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Fitness Training for the Real World

The decades old training model of the college co-op seems designed for today’s lean and hungry job market. Employers get a semester or more of “interview” time. Students bulk up for the real world.

Co-op students from nearby universities are a way of life at the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International plant in Vance.  Here, HR and Recruiting Specialist Steve Colburn (left) takes a moment’s break with students Jarvis Fullenwilder, Carlton Northrup and Katy Beckett.

Co-op students from nearby universities are a way of life at the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International plant in Vance. Here, HR and Recruiting Specialist Steve Colburn (left) takes a moment’s break with students Jarvis Fullenwilder, Carlton Northrup and Katy Beckett.

Photo by Cary Norton

What do you do when even entry-level jobs require experience?

Many college students in Alabama turn to co-op programs — partnerships between universities and businesses that offer on-the-job experience for students and fresh ideas for companies.

Students alternate a semester of classes with a semester on the job, gaining practical understanding of their field and a significant bullet point for the experience section of their resume.

Tyler Clark, an engineering student at the University of Alabama, joined his school’s program to learn more about his potential career path. “The co-op program has completely changed my perspective on my education,” he says. “Prior to co-oping, like most college students, I was still somewhat unsure if engineering was the career path I wanted to follow. However, once I began the co-op program, I was able to quickly realize that engineering is where I belong.”

Clark has spent three semesters working with Redstone Test Center, a division of the Army Test and Evaluation Command in Huntsville. He was involved in a variety of testing procedures, including dynamic testing on military equipment, climatic and temperature testing and flight testing with the aircraft survivability equipment on the Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters.

This time outside of the university allowed Clark to put his knowledge to the test, as well. “Co-oping has also allowed me to see that some things learned in the classroom may look good on paper and in the theoretical world, but may be a completely different story when you go to physically apply those principles.”

Clark’s on-the-job learning is exactly what UA hopes to achieve by connecting their students with businesses. “By matching the appropriate students with a job description, we provide the opportunity for students to blend classroom theory with hands-on application and a potential full-time hire for the participating employer at the end of the program,” says Roy Gregg, director of UA’s Cooperative Education and Professional Practice Program. The program provides a direct link between the student’s education and career.

For the program’s participants, the time spent at work helps develop a clearer idea of what they can do beyond college, often providing vital connections to their field.

“I’m gaining real world experience,” says Clark. “I feel like it has given my education a greater meaning and allowed me to develop a passion for engineering.”

Reflecting the university’s growing enrollment, the UA Cooperative Education Program has more than 800 students each semester participating or interviewing with partner businesses. The university has offered co-op opportunities since the official program was established in 1963, though there may have been some informal involvement by engineering students in Birmingham industries as far back as the 1930s.

The program began as an engineering-specific initiative but was expanded to a university-wide program in 1978. While the focus has broadened, engineering remains among the university’s most popular fields. “We reflect the job market and have very large technical and engineering participation,” says Gregg. “Our university and College of Engineering are very invested in this program. Parents and students are shopping around now, looking for universities which offer an instructional structure or process to allow students the opportunity to acquire resume enhancing work experience prior to graduation,” he says.

Mercedes recruiter Steve Colburn points out features of the Vance plant for co-op students.

Photo by Cary Norton

Co-op programs have become increasingly viable options for Alabama companies as well. “We are seeing more employer inquiries than ever before,” says Gregg. “I sense employers are looking for cost effective ways to identify talented young students in desired majors, train them and hopefully retain these students at graduation.”

For many students, the most immediate co-op benefit comes in the form of experience. Putting career-specific work credentials on a resume is a distinct advantage in an increasingly competitive market. As students gain new understanding of their coursework by applying it, they simultaneously increase their chances for employment.

“With many employers going to online employment application processes, student resumes must now show acquired skill sets and in-depth work experiences to get a positive employer response,” says Gregg. “Many parents are now wanting a return on their investment in the form of professional employment for their children at graduation. Those parents are very tuned in to the competitive job market for new college graduates.”

Co-op experience also helps students retain what they’ve learned in class, pick up tricks of the trade and get a head start on cutting edge techniques that haven’t yet found their way into textbooks.

Auburn University software engineering student Robert Ghames took advantage of his school’s co-op program and put his tech skills to work at Neptune Technology Group in Tallassee. He worked in test engineering, building machines and writing software to test various products.

“In my case, co-oping let me learn new technical processes, or new software languages I hadn’t even heard of until my work terms,” he says.

When a student’s time at their co-op company ends, they typically return to their regular schoolwork until graduation. Although some graduates may find a job with their former co-op, they all come away with a unique insight into their line of work.

Auburn’s Cooperative Education Program has connected students to companies for more than 76 years. About 680 students are currently enrolled in the program. “Primarily during the sophomore and junior years, students alternate between full-time work and full-time school semesters until they have worked a minimum of one calendar year,” says Kim Durbin, director of Auburn’s co-op program.

Auburn is partnered with more than 180 companies spanning industry, business and government, with Southern Co., Georgia-Pacific and Mercedes-Benz ranking as the university’s top three employers.

