Seismic upgrades: Problems continue to plague engineering co-op amidst structural changes

In a time of transition and turnover, whether or not sufficient changes can be made remains to be seen.

“The [engineering co-op] office has seen a lot of dark days in the last year or two,” said Quentin Golsteyn, Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) VP Academic, in a February interview with The Ubyssey.

Last year, Golsteyn was part of a group of engineering student leaders who wrote an open letter criticizing the faculty of applied science for making significant changes without adequately consulting students and staff. In particular, former co-op office director Jenny Reilly and her position itself were removed during an external review of the program.

Having only been made aware of these changes after the fact, the review committee had to abandon the study to avoid creating the perception that it caused these removals.

“We never made any such recommendation that firing anyone was necessary,” said Jakob Gattinger, a member of the external review committee and former EUS VP Academic.

“[The review] actually had good recommendations for the program as to how to address some of the big-picture problems — I think that it was just a shame that in the end, we couldn’t go forward with it.”

In general, students have also expressed dissatisfaction toward the structure of the co-op office despite valuing the experiential learning experience.

While 81.5 per cent of students surveyed in the 2016 EUS co-op report described their work placements as good or very good, only 24.5 per cent of students felt the same way about the overall co-op program experience, which includes aspects like workshops and staff support. Forty per cent described these experiences as poor or very poor.

“I did the first work term through [co-op], and my experience was so disheartening I decided I would rather canvas industrial parks looking for work than deal with them again,” commented Reddit user slinkysuki.

Since then, the office is adjusting to having direct management from the associate dean-level while conducting strategic planning to improve the program, according to Golsteyn. However, whether sufficient changes can be made during a time of such transition and turnover remains to be seen.

Personnel problems

With 50 per cent of engineering students involved in co-op, it is the largest co-op program in Western Canada — but it only has 20 staff in total whose jobs are not just to coach students but also to develop and maintain relationships with employers, according to Daria Hucal, associate director of student experience for engineering co-op.

“The [engineering co-op] office has seen a lot of dark days in the last year or two.”

— Quentin Golsteyn, EUS VP Academic

These responsibilities result in a heavy workload for staff and lower quality of support for students.

For instance, one Reddit user made a post soliciting help for finding “good coordinators,” after a disappointing drop-in session for cover letter and resume editing.

“However to be frank, it was completely fucking useless,” reads user UBCEngineerxD’s post. “The coordinator literally told me it was ‘good’ and the only feedback I got was that I shouldn’t indent one of the bullets on my resume.”

Others also pointed out the long wait times and lack of specific feedback in the required work term reports.

“One of the most basic things that students don’t see value in are those work-term reports and a lot of time, students will wait months before getting back the results,” said Gattinger. The EUS co-op report, which he co-wrote, also indicates that only 43.2 per cent of students agree or strongly agree that staff are able to help them, and that this was the “second most frequently cited issue with co-op” in the 2014 Academic Experience Survey.

In response, the office is hiring one new coordinator and recruiting a manager of business development — a position that only the science co-op program has at the moment — according to Hucal. Working to bring in new and diverse opportunities, this position would also ease part of the workload for the administration and student interaction teams.

But Golsteyn also stressed that these issues come from the problem that “there are too many students and not enough funding.”

According to Dr. Bhushan Golupani, associate dean of education and professional development for the faculty of applied science, the engineering co-op office is mainly funded through fees levied from students once they have secured a position — students don’t have to pay the $759.75 per term fee if they are just searching for jobs.

“[It’s] great for [students] yes, but it’s hard to provide the services because we have so many students coming in,” said Hucal of the funding model. “So we’re trying to balance that out, we’re trying to maximize our opportunities.”

The office also receives some contributions from the dean’s office to aid the recent changes as well as from the government, but they remain limited.

Currently, the office has seemed to scale back on the cohort size — statistics provided by Golupani and Hucal indicate that the program admitted 709 students in 2017 in comparison to 855 in 2015.

On the funding side, however, Golsteyn said the discussion about alternative models is still in the beginning phase — as a result, the EUS has not advocated for anything yet.

“They are still working on different models and try[ing] to inspire them off of different universities,” he said. “I expect more information in March so that we can start to really consider if it’s worthwhile or it’s not. Then the next VP academic will have to continue that work because I think it’s a long process.”

Matter of chance

Another common complaint is the likelihood of getting a position at all, since securing a placement in their field of study — students’ main expectation of enrolling in co-op — isn’t always guaranteed.

“Unfortunately, in the recent years since 2008-09, we haven’t had as an entire program a term where there has been a 100 per cent placement rate of all students who come through the door,” said Hucal, noting that the overall enrolment in co-op work terms has increased by eight per cent since 2010. “That just hasn’t been possible because we have so many students in the program and only so many positions, so there is competition for that.”

But while a significant portion of this issue, like market shocks, is outside of the co-op office’s control, the office has been able to continue creating placements at an average of over six per cent increase from term to term, according to Hucal.

“Most economies in the advanced world grow at about two or three per cent annually ... so in a sense we’re out-performing the economy,” Golupani added.

However, students from different disciplines of engineering continue to have vastly different experiences.

“[A 100 per cent placement rate] just hasn’t been possible because we have so many students in the program and only so many positions, so there is competition for that.”

— Daria Hucal, associate director of student experience for engineering co-op

“The greatest disparity in [the placement metric] was along the lines of department or program the students are in,” said Gattinger. “I think that makes sense because natural resources, which employ a lot of students in engineering, have not been great in recent times.”

