The University of Ottawa has a new slogan: Help wanted. In March, the school issued a memo to its alumni, asking those who are not currently involved in the co-op program to consider hiring students and “accept the challenge of bettering your alma mater.”
The university can regularly expect about 1,100 students from eight faculties looking for summer work placements. Its location in Canada’s capital means U of Ottawa usually has a high success rate placing students, with many taking plum positions with the federal government and national head offices. But this year will be different.
“Due to the difficulties of the job market, the co-op program still needs to find close to 500 paid positions for the summer term,” the memo states. “We are turning to you, our alumni, for help.”
In some sectors, such as information technology, there are still more jobs than students. In other programs, including social sciences, health sciences, engineering and business, the shortage of placements has the university looking for new, untapped sources of employment. And U of Ottawa isn’t alone – schools across Canada are scrambling to find opportunities for summer co-op students.
At the University of Waterloo, Canada’s leader in co-operative education, the ratio of jobs to students is 0.77, compared to 1.21 jobs per student at this time last year. At the University of Victoria, where some 1,800 students are seeking summer co-op jobs, just 1,231 positions had been posted by mid-March. Two years ago, the university had more than 2,000 summer postings.
Roughly one in 10 employers cancelled their postings this year or retracted job offers during the first round of hiring, said Norah McRae, executive director of UVic’s co-op programs.
Université de Sherbrooke runs the second-largest co-op program in Canada. After the first round of hiring, offers of summer employment were down roughly 12 percent from last year. Some programs saw a much more significant drop – engineering students, for instance, have nearly 25 percent fewer options this year.
But André Rousseau, manager of the co-op program for engineering and sciences at Sherbrooke, says the numbers can be somewhat misleading. “We’re comparing against last year, which was a record year,” he said. “If you go back to 2007 or 2006, we’re in that ballpark.”
Mr. Rousseau said he expects the number of offers for this summer to pick up during the second round of hiring. Still, he warned that students looking for placements in industrial, mechanical or electrical engineering may not find their dream job this summer, because of the shortage of jobs in the manufacturing sectors.
“I think everybody’s on hold – even companies that are doing well,” Mr. Rousseau said. “They’re very cautious, they’ll make hiring decisions at the last minute, and they’ll try to commit themselves for the shortest possible time.”
At the University of Alberta, opportunities in the public service, education and health care are comparable to previous years, but offers are down in areas that service the oil industry, such as business, finance and engineering.
Meanwhile, a new Canadian study shows that students who enrol in co-op studies programs are more likely to find work and earn more money after graduation than students who don’t. The study by University of Guelph sociology professor David Walters and David Zarifa of Statistics Canada draws on data from Statistics Canada’s 2000 National Graduate Survey, a comprehensive look at the school-to-work transition of postsecondary students.
The shortage of placements for co-op students this year isn’t all bad news: Mr. Rousseau suggested that stiffer competition for placements means students may perform better in interviews and work harder to impress employers once they land their job of choice. Also, because the job shortage for co-op students reflects what’s happening in the overall market, it could help to steer some students toward more realistic and sustainable career choices.
Olaf Naese, a spokesperson for co-op education at U of Waterloo, said he and colleagues have been encouraging students to lower their expectations. “Because we’ve had good times in the last seven years, some of the students have become more choosy or particular in terms of where they want to work, so we’re telling them to be more flexible,” he said.
Universities are also making a renewed effort to remind potential employers that hiring summer students is a smart move in uncertain economic conditions. “If you have an employer that has a little cash but doesn’t want to commit to a permanent hire, they can hire a student because that job still needs to get done,” said UVic’s Ms. McRae, “and we can respond very quickly.”