Careers and Expectations: The Struggles for Co-ops
by Taylor Synclair Goethe | published Sep. 2nd, 2019
College is now a requirement for many jobs in the modern American workforce. With the average student loan debt approaching forty thousand dollars, students must have faith in their university to prepare them for what comes after. However, a competitive curriculum and good grades aren’t always enough to secure a student’s future.
Co-ops and Internships
Several majors at RIT require co-ops. Even when they aren't mandated, many students still feel pressured to have an internship or co-op during their tenure on campus.
What’s the big deal about co-ops? Quite a lot. In a report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), an estimated 91 percent of employers want to hire individuals with work experience and 65 percent require the experience to be relevant to the career field.
Needing a job in your field to get a job in your field is practically a Catch-22. That’s why common workarounds are co-ops and internships, where a company provides short-term work — usually to students and recent graduates— to get their required work experience before officially entering the industry.
When entering the job market for the first time, it's not uncommon for graduates to stick close to home, often for connections and the familiar comfort that comes with it.
“76 percent of students at universities in the Northeast are applying to jobs in Northeastern cities,” according to data gathered by Handshake. Rochester, unfortunately, is an exception to this trend. Director for the Office of Career Services and Cooperative Education Maria Richart weighed in on why her office usually seeks job opportunities for students outside the Rochester region.
“After the downsizing of Kodak, Xerox [and other companies], we can no longer rely on them to put our students on co-op,” Richart said.
Currently, Rochester has one of the worst job markets among top metros in America, according to the Wall Street Journal. The ranking listed 53 cities in order from hottest to coldest labor markets, and our little metropolitan of brick factories and garbage plates came in dead spanking last.
Yet it’s not all grim news for RIT students. Despite the local job market being in a recession, the rest of the country is seeing growth in college student hiring. Employers estimate to hire 11 percent more recent graduates in 2019 than in 2018, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
"After the downsizing of Kodak, Xerox [and other companies], we can no longer rely on them to put our students on co-op."
Mandatory and Non-Mandatory Co-ops
Most majors, especially STEM majors, have mandatory co-op requirements to graduate. However, RIT doesn’t leave students high and dry. Rather, the university provides job prep courses for both mandatory and non-mandatory co-op majors.
“Preparation starts in the student’s second year [for mandatory] and they are required to take a ten- or fifteen-week prep course," Richart said. "For non-mandatory [majors], they either take a senior seminar or writing intensive course that includes writing resumes which they will take later in the spring of their junior year or as seniors."
For students like second year Game Design and Development and Psychology double major Dane Sherman whose majors both mandate co-ops, the responsibility is on Sherman to not only juggle the coursework of two majors but also to secure a separate co-op for each in order to graduate. Fortunately, there are classes structured into students' curricula to help with this.
“RIT has helped prepare me by requiring a co-op prep class and providing opportunities such as the Emerging Professionals Institute that helped me improve my interviewing skills,” Sherman said.
Classes alone aren't the only aid RIT provides to its students in finding a co-op.
A poor interview is almost guaranteed to be a dealbreaker no matter the industry students are applying to. RIT provides students with the opportunity to practice those skills as well as receive portfolio interviews and apply for jobs. There are a total of 11 separate career fairs across campus — the largest and most well-known being the university-wide Career Fair, an unmistakable semesterly event of student crowds running around in business attire as they guzzle espressos and fight for lab space to print their resumes.
The university-wide Career Fair is supposed to represent all majors, but with only 250 to 260 companies a year, most lean toward the STEM industries. This lack of variety is why many other colleges host their own specialized career fairs such as Accounting, Packaging Science, Civil Engineering and, the second largest, Creative Industry Day.
Ashley Casimir, a recent graduate of Interior Design, looks to focus her career on community development — an industry she came upon after her volunteer study abroad in natural disaster-devastated Puerto Rico and Haiti. For Casimir, even at Creative Industry Day, which is supposed to be dedicated to creative majors, the pickings for interior design were slim; for community building, practically nonexistent.
“Creative Industry Day is mainly portfolio reviews. I wish more companies were there for hiring,” Casimir said.
Even for larger majors in creative fields such as Game Design, Animation and Industrial Design, all of the art majors are being represented in only 70 companies or fewer. This causes many students to compete for a limited number of spots. Even with the addition of these specialized career fairs, some majors discover these co-op matchmaking events unlikely to ever find them a co-op or internship.
