My perspectives as someone who led an organization that employed co-ops and interns:
How the Coops are able to positively affect the business?
When I think of the reasons to have a co-op or intern program, the reasons in order are something like:
- Get an in-depth, long-term evaluation of students who are motivated enough to pursue co-ops and internships such that the decision to offer regular employment is easily made and likely to produce the desired results.
- Establish/sustain a relationship with key universities by offering co-ops and internships to their students. Over time, this relationship will hopefully result in attracting high potential students to the co-ops and internships and eventually the company.
- Give something back by contributing meaningfully to a component of education.
- Get tangible business results at a somewhat discounted price.
It’s pretty hard for co-ops and interns to make significant business contributions. Co-ops often start as rising sophomores who have taken few, if any, courses in their major. They would be expected to have good math, science, and computer skills, but would be unlikely to have professional skills. First and second-term co-ops can be most productive as assistants to regular staff, performing well-defined tasks involving math, science, or select computer systems. Third-term co-ops or interns who are rising seniors or graduate students can contribute more meaningfully to the business, but would almost always be working with significant guidance investment from staff. I’ve seen co-ops and interns contribute best when they can match their skills to a project that is languishing because it can never make it to the top of the priority list for regular staff, but is still a project that often has “foundational” or “infrastructure” value.
I think it would be perilous to “sell” a co-op or internship program on a direct return of value to the business. The source of value is in the longer term, when the program has succeeded in attracting high-potential talent to the company and that talent is producing value as regular employees.
How the experience is able to be positive and fulfilling for the Coop?
- Make the work as meaningful as possible. This can be challenging for younger co-ops. Try to tie the work into a specific role or deliverable on active projects. If the project is stand-alone, try to make it something where the co-op or intern can see that it leads to something staff or clients need.
- Make sure the co-op or intern has at least one formal “mentor” that is truly engaged with them and from whom they can get help and guidance.
- Minimize monotony and maximize creativity. Again a challenge for younger co-ops. Try to look for opportunities where a process can be taught, but that process is not just turning the same crank hundreds of times.
- Provide opportunities for co-ops or interns to interact and socialize with co-ops or interns in other parts of the company as well as any “new employee” groups that may exist.
- Provide opportunities for co-ops or interns to see the bigger picture of the company by accompanying staff on interdisciplinary meetings or some client interactions.
How to recruit and retain Coops for the duration and get them excited to join after school?
Reach out to the appropriate departments within universities in your region. Explain that you would like to recruit co-ops or interns. Expect a discussion to exchange information about your opportunities for students and the way the university departments raise awareness of opportunities and how they may involve themselves in the recruiting process.
Retaining a co-op is usually a combination of setting good initial expectations/understanding about the multi-session nature of the commitment and delivering on all the aspects of the “positive and fulfilling” question above. Selecting the right person for a co-op is also critical in a similar way to selecting the right person for regular employment. Interviewing to understand their maturity, stability, perseverance, interest in the field, interest in the company, etc. is essential.
Getting them excited to join upon graduation is heavily influenced by the “positive and fulfilling” experience. If their experience has been poor, it is unlikely that any efforts to “excite” them will be successful. In addition, the offer of regular employment needs to be compelling. Would they have a position of interest? Would compensation be competitive in the market? If the relationship that has been built between the student and the company/employees has been mostly positive, it is often the case the some aspects of the offer can be less compelling, but still yield an acceptance.
I’ve mentioned co-ops and interns together in these comments as there are some similarities between the roles. However, making a co-op program work can be more difficult than an intern program mostly because new co-ops will be starting out with little professional skill and there needs to be work available that is amenable to the skillset they will be arriving with. With interns, you have more of a choice about the level of education you get. If the only work you can offer is technically demanding, you could choose to recruit only graduate student interns, for example.