Co-ops provide students practical experience

Employers can determine how they will perform

Tyler Strub, a project manager based in Des Moines at Ryan Companies US, had a co-op internship at Ryan in 2009 and work
Tyler Strub, a project manager based in Des Moines at Ryan Companies US, had a co-op internship at Ryan in 2009 and worked on pre-construction logistics for the Mercy Medical Center seventh-floor renovation project currently underway, which includes a Transitional Care Unit and, shown here, the future Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit.. He’s seen here in a hallway under demolition. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

In today’s competitive job market, earning a college degree does not necessarily guarantee employment.

That’s where on-the-job practical experience, in the form of either a cooperative program and/or internship, can give applicants an advantage over their peers.

“Employers are looking for some type of practical experience outside of the classroom,” said Jennifer Noyce, associate director of experiential education at the University of Iowa Pomerantz Career Center. “That can be in the form of a short-term internship over a semester or the summer months, or a co-op that combines classroom education with full-time employment.”

A survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in April 2017 found 65 percent of employers prefer job candidates who have relevant work experience, with 56 percent of respondents favoring experience gained through internships or co-ops.

Traditional internships, which typically last from 10 to 14 weeks, can be paid or unpaid depending on the employer. Some students work multiple internships over the course of their college or post-college years.

Co-ops, which last for more than a semester, provide academic credit for a structured job experience. Co-ops tend to be full-time, paid positions.

“Internships and co-ops are an excellent opportunity for students to get firsthand exposure to real-world applications of what they’ve studied,” said Warner Coffman, human resources director at Snyder and Associates, an Ankeny-based engineering, planning and design company with an office in Cedar Rapids.


“With a co-op, a student makes a summer-fall work commitment with us. They agree to take a semester off school and make an investment in time to their chosen field of study.

“They are here for an entire construction season. Their exposure to a construction-related task — be it observation, survey or in some cases design — is enhanced with that extra time.”

‘Hit the ground running’

Craig Thompson, vice president of construction at Ryan Companies US, with offices in Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Des Moines, said the Minneapolis-based company looks at co-ops as a seven-month trial.

“It’s an opportunity for us to witness how they work, what their aptitude is, what their skills are and how they interact with people,” Thompson said. “They get to see who we are and how we operate as a company.

“I do a lot of hiring for Ryan in the Midwest. When I’m looking for someone, I want to see if they have that co-op experience, whether it is with us or someone else that does business the way we do.

“I know they are going to hit the ground running and be literally seven months ahead of someone coming out of college who has not had that kind of experience.”

While college may teach a student how to solve a large problem by breaking it into smaller tasks to create an overall solution, Thompson said students often do not understand how to work with different personalities.

“We have a very diverse workforce today, and everyone doesn’t have the same background or think the same way you do,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong. They just have a different way of approaching something or a different way of thinking about something.

“It can be a project manager with a four-year degree or possibly have gone on to get their masters in business or engineering. They may be a vice president of our organization or a laborer who is working in the field and has come up through the trades.”

You have to relate very differently to those individuals, Thompson said.


“You really need to understand where they are coming from in order to be able to motivate them to do something.”

Brian Hall, associate director, early careers manager at Collins Aerospace in Cedar Rapids, said managers prefer graduates who have had the co-op experience because they know how to work in a professional environment.

“At the end of the day, we are a global aerospace manufacturing company,” Hall said. “We need to know that we can plug candidates in who are going to understand the nature of what we do.”

Hall said Collins Aerospace can offer co-op students an opportunity to get a diverse experience without having to leave the company.

“We can give a student an opportunity to see a completely different geography or a different part of our organization over a six- or seven-month term,” he said. “We can put them in Chula Vista, Calif., which is a geographically opposite part of the world from Cedar Rapids.

“In Cedar Rapids, it’s the avionics business with heavy electrical and electronic products and processes. The Chula Vista business is air structures, so it is all different pieces and parts of a commercial or military aircraft.”

Megan England initially interned at Collins Aerospace in Cedar Rapids in summer 2016 helping develop the visual testing procedure for the KC-390 Embraer aircraft. England took the opportunity to do a co-op in the spring and summer of 2017 at the company’s Richardson, Texas, facility.

“I was working on the B-1 Lancer airborne radio and had the opportunity to do a mix of software development, testing, and document updates,” she said. “Recently I accepted another co-op for the upcoming summer-fall back in Cedar Rapids on the Flight Management System team.”


Coffman, of Snyder and Associates, said offering internships helps with recruiting in terms of visibility.

“We get year-round exposure on a college campus because our interns go back and we know they are telling stories about what they experienced and what their internship was all about,” he said.

“Even if they do not choose to work for us after they graduate, when an internship or co-op with us appears on their resume, they are getting closer looks.”

Tyler Strub, a project manager with Ryan Companies US, did an internship with Snyder and Associates before he was accepted as a co-op with Ryan in 2009.

“Ryan attends a lot of career fairs at Iowa State University and other schools,” Strub said. “I received a quick interview at the career fair and was offered a full interview, which is a couple-hour process

“The co-op was really beneficial for me because it led to a full-time job in 2011 after I finished college.”


Strub, 30, an Indianola native, had to convince his parents that a co-op with taking off a semester of school was preferable to a three-month internship.

“There was a lot of back and forth, but in the end it proved to be the best thing because I was gainfully employed right out of college,” he said.

“Our co-op program is geared to getting students out to the actual project sites. They spend quite a bit of time seeing how the drawings they saw in the office actually get built.”


Although he had to take a semester off as part of the co-op, Strub was able to graduate on schedule in four years with the addition of a summer semester.

“I had a couple of AP (advanced placement) credits that carried over from high school, so I was already a little bit ahead,” he said, “With the co-op, it put me right back to where I would normally have been in the system.”

Strub said a lot of co-op students share during their final presentation that they don’t want to return to the college classroom.

”They want to continue working,” he said. “They are learning a lot and we give them a lot of responsibilities to make sure they are contributing, A lot of our co-op students are running small projects by the time they leave.

“We also pay our co-op students very well and they’re able to make a little money while they are learning.”

Future Ready Iowa

Experiential learning through co-ops and internships aligns with the goals of Future Ready Iowa, an initiative to built Iowa’s talent pipeline that was created after the state received a National Governors Association grant.

“One of the recommendations of the Future Ready Iowa Alliance was to incorporate quality work-based learning for all students,” said Kathy Leggett, Future Ready Iowa policy adviser. “How can students in a community college, four-year institution or even high school get real world learning experience as part of their education?

“Co-ops, internships, pre-apprenticeships, apprenticeships and other types of real world project-based learning are a critical part of preparing Iowans for the workforce.”

The goal of Future Ready Iowa is for 70 percent of Iowa’s workforce to have education or training beyond high school by 2025.


Leggett said on-the-job experience also provides students with so-called soft or essential skills that are needed to succeed in today’s workplace.

“Whether it’s communication, working in groups, problem solving, time management or adaptability, those are skills that are transferable,” Leggett said. “They are really invaluable.”

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