Third-year computer engineering student Alex Driedger agreed, adding that there is a disproportionately large number of software jobs on the co-op job board in comparison to the population of computer engineering students.

However, the biggest determining factor is undoubtedly the level of experience of the student. According to Hucal, only 47 per cent of junior co-op students found a placement last fall term, while 100 per cent of senior students found one.

“After your first or second co-op, the value of co-op is exponentially decayed,” Driedger said, recommending those who want to look beyond co-op for jobs to attend career fairs and talk to recruiters directly instead. While he expressed satisfaction with his overall co-op experience, Driedger doesn’t think the program’s presentations give first-year students an accurate image of its placement rates.

“My personal beef with co-op is that I don’t think they are honest with first-year engineering students,” he said.

“They will show you nice upward trending graphs of people who get placement — it doesn’t matter because they are just accepting more people in so you still have the same placement rate … There are a lot of second years who don’t get co-op jobs because there aren’t enough jobs and there were more qualified people in upper years.”

Golsteyn agreed with the assessment of the co-op office giving misleading statistics in the past — where they were presented as higher than the actual 40 per cent placement range — but also noted that this practice has changed.

“I remember in my first year, co-op was advertised as this magnificent thing,” he said.

“Now they are more realistic about what the program is — I think the number has been lowered this year.”

The ‘co-op experience’

In addition to placement and funding concerns, differing views of the ‘co-op experience’ also reveal fundamental dissonance between what students want and what co-op can and wants to deliver — educationally and financially.

“It’s a structured program, complementing a university education, so we are an academic program, not a job placement service,” said Hucal, noting that recent structural changes to the program’s team have focused on having more intense academic oversight.

Despite its branding as an “experiential learning program” by UBC, students continue to have issues with regulations the co-op office enforces with the intention of focusing students on the academic side of working a co-op term when it is often the professional side that matters most to them, according to Golsteyn.

“The student’s perception of the co-op program is a job placement program while the co-op office has a different vision, where it’s a learning experience,” he said.

“On the student side, they want the flexibility … [and they] get frustrated because of the very large amount of terms and procedures.”

Third-year mechanical engineering student Wilson Hsu experienced this firsthand when he decided to accept an internship position with Tesla — “an opportunity of a lifetime” since he was also the captain of UBC Solar, a solar powered electric vehicle design team — while being in a 12-month contract with another co-op placement with which he was unsatisfied.

According to Hsu, his contract with that company allows either party to “break the contract at any time without given notice and without any consequence.”

“The student’s perception of the co-op program is a job placement program while the co-op office has a different vision, where it’s a learning experience.”

— Quentin Golsteyn, EUS VP Academic

But the co-op terms and conditions said that students would be failed for ending a work term without the office’s permission and could also be removed from the program. In Hsu’s case, beside initially being failed for two terms, he also alleged that he was being talked to in a demeaning manner and given contradicting information.

“When I first joined the program, I was not aware of the detailed terms and conditions for employment and I was also under the impression that the coordinators would act on the interest of the student,” Hsu wrote in his January 22 appeal letter to Golupani.

“However, this is evidently not the case and I do admit that I may have broken some policies, but it was not intentional, and it was definitely not to defame the co-op office.”

At the end of February, they reached the agreement to only fail him for one term and remove him from the co-op program, but he would also have to pay for four co-op terms while only completing three — totalling around $3,000.

In the future, the number of requirements to be in the program could change with a new funding model, said Golsteyn, referring to the incentives to keep students enrolled created by the current student fee-heavy model. Another aspect of disagreement within the co-op rules is that students are not allowed to negotiate their salaries.

For Hucal, who noted that co-op asks all employers to include salary ranges with each job posting, this regulation allows for students to focus on the educational aspects of the program — rather than salary — so that they can present themselves in the “best light possible” in the job searching process.

“Some employers will come to the program and say, ‘I’m here to educate the student, I don’t want them applying to me or selecting me just for salary, I want them to come and work for us because they want the experience,’” she said.

“[Employers] really see themselves as an educational partner, so [for them] salaries shouldn’t be a factor.”

Gattinger disagrees, pointing out that negotiating salaries “is such a fundamental thing when [students] graduate” that it should be part of the learning experience of co-op.

Seismic shifts

Aside from considering these policy issues, both the faculty of applied science and students have acknowledged that open consultation will be an important part in the quest to improve engineering co-op. However, past events have demonstrated that this is harder to commit to in practice.

“The future of engineering co-op is very very bright.”

— Dr. Bhushan Golupani, associate dean of education and professional development for the faculty of applied science

Previously, the co-op office had floated the idea of trying an “open co-op” model that would allow extracurricular activities and unpaid positions to count as co-op credits, but that idea is no longer being pursued, according to Hucal and Gopaluni. Golsteyn and Gattinger raised concerns about how students were consulted when that idea was entertained, since it could have potentially risked the program’s accreditation — and because 73.1 per cent of students who responded to a call for consultation would not be willing to accept an unpaid position.

Still, both Gopaluni and Hucal are optimistic about the potential for improvement that new staffing changes and academic reorientation taking place within the co-op program can bring.

“We all feel that experiential learning is the centre of how we’re trying to prepare students and engineers for the 21st century,” said Gopaluni. “The future of engineering co-op is very very bright.”

Golsteyn is, however, more cautious.

“This year, we have seen some changes — the faculty is interested in improving the program [and] they are reducing the number of students in the program with the goal of improving things,” he said.

“Will this work? I’m not sure yet — I think it would take a couple of years to see the positive change.”