University on New Brunswick, Canada
AECEF Board member

[The author greatfully acknowledges the assistance of the "Department of Co-operative Education and Career Services" at the University of Waterloo in compiling this article.]

Co-operative university education, wherein students spend some formal time working in Industry between or within terms of study at the University, is not a new concept. In the United Kingdom "sandwich" courses have existed for some time. In Russia, universities existed within factories and combined work and study was the norm. In North America, co-operative programs exist at: Antioch College, Northwestern University, Illinois Institute of Technology, the University of Cincinnati, and the University of Detroit, among others. This note will consider the co-operative education in Canada.

With the arriwal of the Sputnik Age in the 1950s, the Government of Canada perceived a need for a greatly increased number of engineers and scientists, and proposed the establishment of new universities, and the expansion of many existing universities across the country. Many private universities with a religious affiliation became public universities and thereby shifted their operating costs to the government.

The University of Waterloo, in the Province of Ontario, Was established in July 1957. [1] The planning of academic programs was based on the idea of a formal co-operation with industry for the education of its students. The academic year was divided into tri-mesters of four months and students alternated study terms at the university with work terms. A B.Sc. program in civil engineering requires eight trimesters of study interspersed with six trimesters of work. This idea applies not only to all other engineering departments, but generally to all CO-OP university programs.

The work terms are treated very formally within the University. A "Department of Co-operative Education and Career Services" supervises the work-term employment for students. Co-ordinators for engineering students are Professional Engineers with industrial experience. Each co-ordinator has a specific geographical area of responsibility. Today an increasing number of jobs are now found in other provinces and in other countries.

Engineering co-ordinators have a number of roles besides finding appropriate student employment. They act as counsellors to students to explain the mechanism and regulations underlying the co-operative system, and eventually act as the liaison between employers, students, and the university. Co-ordinators have to find jobs commensurate with the educational level of students to reinforce the theory that has been studied at the University. They also act as personal counsellors to students with academic and work term related problems. It is expected that as students advance in their theoretical knowledge at the university their co-op jobs also give them greater responsibility and experience. In engineering, the expected levels of experience are as follows [2].

Entry Level Students on Work Terms WT1 and WT2:

These students should be employed in assignments where they may gain knowledge of the organization by "hands on" work and through communication with their supervisors and fellow employees and through personal observations.

Intermediate Level Students on Work Terms WT3 and WT4:

These students should be introduced to the activities of design, production and plant engineering, sales, inspection, quality control, and industrial relations. They should have the opportunity to meet with professional engineers and with management. Their assignments should include written reports which require recommendations and solutions to routine problems.

Senior Level Students on Work Terms WT5 and WT6:

Senior students should be given assignments where they can exercise judgement on engineering problems. Preferably, they should be responsible for a project and would work with senior engineers and management to develop their ability to propose and defend solutions. At this level it is extremely important that students be given to opportunity to develop their oral and written skills.... engineering students should be experiencing in their final work terms, the kinds of assignments given to graduate engineers if the true value of the co-op program is to be realized and its objectives reached.

Students obtain employment for their work terms by applying for jobs advertised by employers. Employers come to the university to interview students whom they have selected form student applications. Every attempt is made to ensure that students and employers are brought together in an arranged, orderly fashion. Early in the academic term [preceding the work term] employers can interview and rand students. ...offers of employment through the ranking process are accepted by students at the end of this period. Subsequent interviews are held on a continuous basis with no ranking procedure involved, and where offers of employment must be accepted or rejected in a 24 hour period. This process continues until all the students are placed or until efforts must be directed to the next work-term period.

A requirement of the first work term is the completion of a technical report. In total, a student must submit four satisfactory reports to qualify for graduation. The principal educational objective of these reports is to develop a technical report-writing ability that is an essential skill in the engineering profession.

Salaries for work terms enable students to gain enough money to finance further study terms. For the calendar year 1995 the average salary in $CDN per week by work term was: [N.B. In 1996, 1 $CDN = 1 DM = 0,72 $US]

Work Term WT1 WT2 WT3 WT4 WT5 WT6
Average $CDN 442 481 511 536 573 592

From the 1960's onwards with the expanding economy of the country, finding employment for student work terms was easily done, byt today, the economy of Canada is stagnant, the deficit is large, government cut backs are extensive, and finding work term assignments for students is more demanding. The University has therefore designed a service whereby students may be hired under contract with the University. This means that the employer is invoiced on a monthly basis for salary, benefits and an administration fee. Students are still subject to regular working conditions as determined by the employer.

The Co-op idea has extended to all programs at the University and today the University of Waterloo maintains the largest Co-op system in North America with 8,550 students from all faculties, and 2,400 employers. The success of the co-op educational system as developed at the University of Waterloo has been copied at other Canadian universities. Memorial University in Newfoundland specializes in engineering subjects, particularly Marine Engineering and Naval Architecture. Work terms for students in the latter program can involve work terms in many maritime countries of Europe. The University of Sherbrooke, in the Province of Quebec, also manitains a French language co-op program in evgineering.

In spite of a relatively small industrial base in Canada, there are nineteen Co-operative civil engineering programs in the country. For those universities which do not use the co-operative system, students have to find summer work themselves, although civil engineering departments will generally make efforts to find meaningful employment for students on an informal basis.

Waterloo has established "Professional Development Consultants", a consulting organization with the purpose of providing expertisein the establishment of new, or the improvement of existing co-operative programs. [3] Having about 40 years of experience with an unique and successful academic program, the university is well able to provide wise counsel in this area of education.


  1. Scott, James, "Of Mud and Dreams",

  2. ----, Co-op Programs in the Faculty of Engineering, Co-operative Education and Career Services, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada,

  3. ----, Essentials of an Effective Co-op Program, Co-operative Education and Career Services, Professional Development Consultants, University of Waterloo.

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