“What experience do you have?”

“What experience do you have?”
  By Jenna Clarke

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These are possibly the five most terrifying words a potential employer can ask a recent graduate. And the answer could be the most terrifying thing you have ever had to say. Sure you can say that you’re a long-time student of life, you’re a quick learner and eager to take on new tasks. But most employers will likely see through your inexperience, politely escort you to the door and then file your resume in the circular file with a three-pointer.

It’s an age-old paradox; you can’t get the experience without a job, and no one will give you a job to get the experience. So for some, looking for a job after graduation can be a daunting task.

However, many schools are trying to smooth this potentially difficult transition. They have been working to make their programs more relevant to the workplace and therefore more appealing to potential students. Co-operative learning programs have long been used as a recruiting tool to connect learning with relevant, paid job experiences. And the trend seems to be growing.

Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ont. was the first college in Canada to offer a co-op program 31 years ago, and now has approximately 2000 co-op students each year. They say that companies look at the co-op program as a “four-month interview” to evaluate potential employees.

Kathy Verspagen, director of co-operative education, says Mohawk boasts an annual employment rate of 95 per cent for its co-op students. “The co-op work term really helps students to focus on what they want to do. A student who is weak academically can often be a wonderful co-op student, because the work really ignites their interest in the subject matter,” says Verspagen. The co-op jobs are carefully chosen by the college to be applicable to the academic component.

Anupe Shetye, in her second year of Mohawk’s chemical engineering technology program, is already on her way to a permanent job through her co-op placement. Shetye helped set up a ‘Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System’ (WHMIS) for Westcam, a camera manufacturing company based in Burlington. WHMIS is a national information system designed to inform workers about hazardous workplace materials.

Her experience with class lab settings and the program’s chemistry courses gave her a strong foundation to develop the system. “You get a lot of experience because the co-op placement makes you responsible for real projects where you can use your knowledge from school,” says Shetye.

That experience is often the reason why many employers go on to hire their co-op students. Samantha Waytowich graduated from the same program in December 1999 and is now a melt process technologist for Westcast, based in Brantford. Waytowich is responsible for taking raw materials and converting them into molten metals for exhausts for the Big Three car companies. Waytowich was offered a job with Westcast during her last work term.

“The co-op program was excellent. It showed me what I learned was really going on in the real world,” says Waytowich. Work terms seem to be especially useful for fields
 

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