What are College of Engineering students up to? They are solving environmental issues with the carbon capture project at the UK Center for Applied Energy Research, they are organizing logistics for some of the most prestigious car companies in the world such as BMW, they save Fortune 500 companies thousands of dollars per minute with computer support and they are even working on projects for space.
These are the same engineering students one might see roaming the halls of RGAN or FPAT when they aren’t out in the real world “co-oping.” These students are gaining first hand experiences in engineering, learning how to work as a team, becoming leaders and getting the best education to make them successful engineers. Cooperative education isn’t just a resume booster, it’s so much more.
As jobs become harder and harder to come by and competition between applicants rise, students across the country are trying to make themselves stand out from the crowd. UK’s aspiring engineers find a co-op experience to be just the thing. For many, it’s already paying off- literally, since co-op students earn real money while they work. Employers around the country are “seeing blue” and they like the motivation and work ethic they find in the students UK provides.
Co-op programs are nothing new to college students, but unlike other universities, UK’s College of Engineering program is entirely voluntary for students. Having a voluntary program helps ensure that students receive a higher quality of work because placement does not have to be found for every student. It allows the students to receive more hands-on, real-life experiences out in the field of engineering. “Almost from my first day as a co-op, I was treated with respect and dignity,” says Nick Brooks, a computer science senior. “I wasn’t a gopher or the office barista. I was welcomed onto my small team with open arms.”
Brooks says, “You get to see how things you learn apply in the real world and use skills that were once just academic exercises in real life situations.”
Approximately one-third of UK’s eligible engineering and computer science students elect to participate in co-op. Most students start off the program as sophomores. This allows them to fit in a three semester work rotation with semesters of classroom study in between. The academic time in between brings the student back more prepared for the second and third work rotations with more educational understanding under their belts. During the 2009-2010 academic year there were about 25-30 new first-time co-op students, with about 60-80 total students are enrolled in co-op. The total number of students enrolled is around 200. Nearly one-third of College of Engineering students will have co-oped by the time they graduate.
Ilka Balk, Director of Engineering Co-op and International Programs, urges students to apply early for the best co-op opportunity and placement. Students can learn more about the co-op program starting in their freshman year engineering classes when they receive visits from the career center to inform them more about the program, how to prepare their resume and other career orientated skills.
After researching the co-op program the next step is to apply for placement. To be considered for a co-op experience students must have a minimum 2.5 GPA. “First and foremost we are an academic institution” says Balk. However, some employers require a more competitive GPA. “In the past employers such as Toyota and GE will not accept a GPA lower than 3.0,” she says. If a student wishes to be placed with a more competitive company, knowing this earlier, can act as motivation to perform better in the classroom.
A student can be placed in a co-op position anywhere in the country from Houston, Texas to Spartanburg, S.C. or even stay close to campus with a position in Lexington. Current co-op companies include Parker Seals, Ashland Inc, GE Aviation Manufacturing Center of Excellence, the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA and even BMW. “Working three semesters with one company indicates dedication and employer loyalty as well as enhances a resume,” says Balk.
At the end of a co-op semester students write reports that include what they have learned and what classes prepared them for their co-op. They also meet with their supervisors and discuss their overall work experiences and the skills they have gained.
According to Balk one of the main concerns that students have is that they will be unable to graduate in four years. The College of Engineering co-op program allows for a student to alternate between work and academics for a total of three work semesters. This means that a student is expected to give up three semesters in order to participate in a co-op. While students are not required to complete three tours about 70-80% of students return for their second and third tours.
“However, this does not mean that students who complete a co-op will graduate three semesters behind their class,” says Balk. A typical co-op student will still graduate in five years. The difference is smaller because co-op students are expected to take summer classes in between their work semesters, while the average engineering student would not. This allows for the co-op students to “catch up” on their hours and not graduate remarkably late.
For BMW co-op Jonathan Gasser, giving up three semesters of his time was worth it compared to the benefits that would set him apart from other students. “I would definitely recommend co-oping to other students. The benefits far outweigh any negatives there may be. Some of my peers have said they just want to hurry up and graduate and they don’t want to take semesters off to co-op. However, a future employer is going to want to see work experience on your resume and the co-op program gives you the opportunity to have this.”
The trade off is well worth it for Gasser and his fellow co-op students. Other perks of the co-op program include earnings of approximately $35,000-$55,000 while on co-op, 12 months of work experience before graduation, and the opportunity for top starting salaries after graduation as well as earlier and more full-time job offers at graduation. The GPAs for students who participate in co-ops even tend to go up in between rotations, acting as an educational motivating force.