Student Success

Students jump-start their careers through co-op work terms

The University of Lethbridge has been offering co-op work terms for 30 years, but never before in a pandemic. As a way to combine on-the-job experience with academic studies, co-op work terms give students — more than 300 of them last year — the opportunity to learn valuable skills they’ll need in their future careers while they complete their degrees.

This fall, students who are undertaking co-op work terms are working in the midst of the COVID pandemic. While the pandemic has brought certain restrictions to workplaces, it has also brought unique working conditions and new opportunities for students.

Amber Koberinski started her co-op position with the U of L’s Teaching Centre in July. With the shift to mostly online learning for the Fall 2020 semester, the Teaching Centre wanted to ensure things went as smoothly as possible for faculty members as they adapted to new technology platforms to deliver course content. Koberinski is one of nine students who’ve been helping faculty and instructors work with applications like Zoom, Moodle and Crowdmark.

After spending the first week learning about the technology, she began making presentations to faculty members, hosting breakout rooms during the centre’s boot-camp sessions and helping instructors one-on-one.

“I’ve learned how to be a better presenter and I’ve had to step up and go out of my comfort zone,” she says. “I’m usually the person in the back of the classroom, just taking my notes. But with this position, I’ve had to open up and step forward. If we’re doing a project, I’m the one doing all the emailing and getting ahold of faculty or setting up Zoom sessions. I’m better prepared to take on those aspects of the job, where I wouldn’t have been before.”

Koberinski has completed all the requirements for a bachelor of arts (humanities) but wanted to get some work experience before graduating. She didn’t see many opportunities in her future, especially with the pandemic. Now, she sees her future in teaching and is considering graduate school.

“This whole pandemic shutdown has encouraged me to look beyond the horizon,” she says. “Working with the Teaching Centre has opened my eyes to a lot of different things and I have a much more positive outlook than I did in March. Finding new ways to connect and collaborate has been very uplifting. I’m very lucky I had this opportunity.”

Koberinski and the other co-op students at the Teaching Centre have also devised a research project looking into how the move to mostly online teaching and learning because of the pandemic has affected students. With the help of Board of Governors Teaching Chairs, Drs. Olu Awosoga and Ute Kothe, the students have submitted a grant proposal and plan to present their final results to the various faculties.

Peter Fehr, a second-year student majoring in finance, is currently doing a four-month co-op term at Precon Manufacturing, a company that provides concrete structures for underground utilities. His position as a business strategy intern is part of a MITACS-sponsored program to find out how companies in Canada have done during COVID.

“So far, I’ve been focusing on researching and analyzing Precon’s response to the pandemic and how COVID has affected the company’s ability to continue their operations with the protocols and changes they’ve implemented,” says Fehr. “Part of my position is to come up with recommendations as to how Precon can improve on things, such as helping employees with their well-being. Social distancing, especially in manufacturers, is really hard to implement because everyone works in close vicinity. I’ve been looking into more ways the company can improve on safety measures by recommending new or improved protocols.”

In addition to planning the project, Fehr has reached out to staff, both those working on the production line and those working remotely, to gather information for his project. He’s had the opportunity to present his findings and make recommendations to administration.

“The research I’ve done and the findings I presented have given me the opportunity to implement my recommendations in the company with the help of the administration team,” says Fehr. “Based on my research and findings so far, the company has already adopted one of my recommendations. It’s really cool to see your work actually being implemented and proving to be helpful to other employees.”

Fehr says he’s gained experience through the co-op program that he wouldn’t have gotten if he’d obtained a job on his own. The requirements of a co-op term include creating monthly reports and setting goals, along with performing the day-to-day requirements of his job.

“I have learned to be much more self-motivated and learned to think more critically,” says Fehr. “Right now, I’m one of seven employees working in the admin office, when there are usually more than 20. My position is very self-directed. I’ve learned many important business skills through my experience thus far, including presentation and communication skills. As a result, I have also gained more confidence due to the overall work environment, which has required me to interview employees and take that data to help make decisions in the company.”

Mike DeBiasio, a fourth-year student majoring in marketing, started a four-month co-op work term with Asyma Solutions in September. The Lethbridge-based company provides business management systems and his role is to work with the company’s sales and marketing team to help them implement a fresh approach to their marketing strategies and platforms.

“I’ve been running all the social media content for Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter,” says DeBiasio. “I’ve been generating content, finding different content to post and tracking analytics, such as how many views we get and how many leads are generated from those views. We’ve been getting really good numbers. It’s fun tracking all the analytics, seeing what people like and don’t like and why people respond to some posts more than others. It’s nice to see the work paying off.”

DeBiasio has also been working on creating a virtual booth for an upcoming conference, a value proposition for the sales team to use for new leads and a radio advertisement. While he had some experience with social media when he started the position, DeBiasio first had to learn about all the software products Asyma Solutions offers.

“That was definitely one of the challenges coming into the job,” he says. “I asked a lot of questions, but my boss is super great with me and I did some research on my own. The biggest things I’ve learned are having confidence in myself and how to be professional, whether in emails or at meetings.”

The co-op term has also given him the chance to take what he’s learned in the classroom and apply it in a real work setting. He’s seen that successful marketing can be done many different ways, depending on the type of business, the kind of customer and knowing the target audience. His experience at Asyma Solutions has been so positive that he hopes to extend his co-op another four months. And he wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a co-op work term to other students.

“It helps you get your foot in the door after you graduate and it’s very valuable experience,” he says.