A group of co-op coordinators at Drexel’s Steinbright Career Development Center are working with employers to transform unpaid co-ops into paid positions.
“We don’t have as much funding as we’d like,” Lynne Hickle, the executive director of cooperative education, said. “That led a small group of staff members here to start a grassroots effort on their own.”
The team, spearheaded by employee relations coordinator Maura O’Connor, contacts employers who do not offer paid co-ops and tries to get them to rethink the compensation they could provide to students.
“It makes the experience on both sides more worthwhile,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor had the idea when she realized that students across all schools within the university gravitated towards paid opportunities, so she wanted to give employers kind and respectful pushback. Spencer Grieb, Liz Schwartz and Megan Strouss-Rooney initially supported O’Connor, but the strategic initiative now fully encompasses all of Steinbright.
“It’s really about working with the employer to see what they can offer and what might meet the students’ needs,” Hickle said.
Hickle said the team has been successful so far.
“They have been making huge strides,” she said, explaining how so far, more than 152 individual jobs have gone from unpaid to offering at least some compensation.
O’Connor put together extensive training guides, manuals and scripts, and from there, Steinbright employees are on the lookout for unpaid jobs in the system. They then reach out to those employers and explain the benefits of offering paid co-ops.
And their efforts are not going to waste. Two years ago the percentage of unpaid co-ops was 25 percent, but now it is at 20 percent, Hickle explained, saying that they expect this number to continue to decline.
“We really try to do the hard sell to employers to try to encourage them to think about paying our students full-time,” Hickle said.
O’Connor explained how more and more partners are saying yes as they realize offering perks leads to increased applicants and overall retention.
However, not all companies have the resources available to provide paid co-ops, particularly many non-profit organizations. The team actively works with those companies to think of other benefits they could use to appeal to students.
“I would love for all jobs to be full time and paid but that’s not necessarily possible yet,” O’Connor said, explaining how pay is typically dictated by the industry itself.
If a company cannot pay a student full-time, they are encouraged to provide other types of compensation, such as free public transportation, free lunches or tickets to shows.
“We don’t want to deny any organization the opportunity to hire a co-op student because they can’t afford a co-op student,” Hickle said, emphasizing how important it is to maintain positive relations with employers.
This initiative varies from Drexel’s current corporate partners program, which raises money from corporations for unpaid co-ops and co-ops outside of the Delaware Valley region. Rather than pooling funds for eligible students, this strategy attempts to compensate particular individuals.
It requires a lot of manual work, but the team was willing to take it on, Hickle said.
“It’s been incredible. It took a lot of ambition and motivation,” she said.
Tracking the companies and specific jobs can be a tedious task for the team since everything is done by hand, she said.
The team also worked hard to present the idea in the National Cooperative Education Internship Association conference in April and they are actively working on improving the SCDC online system, so that students will soon be able to quickly identify compensation available instead of manually searching through job descriptions.
Students can expect some online enhancements to roll out this year, O’Connor said.
O’Connor said, “I would love to see the landscape of all higher-ed in all jobs be full-time and paid so that students can truly have a quality experience and have the longer duration to be there to contribute and learn and to improve themselves.”
Hickle also hopes that one day, all jobs offered through the SCDC system will offer at least partial compensation so that students can have the very best co-op experience. For now, she is just happy about what the team has accomplished.
“The proudest thing for me that this was generated by staff,” Hickle said. “Staff that wanted to support our students in a different, stronger and better way.”
O’Connor said, “We’re doing this because we really, truly care about our students and our employers.”