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How to benefit from internships, service learning, apprenticeships and co-op work

Work-integrated learning experiences provide people with hands-on opportunities to apply concepts learned in the classroom in the real world. Bruce Mars/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

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Meeting employers’ need for experience — often identified in job postings — is the great catch-22 of starting any career. Many employers require experience for a job, but people cannot gain experience if no one hires them.

Through my research and related work on informal learning in the workplace, credentialing and careers in the 21st century, as well as supervision of over 60 internships, I’ve seen the frustration and anxiety of students trying to enter the workforce or switch career tracks.

Fortunately, many post-secondary programs offer optional work-integrated learning experiences for students, and most of these provide a useful experience credit for a resumé or portfolio piece to share. For those not in school, similar opportunities are available through some social service agencies.

Work-integrated learning experiences provide people with hands-on opportunities to apply concepts and processes learned in the classroom in the real world. These experiences also develop other skills needed in the workplace that often receive less attention in school, such as interpersonal communication and working collaboratively.

The late British education researcher Michael Eraut studied how people transition from school to work and what it means to develop professional competence. He noted that the type of learning that happens on the job complements the classroom. Work-integrated learning introduces people to the types of judgment calls they need to make in the workplace. It provides them with access to workers who can advise them on these decisions and an opportunity to experience the impact of what people decide.

Work-integrated learning experiences

The level of support and opportunities available for work-integrated learning varies among programs. The institution matches students with employers; many institutions also let students suggest placements if these placements meet institutional criteria. Universities and colleges may offer one or more categories of work-integrated learning opportunities.

1. Internships

Internships are temporary job placements that provide an opportunity to work in a job and, ideally, under close supervision. Higher education institutions offer two types of internships.

In the first, students primarily observe professionals performing their jobs and debrief the experience. Examples include medical students observing doctors making rounds with patients and third-year elementary education students observing teachers in the classroom. These internships primarily provide students with opportunities to see the work environment, observe the everyday challenges and discuss professionals’ responses. Students receive academic credit (which usually involves additional reading and writing papers on their observations) but are not paid, as the students are not performing productive work.

In the second type of internship students work on real projects for real organizations and apply skills mastered in the classroom. Students typically receive academic credit, and are expected to perform additional reading and write papers about what they’ve learned. Because these interns perform productive work from which employers benefit, students receive pay.

2. Apprenticeships

In an apprenticeship, a new worker learns a job with a more experienced worker. Typically longer than internships (for example, these could be as long as one to four years) and more common in vocational programs than academic ones, apprenticeships have characteristics of both types of the above-mentioned internships.

Apprentices spend early phases observing work and gradually assume full responsibility for tasks. Apprentices usually receive pay for their work, but a lower, training wage.

3. Co-operative education

Co-operative education is a work-integrated learning experience in which students may typically extend the last year of undergraduate studies to two years and alternate terms when they work with ones in which they study.

Some students work for the same employer for all of their work terms; others work for a different employer each work term. Although co-operative education has been common in engineering and business disciplines for many years, options are now available for students in many fields including professional writing and arts management.

Because students perform productive work for employers, their work is paid. But because students are technically not enrolled in classes during their work terms, they don’t receive academic credit. The co-op experience appears on a transcript of extracurricular programs and non-credit courses from the student’s university.

3. Service learning

Service learning provides students with opportunities to work on real world projects during regular courses, usually for non-profit organizations.

Where there is institutional support for service learning, instructors decide whether or not or how to include community-based learning experiences in their courses. Service learning projects are parts of courses, so students receive academic credit. Instructors decide how much service learning contributes to the grade.

Because students perform the projects for non-profit organizations, they typically do not receive pay but may use the work as a portfolio piece to show future employers.

Take advantage of work-integrated learning

Students should:

  1. Ask for and respond to feedback from the job supervisor. This feedback provides people with insights on how they’re performing and the areas they need to continue developing.

  2. Keep a log of learning (no matter how informal) and try to take true advantage of the learning aspects of any reports that have to be authored as part of the experience. What lessons were learned? What questions remain? How might similar situations be handled in the future?

  3. Read professional literature, such as industry news, professional magazines and journals in your discipline, as these can clarify experiences observed in the workplace and put them into a broader perspective.

  4. Be on the best behaviour: hiring is a real possibility. Internships, apprenticeships and co-operative education provides employers with opportunities to try out workers before making longer-term employment commitments.

Admittedly, some employers are not in a position to continue the relationship after the experience ends. But many employers are, and choose to make an offer to their intern or co-op student. Of all the interns I supervised between 2003 and 2019, more than half of them received offers from their internship employers. The others found work within a month or two of completing their programs.

Work-integrated learning provides the opportunity to gain that first job credit on the resumé, while also facilitating the transition from school to work.

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