Cooperation Breakdown

Tim Velazco has been through job interviews before, and he followed the usual steps when he met with architectural firms in Ohio recently. He put on his best suit, tried to make a good impression and hoped for the best. It’s fair to say, however, that Velazco thought the cards were stacked against him even before the interviews began.

“They even said we’re probably not going to hire anyone, but we’re not really sure,” Velazco recalls.

Velazco, who is pursuing a master’s degree in architecture at the University of Cincinnati, is among thousands of students seeking jobs through cooperative education programs across the country this spring. As the job market tightens for even the most seasoned of professionals, students are finding doors slammed in their faces, and universities — especially those like Cincinnati for which co-op programs are central — are scrambling to deliver on the promise of programs that seek to blend real-world work experience with time in the classroom.

“Honestly, I didn’t feel the effects of the economy that I’d heard so much about on the news until I had to find this job,” Velazco said.

Velazco ended up landing a job in Lexington, Ky. — a location that was farther from home than he’d hoped. He entered into a six-month lease for a one-bedroom apartment, and now says he’ll be lucky to break even on the venture.

“It’s really very difficult,” he said. “It’s not an ideal process, I have to say.”

Hiring for co-op positions is expected to drop by 11 percent this year, the biggest decline since at least 2004, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The tightening job market is having an impact on even the most well-established and well-connected co-op programs in the country.

Officials at Cincinnati, which hosts the longest-standing co-op program in the United States, say that even their program is not immune to the downturns that have employers backing out of longstanding arrangements to hire students. The university, which has 100 students still looking for positions right now, expects to find jobs for about 82 percent of students seeking co-op positions this year; that’s down from a typical placement rate of 99.5 percent.

At Cincinnati, a number of majors require students to complete 18 months of cooperative education before graduation. Program coordinators provide waivers if landing a job proves impossible, but it’s something they try to avoid.

“We’re getting very creative and pulling out all stops [trying to link students to jobs],” said Cheryl Kates, director of Cincinnati’s Center for Cooperative Education Research and Innovation. “We’re working way harder than we have had to in the past.”

University officials have joined social networking sites aimed at particular industries, reaching out to employers who have never participated before to help replace those who’ve opted out this year. Jobs for architecture students have been particularly hard to find, and the university tapped new resources this year to try to find placements for students like Velazco.

Alex Christoforidis, a Cincinnati faculty member who helps architecture students in the co-op program, took a new approach this year. He contacted officials with Reed Construction Database, which tracks construction projects across the country, and convinced the company to let him use the database for a week at no cost. A year of access could have cost the program as much as $20,000, and that wasn’t possible, Christoforidis said.

With access to the database, Christoforidis gained a glimpse into the troubling state of the construction industry. He came across firms that had millions — even billions — of dollars in current projects, but no projects in the planning stage. In other words, giant, well-established firms have no prospects for work and are more likely to be laying people off than hiring anyone. Even so, Christoforidis helped place all but one of the more than 50 students he was working with this quarter.

“It tells me that as bad as it’s been … the fact that they are able to get at least a temporary job for six months or so is encouraging,” said Christoforidis, an assistant professor in Cincinnati’s division of professional practice.

Students Get Glimpse of Tough Times
With so many companies falling on hard times, it’s plausible that co-op students will find jobs with employers that only recently laid off longtime workers. Students often work for a fraction of the cost of full-time employees with more experience, so it’s not without precedent for students to enter a company where nerves are still raw from the latest round of pink slips.

Dianne Markley, director of Cooperative Education and Internships at University of North Texas, said co-op programs should prepare students for the possibility that co-workers might initially resent their hiring.

“We tell the student to be aware of it and not to make a big to-do about his or her presence there,” said Markley, chair of Cooperative and Experiential Education Division of the American Society for Engineering Education. “You may be working alongside people who have just watched a colleague of 20 years walk out the door … and the next day here comes this fresh-faced college student.”

By the same token, students are getting a window into the difficulties faced by so many in the current economy. Michael Malarik, a senior at Clemson University, said the last weeks of his co-op stint with Alcoa Inc. were difficult to watch.

“While I was there, the orders coming in for the [aluminum] product were just constantly decreasing, and layoffs were in the air,” he said. “They were already offering permanent employees early retirement packages.”

It was therefore no surprise to Malarik when he learned Alcoa would not continue to participate in Clemson’s co-op program this summer. Malarik, who had planned to work at Alcoa again, found himself looking for another job. While he found another position, the process was much more difficult. Dozens of companies that had once courted Clemson students decided against participating this year.

“This semester has been a nightmare,” said Neil Burton, director of Clemson’s cooperative education program. “We’ve got a terrific group of kids and the industry is unable to offer our kids any opportunities.”

Clemson has already seen about a dozen companies actually release students from employment because of economic struggles, and co-op positions in the automotive industry have been particularly difficult to maintain. Clemson has come to rely, for instance, upon auto manufacturers like BMW that have established operations in South Carolina in recent years. With car sales falling dramatically, those companies and their suppliers are less inclined to hire students.

“When the automotive industry tanked, we really took a pretty sizable hit,” Burton said. “That’s one area where Clemson might be suffering a little bit more.”

Auburn University’s cooperative education program is also heavily tied to automotive jobs, and placements have gotten more difficult there as well, according to Kim Durbin, director of the program. For the first time in recent memory, representatives from Alabama’s Honda plant did not appear at Auburn’s career fair for cooperative education in March.

“No co-op student has lost their job there [at Honda], but they’re just not adding to their co-op ranks,” Durbin said.

Auburn normally places about 50 percent of students who express interest in cooperative education positions, but Durbin expects to fall short of that placement rate this spring. Those who do land jobs may find that what they get wasn’t their first choice.

“When you’ve got a market that the supply and demand is not as much in your favor as it once was, then being more flexible about when you can go [and] where geographically you can work becomes more important,” Durbin said. “And your credentials need to be as attractive as possible. It’s more important that you be in a major that companies ideally want.” (Inside Higher Education)

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