Much debated today is the value of internships. An increasing number of students, fresh graduates, and young professionals alike compete for coveted positions with hope that one day they will be hired. Gaining work experience through a summer internship has long been the norm, but an increasing number of graduates with good degrees are taking unpaid endlessly renewable positions. In some industries the unpaid internship has almost become the new entry-level job, the initiation into the workforce. The problem is two-fold: why are ambitious, educated twenty-somethings willing to work for no pay and why are employers willing to invest resources in those they do not plan to hire? In 1992 one of Bill Clinton’s campaign strategists coined “It’s the economy, stupid,” a phrase that fits with this generations plight to find a full-time job.

When internships are viewed as short-term assignments, work given tends to involve miscellaneous tasks. But four-month placements can be long enough for interns to take on key roles in projects, and eight-month placements may allow them to see a project through to the end. Curious about life in publishing, Rosalind Gunn came to Singapore by way of Canada in May of 2011 to take on an Editorial Assistant position with Pearson Education. The work was a good fit for her and within her four-month stint she was involved in marketing, promoting, and editing a research package and handbook for primary school grammar teachers. Reflecting on her experience, she shares with OpenBrief,

“It was immensely rewarding to be so integral to a project and to actually have a tangible product at the end of my term. It also helped me build a lot of confidence in myself and my abilities, being given so much trust and responsibility by my employer and the head editor of the book. That said, it was also a lot of work and demanded many a late night in order to meet deadlines. I was lucky … I was treated [and paid] as a member of staff.”
rosalind gunn Co op: A practical approach to higher education

Photo: Rosalind Gunn

A successful internship is a partnership – employers must be willing to trust interns with work, and interns must be consummate professionals.

Professionals who do good work should get paid, and an increasing number of employers are investing in an educational model, such as the one Rosalind was enrolled in, that provides them with a regular supply of quality student interns. Cooperative education, often referred to as co-op, is a form of experiential education that supplements classroom-based learning with practical work experience; the goal is to encourage students to reflect on what they have learned and put it into practice. It is a holistic model that guides students through the transition from student to professional. Often preparation services such as resume and interview workshops are encouraged, while reflective activities such as work term reports and professional development courses are required to cement learning. Many co-op models are designed as 5-year undergraduate programs, and students graduate with as much as 24 months of work experience from 6 different employers who pay fairly.


While co-op originated at the University of Cincinnati in 1906, the University of Waterloo in Canada currently holds the world’s largest student co-op program. Each year, 16,500 students are enrolled and 4,500 employers – including Facebook, Google, and Microsoft – look to hire them.

Education innovator Salman Khan of the Khan Academy recently praised co-op while musing on the future of higher education. He said,

“This past winter—not summer—all of the interns at the Khan Academy, and probably most of the interns in Silicon Valley, were from Waterloo because it is the only school that views internships as an integral part of students’ development outside of the summer … Waterloo students are pushing themselves intellectually by working on real projects with experienced professionals [and] getting valuable time with employers and pretty much guaranteeing several job offers once they graduate.”
salman khan khan academy Co op: A practical approach to higher education

Photo: Salman Khan, Khan Academy

This is high praise for a mid-size school less than 60 years old. When good entry-level jobs are scarce, graduating with two years of quality experience gives co-op students an undeniable advantage. What Waterloo, and other prominent co-op schools such as Drexel University and Georgia Institute of Technology, has proven is that the co-op model is valuable for employers and students alike. Employers work with co-op students who are motivated and aware of the purpose of their work term, while co-op students apply to take on challenging work at good companies and have the chance to experiment with which of their interests they wish to pursue as a career. If a key purpose of obtaining a university degree is to find a job, this model gives students and employers a long-term interview, if you will, to determine if the position is truly a good fit. Students develop the tools they need to succeed in the workplace; supportive employers give students a chance to practice this and pay them for it.

rochester institute of technology ad 1024x802 Co op: A practical approach to higher education

Photo: 1920s poster by the Rochester Institute of Technology to promote co-op education.

Last August, Singapore’s Ministry of Education announced Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) would become the country’s fifth autonomous university and first to integrate a co-op program. Few details have been released but it is likely that the 5-year post-secondary structure currently used at popular co-op schools in the West will be adapted to fit the two and three-year programs popular in the local post-junior college or polytechnic environment. Already renowned as a great place to study and do business, Singapore is poised to benefit from these sectors combining forces. Home to many multinational outposts, rising start-ups, and businesses in between, current industry leaders will soon have the opportunity to increase their strategic investment in the next generation.

Jennifer 300x300 Co op: A practical approach to higher education

Jennifer Lien

Jennifer works to get fresh research into curious minds.
Jennifer 300x300 Co op: A practical approach to higher education
Jennifer 300x300 Co op: A practical approach to higher education

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