Posted July 16, 2003 Atlanta
Communications and Marketing
Contact David Terraso
As Adam Dean's classmates head back to school this fall, he'll be heading back to work. As one of 3,500 students in Georgia Tech's cooperative education program, the chemical engineering senior will spend the fall semester working 40 hours a week at Kerr McGee in Savannah developing titanium dioxide, a pigment that colors everything from the cream filling in Oreo's to paper for your computer printer. Dean hopes the five semesters he'll spend working will help him conquer the toughest job market in almost a decade. He may be right. Two recent studies suggest that students who participate in cooperative education programs get their first job faster and at a higher starting salary than their peers. Once they get that job, they receive better performance reviews, move up the ranks faster and receive more pay increases than new employees who haven't co-oped.
With the June national unemployment rate at its highest in nine years (6.4 percent), many students are worried that a college degree may not be enough to help them land that first job quickly.
"Nowadays my friends can't get jobs. Companies want you to have experience, but I don't know how you get experience without getting a job," said Michael Sugar, a biomedical and mechanical engineering junior at Tech. His co-op job developing and testing artificial cartilage at Salumedica in Atlanta allows him to get that elusive experience before he graduates in 2006.
Like their academic cousin, the internship, co-op programs give students a chance to gain professional experience while they're enrolled in college. But while internships are often part-time, unpaid or last only for a semester or two, students in co-opassignments work full-time, for pay, alternating semesters of work and school. This extended employment with one company gives students the chance to increase their level of responsibilities over time and use their education on the job.
Once they graduate, students who have co-op experience tend to get their first job out of college faster and at a higher starting salary than recent graduates who haven't co-oped, according to a study by Georgia Tech's Office of Assessment. The survey, conducted between December 2001 and May 2003, contains responses from more than 3,000 recent Georgia Tech graduates. It found that 45 percent of co-op students had found jobs by graduation compared with 37.9 percent of students who had no co-op experience. In addition, the average starting salary for co-op students who had job offers by graduation was $48,555 compared with $45,326.
Another study conducted by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University also found that students who co-op receive higher starting salaries than their non-co-op peers. On top of that, it suggested that once they are on the job, co-op students receive better performance reviews, faster promotions and better pay increases than co-workers without co-op experience. The study looked at 11,000 employees, most of them hired between 1995 and 2000, at four multinational corporations. The average starting salary for employees with co-op experience was $39,700 compared to $37,600 for other employees hired straight out of college. The gap widens over time, with co-op hires in the study making a current average of $46,300 compared to $42, 400 for the non co-ops.
Co-op hires were twice as likely to receive better performance reviews and receive the highest performance rating than non co-op hires. Two-thirds of the co-op hires received at least one promotion during their tenure compared to one-third of their non-co-op peers. And 14 percent of the co-op hires were promoted to managerial positions while only 7 percent of the non co-op hires made it to those ranks.
"It's a symbiotic relationship," said Tom Akins, executive director of Georgia Tech's Division of Professional Practice. "That's one of the major reasons it works so well. Students get real-world experience, companies get employees with the latest knowledge and faculty get students who can give input from the corporate world."
Co-op programs have been around for nearly a century. The University of Cincinnati started the first co-op program in 1906. Georgia Tech began its program just six years later. Today, Tech's is the largest totally optional co-op program in the country, with more than 3,500 students enrolled.
Timothy Langlais, a chemical engineering major at Tech, said the prospect of future employment and a salary is great, but so is the money he earns at his co-op job at Michelin. "I'm enjoying the money. I'm the oldest of three kids and the first to go to college. For me, being self-sufficient is definitely a strong point of the program," he said. For some students, the extra money can mean the difference between graduating with student loans and being debt free.
"Classwork is a different kind of learning. If you just take classes, you're only getting half the story. The degree builds you up, but co-op gives you a head start," said Dean. And in this tough economy, he said, he'll take all the help he can get.