(Halifax) In his final years of high school, teachers warned Ainsley Wallace and his classmates that going to college wouldn’t guarantee them a dream job.

“They scared us a little and told us that getting a degree didn’t automatically mean getting a good job,” recalls Wallace, originally from Ottawa and now a student at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“I decided to apply for a co-op program so I could graduate with some work experience and be able to compete for better jobs. »

Canada is a leader in cooperative education, a learning model that alternates between university courses and paid internships.

It is a form of so-called work-integrated teaching, an umbrella term that also includes other experiential teaching approaches such as apprenticeships, internships, and clinical placements.

Co-op programs can vary across the country, but all involve work related to the student’s field of study.

This gives employers access to affordable and energetic young talent, while students gain hands-on experience and earn money.

“It’s about winning by learning,” says Robert Wooden, director of management career services at Dalhousie University. “We learn in the classroom, but we also earn income during internships. »

Rising cost of living and rising tuition fees have made co-op programs increasingly attractive to students.

Tuition fees have nearly doubled in the past 20 years, according to Statistics Canada, while the costs of housing and food and other basic expenses have also risen dramatically.

Wallace, who currently works for the EnPoint mentoring organization in Halifax as a marketing and business growth intern, says being able to earn money while attending college was a major draw.

“I’m all about student loans,” she says. It was really helpful to be able to earn an income for four months in a row during these internships. »

Ensuring students are paid is one of the requirements of cooperative accreditation, says Wooden, who also chairs Cooperative Education and Work-Integrated Learning (ECAIT Canada).

“Co-op students don’t work for free,” he says. College is too expensive these days. Organizations looking to profit from unpaid student labor – co-op programs are not interested in this. »

Although they allow students to earn money, co-op programs often take longer to complete.

“Co-op programs generally take longer, but you graduate with a year of relevant work experience,” Wooden says. That’s a lot more powerful on a resume than a college degree and three summers of lawn mowing experience. »

Companies hire co-op students to bring new ideas and young workers to the workplace.

“Employers like the co-op model because they see it as a pool of talent,” says Alice Hsiung, manager of career development projects and activities at Centennial College in Toronto, which offers co-op programs for students in a variety of disciplines. , including business, engineering technology, applied science and transportation.

“Some even offer students part-time jobs when they return to school at the end of a term, and full-time positions once they graduate. »

Although co-operative education programs are at the forefront of the rising cost of living, they have a long history in Canada.

The University of Waterloo has offered co-op programs since its founding 65 years ago.

Its co-op program drew worldwide attention during the rise of BlackBerry, formerly known as Research In Motion, which relied heavily on the school’s engineering and computer talent.

But co-op programs aren’t just for engineers and computer science students, says Norah McRae, vice-president of co-op and experiential education at the University of Waterloo.

Every academic program in the school’s six faculties offers a co-op program — optional in some, mandatory in others — with about 25,000 work placements last year alone, McRae notes.

“It’s an opportunity for students to get involved in the workplace and take what they learn in the classroom and apply it in different settings,” she says. This deepens learning by application. »

“Sometimes the best internships are the ones where a student says, ‘I hate it’, because understanding that after a four-month internship is better than graduating, pursuing a career in that field, and realizing, a few more years late, that it’s not for yourself,” she adds.

Yet, despite the benefits of co-op programs, they do have some drawbacks.

Sometimes job offers are in places far from the educational institution.

“If you’re a finance student and want to work in financial markets, the only place you can really get into sales and trading is downtown Toronto,” Wooden observes.

“If you’re an industrial engineering student, you’re not going to walk out of your apartment and walk to work. There is no manufacturing facility in downtown Halifax. »

As some employers have started offering hybrid or remote working arrangements — and others are offering relocation benefits — students in co-op programs may need to relocate to gain experience, he says. he.

Also, co-op programs are not easy.

As universities find employers looking to hire, share job postings, and provide tools to help students write resumes and prepare for interviews, the student is responsible for engaging in a competitive process. and find an internship,” says McRae.

“It’s hard work,” she recalls. No one in any co-op program in Canada will give employment (to their students). »