“Career fair days usually only have a few companies looking specifically for game development students, so I mostly just use them as opportunities to practice talking to companies,” Sherman said.
Many students are unable to rely on the Career Fair to find co-ops due to the nature of their major. However, some have found luck using alternative services provided by the university.
Handshake and Other Resources
Matthew Altobelli is a fourth year in Psychology and currently on co-op in his major’s department. Altobelli came to RIT after completing an eight-year tenure in the military. He now has a goal to receive his Ph.D. and treat victims of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For Altobelli and other students like him, the co-op requirement can be impractical.
“I got hired [on co-op] but it fell through because it didn’t end up being conducive to my lifestyle ... I have three kids and a wife,” Altobelli said.
Although Altobelli was able to find a co-op on campus, other students who are looking for location-specific internships may be out of luck at the career fairs. Fortunately, there are other resources available to RIT students to obtain these jobs.
“[Handshake] posts a really good amount of jobs more geared toward other majors,” Casimir said.
RIT uses a hiring website called Handshake that posts over 10,000 new jobs and internships for students every year.. The site also allows students to book meetings with the Office of Career Services and Cooperative Education for one-on-one student career counseling.
“Each career program coordinator is assigned a different major, so regardless of whether you’re in a mandatory or non-mandatory co-op major, each coordinator has a major they are responsible for,” Richart said.
A less-explored option is going international for co-ops. At RIT, about three percent of the student body goes on international co-ops. The process is more difficult but definitely worth exploring, especially if students' careers could potentially take them overseas. All students interested in international co-ops can directly connect with Richart.
"[Handshake] posts a really good amount of jobs more geared toward other majors."
If students are having difficulties with a career fair, it is recommended they seek out such alternative resources.
“The resources are there if students want to use them,” Altobelli said.
Last year, about 4,500 RIT students went on co-op. Regardless of whether it is a student's goal to obtain a co-op or internship that semester, according to Richart it may still be wise to participate in career fairs. As Richart explained, one of the best benefits of career fairs is that it teaches students how to market themselves as a professional. This experience is invaluable, but doesn’t mean that RIT career fairs don’t have a lot to improve upon.
“Something that I've started to notice is that some companies at the career fair don't have any current openings or only plan to have openings for the next semester," Sherman said. "Knowing what positions they have open would generally help in deciding which companies to talk to.”
After each career fair, students receive a survey about their experiences. Richart encourages each student to fill them out because her office uses the results to directly enact change for future years. After the last university-wide Career Fair, about 500 students filled out the survey.
"The resources are there if students want to use them."
“Our goal is bigger, better and more every year,” Richart said, regarding the Career Fair.
The pressure to obtain a co-op or internship isn’t going to be any less stressful; however, knowing the resources offered to students is a good step toward being more competitive and professional when entering the industry.
"Remain flexible. Your plans will never work out [exactly] the way you want them to,” Altobelli said.
The career fairs, Handshake and career coordinators are resources to help put students in the chair with a potential employer. At the end of the day, however, it is up to the student to secure the position. No student wants to wait an hour in the Career Fair line just to bomb the interview.
The Career Services Office will host their yearly Mock Interview Program on Sept. 20, 2019. This is an opportunity for students to get in one more bit of practice with hiring professionals. Several companies and job hunting websites also post 20-step plans on how to ace an interview. Yet, during Career Fair when companies could be speaking to hundreds of students in one day, it may be hard to stay memorable. Fortunately, Richart has her own three-step plan that is easy to remember.
1. Do Your Research
Never walk into an interview and not know the interviewer, the open job positions or the company's mission statement.
2. Have Unique Questions
This doesn’t mean ask them about their belly button ring; rather, frame questions to be company specific. Ask them about projects they are working on and think outside the box.
3. Follow Through
It would be a waste to do an awesome interview only to then lose contact with the employer. Always send an email to the interviewer. This makes the student more memorable and creates a new connection. Even if they do not receive the specific job, they can be recommended for another job in the future.
The Career Fair is a great job hunting tool, but it isn’t students' only resource for hiring. The Office for Career Services and Cooperative Education has a team of individuals dedicated to students' hiring success. There are more opportunities out there if they're willing to look for them.
Richart said, “We want our students to know we are here for them.”