Starting a Coop Program at Work help thread

My department at work is trying to restart a Coop Program that I am adjacent to, and may end up partially in my lap. I know others here, especially the Stryker crew has held great success.

So to anyone that has run, been a part of one, or observed closely, do you have lessons learned you would be willing to share?

Things I am especially interested in:
How the Coops are able to positively affect the business.
How the experience is able to be positive and fulfilling for the Coop
How to recruit and retain Coops for the duration and get them excited to join after school

Thanks in advance

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The crew at J&J RAD (previously Auris) might be able to help too. @AdamHeard

Same with IFI @JVN @artdutra04


Some background on me and my experience with co-op as a frame of reference for your questions. I attended Northeastern University from '05 to '10 and participated in 3x 6 month long co-ops. Since graduation I’ve helped start a co-op program at both of my employers (Osram and Sonos) and hired or been directly involved in the hiring process of roughly ~12 coops, mostly for Mechanical Engineering, but also for SW, EE, ID and even Program Management

  • For our implementation of a co-op program, co-ops are not interns. They are there for at least 6 months (often extending part time beyond that). We only hired a couple at a time for our group, so they were able to get that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ experience. The hiring process was also quite extensive, requiring a couple rounds of interviews and meeting with several cross-functional team members.

  • From a business point of view, a co-op can be a very powerful tool to free up your full-time engineer. In the context of MechEs, we’d use coops for everything from detailed modeling, to conducting tests, hands-on prototyping, managing our 3d print lab and much more. When working in tandem with a full time engineer, the coop is able to tackle a lot of hands on design and prototyping work and free up bandwidth for managing the project, or tackling other pieces of the program.

  • From a coop point of view, they are treated like any other member of the team. Responsibilities are not limited if the team member is continuing to deliver and contribute. This experience can be extremely powerful for someone who is able to really dive in and deliver.

  • It is important to note that the team is expecting to train and teach the coop. The key characteristic in a successful coop is the eagerness to learn and willingness to approach others and ask questions.

  • Your last question is going to be highly company dependent. We do not use coops exclusively as a recruiting tool. We’re very upfront that there are no promises or expectations beyond our agreed upon 6 month time period. That being said, when you hire someone to that role who kills it, you’ll find yourself extending full time offers fairly frequently. We’ve gone on to hire many of our coops.

  • Pay for coops can be quite competitive, especially if in a crowded market (like Boston for example). There are plenty of schools looking to make a connection to any company willing to hire a coop and it is an invaluable way to recruit potential coops. We’ve partnered with Northeastern, Drexel, RIT, Wentworth and MIT just to name some that we use. Northeastern’s system (which I’m intimately familiar with) allows us to get a resume dump every 6 months of potential coops who have pre-selected Sonos as an interesting choice. This obviously helps us start the process.

Happy to answer any other questions you may have. You asked some great ones as there does tend to be a bit of a stigma at times for coops/interns needing to be babysat. Like all employees, the level to which that is needed is dependent on the hiring/screening process!



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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Give something back by contributing meaningfully to a component of education.
  4. 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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


Some thoughts/suggestions:

Our most successful recruiting of talent is a 1-2-3.

  1. Interns that become…
  2. Coops that become…
  3. Employees.

Biggest piece of advice specifically for Coops is to try and keep the number steady. When one leaves, the next can step in. If possible overlap for transition, but this doesn’t happen often in my experience. However, constantly have someone at relatively the same experience level allows the team to “count” on the Coop and give them real work because they are less worried about what happens when the Coop leaves… because a new Coop can help take up their pieces of the project/assignment. Obviously you can’t leave it solely to the Coop up but they can leave a good “diary” for the next Coop to minimize disruption. They are typically motivated to do this well because ultimately, they want future opportunities too!

Strong relationships with the universities are also important. They can help keep the pipeline full of talent and I think there is often a large difference in the students and they can help match culture.

Don’t be surprised that you may have to teach your company’s culture and standards for professionalism. Make sure the coaches/mentors provide clear feedback right away.

Value to company: Pipeline of talent and energy. In my experience they can be very productive and I frequently get requests from their assignment leaders asking if they can keep them on part time…
Value to Coop: Nothing beats real experience. The more the company gives them real opportunities the more they will get out of it and the more your attention your recruiting pipeline will get from the most talented students.

When moving to a full time position the students will be more concerned with location/relocation than they were with internship and Coop opportunities. So, begin with the end in mind and build good relationships with your local universities. Otherwise you may be training them for me! :slight_smile:

If you want your co-ops to become full time employees after graduation, offer tuition reimbursement. Companies already offer relocation assistance and other incentives to new employees, do effectively the same with your coops to keep them around after they graduate. I was only “required” to keep working at my employer for 30 months after my graduate to “pay off” my tuition reimbursement (as many months post-graduation as they assisted with my tuition), but I’m still working there 9 years later. It seems like a pretty good investment for my employer.

Make the paths of advancement and future options clear from the get go. Don’t give them the expectation that full time employment is guaranteed, but have a defined on boarding process that they can follow. Show them the path ahead, and how they can fit in long term.

Much of what co-ops do at my office is relatively specific to our workplace. If you do a lot of procedural testing (lab testing, software testing, installation testing, etc), co-op can often assist or sometimes solo conduct that testing. If you travel to perform installations, inspections, or on-site work, consider what trips you really need 2+ fully trained engineers for and what need 1 engineer and 1 body to assist. Co-op can often provide support for those kind of trips.


hmmmmmmmmm… This seems like a really sweet deal.

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I worked for Cypress Semiconductor for years and now work for Infineon since Infineon has purchased Cypress. We have had coop/intern programs since the late 1980s so my answers are based on my experience with these programs. I don’t draw a distinction between coops and interns as programs from various companies coupled with programs from various schools all are slightly different but share a lot of common themes.

How the Coops are able to positively affect the business?
First and foremost, we have had great success at getting good a positive ROI from our coops. There is some time spent teaching at the beginning but after an initial ramp we have had good luck at getting real, meaningful accomplishments from our coops. Once a student has been through a term with us, their positive experience gets fed back into the school making it easier to find additional students. In addition, the raised awareness of our company is beneficial when we go to campus to recruit. Students that never worked for us knew exactly who we were.

How the experience is able to be positive and fulfilling for the Coop?
We try very hard to ensure the coops are working on something meaningful. Their work gets released as part of the products we release to the market. Our coops can talk to their classmates and talk about what part of a software release was theirs. The coops participate in the daily standups and from time to time participate in the meetings about product architecture. They get to see how the sausage is made from start to finish and deliver meaningful projects. A coop will smell busy work a mile away.

How to recruit and retain Coops for the duration and get them excited to join after school?
I have basically tried to have our coops do meaningful work and not busy work and this has been the best tool at holding on to coops for multiple terms and even after graduation. But I keep in mind that coops are 18 - 21 year old young adults that are trying to figure a lot of things out. I don’t take it personally if they don’t even consider us for a position. Some learn that they dont want to do what we do (embedded development). Some want to live in Silicon Valley. Some go on to graduate school. But when I ask around our office here in the Portland OR area, about a third of the engineers here started out at Cypress as a coop/intern.

On another note, after joining Error Code Xero as a software mentor, I have now hired three different robotics students after their senior year in high school, prior to attending college at all. We hire them as interns. These are software types that I have seen up close for 1 - 3 years. We given them real work on real projects and always astound the other engineers in the office.


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