In Mobile, the University of South Alabama connects an average of 145 students to businesses each year. “This type of practical experience is essential to the university’s teaching mission,” says Director of Career Services Bevley Green. “Upon return to the classroom, students often have an enlightened view of their studies and are better able to translate theory to practice.”  

These real world applications are highly encouraged by USA’s staff, and student ambassadors return to share their experiences at an annual event. A Co-op Student of the Year and an Intern Student of the Year are named after their ambassadorship has ended. “We are very proud of the accomplishments of all of our students,” says Green, “so supporting our students through this recognition of their time and efforts is a small way to show our appreciation.”

USA student Nathan Wisner found a co-op position with Southern Co., where he is charged with driving efficiency in contractor resources for the plant maintenance department. Among other duties, he analyzes payroll reports and translates raw data into information using Excel models. “I apply accrual-based accounting principles and accounting information system concepts daily in my job functions,” he says. “I’ve found accounting information systems to be the most practical course I’ve taken to date in the accounting curriculum. 

“I plan to use the experience and skills developed from my co-op to make an impact in future roles held within Southern Co.,” he says. “There are limited finance-related opportunities at the plant, but I hope to find a niche somewhere within the company.”

By working with Southern Co., Wisner has joined one of the most well-established co-op groups in the U.S. Southern Co. and its subsidiaries, such as Alabama Power, have strong partnerships with colleges across the state. “Our co-op program is designed to give hands-on experience to talented undergraduates in a variety of areas,” says Southern Co.’s Campus Recruiting Consultant Lindsay Osborne. “It provides students with the opportunity to build on their experiences through increased responsibility each returning semester. Our goal through the program is to develop students to prepare them for potential careers with Southern Co. and our subsidiaries, including Alabama Power.

“We use our co-op program as one of our primary pipelines into entry-level engineering positions,” says Osborne. “Alabama Power and all of Southern Co. have benefitted from a very good retention rate. In many cases, engineers typically join the company through a co-op program and stay for their full career.”

While Southern Co. has an extensive co-op program, it strives to maintain a balance in expanding its workforce. “We see the benefit of hiring co-ops as a natural extension of our overall hiring, including hiring full-time employees,” says Osborne. “One program does not outweigh another. They work in concert to ensure Southern Co., Alabama Power and all our subsidiaries have a strong, diverse and inclusive work environment.”

Co-op programs have become a valuable scouting tool for companies across the state. Mercedes Benz U.S. International has participated with co-op programs for 15 years, drawing many of their students from Alabama and Auburn. “The co-op program is mainly for recruiting,” says Human Resources and Recruiting Specialist Steve Colburn. “Secondary to that, the program is for student development and is a resource tool for MBUSI.”

Mercedes takes on about 40 students per semester, allowing them to hone their skills in a wide range of areas, including human resources, communications, purchasing, logistics and finance. “The co-op program provides real world development for the student and it also allows us to prepare students for possible full time roles within MBUSI,” he says. “The students are involved in many different projects and tasks that make a positive impact at MBUSI.”

In the northern region of Alabama, Parker Hannifin Corp. works closely with the University of Alabama in Huntsville to bring in co-op students. The company has about 20 students working at a time. “One of the main reasons we participate in the program is to identify young talent for future needs in our business,” says Human Resources Manager Rodney Atkins. “The co-op program allows us to develop young students into productive full-time employees upon graduation, either for Parker or other employers.”

Co-op students are paid based upon their school status. At Parker’s Huntsville and Boaz locations, they are assigned company-essential projects so that they can serve the company while preparing for careers in fields like engineering, supply chain management, marketing and lean manufacturing.

Students at Parker Hannifin may work with the company for two or three semesters. “I look at this time as a long interview,” says Atkins. “It is an opportunity to build a long-lasting relationship with a young professional who will potentially be a valuable asset upon graduation or even years down the road. Hiring a regular employee is always a much higher risk, due to not being familiar with their technical skills, personality, fit for the job, etc.”

Photo by Art Meripol

Learning to deal with the unexpected

Leah Johnson, an Alabama native and an Auburn electrical engineering major who is taking advantage of on-the-job opportunities through a co-op program with Alabama Power, planned to show off her regular job one Monday in December.

But sometimes weather intervenes.

There was no problem with the Alabama weather that day. “But an ice storm came through Texas and there were a lot of people without power,” Johnson says.

And just like those she works with day in and day out in her co-op semesters in Anniston, she was headed for Texas with only a day’s warning.

At a quick stop in Birmingham (shown here), she and her project supervisor, Frank Black, check out the route on their tablet.

For decades, Alabama Power has worked in mutual assistance agreements with other utilities, media relations expert Michael Sznajderman told Business
Alabama last summer.

“These agreements are vital to help speed restoration in the case of major storms,” Sznajderman says. “Alabama Power has utilized mutual assistance agreements to get help from other utilities when we need it, and to provide help to others when they are in need.”

So off went Johnson, a member of the team if only a co-op student, and like the rest of the team, a helper where needed. They tackled the damage at a Dallas substation, a first step in restoring power to homes and businesses, completing the job in a day and a half.

It’s great to be part of the team, she says, and knowing that you’re helping people is gratifying.

Thomas Little is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

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