Hands-on learning can give life a whole new direction

I remember well begging the City Editor of the Belleville Intelligencer to let me volunteer in the newsroom my summer between the end of high school and the start of university. My grandparents lived in Belleville and I figured I could bunk in there, work hard and learn lots and then head into Journalism.

The Intelligencer turned me down and I ended up in the repair department at Fisher Price Toys. [That, in itself, is another column]

I guess, looking back, I was proposing a kind of co-op program, except I hadn’t a teacher to advocate for me.

Years and years later, during the decade in which I was involved in publishing a national magazine for teenagers, a high school teacher approached me, looking for a volunteer opportunity for a grade 11 student who was interested in a career in Journalism. She was a student at Toronto’s Loretto Abbey. I hestitated, probably for all the same reasons as the Belleville City Editor.

I’m too busy. I don’t have time to think up interesting work!

What if I set up great stuff for her to do and she doesn’t show up?

What skills would a grade 11 student have that we could use?

On and on, my arguments were pretty strong, when you consider how devastated I had been 15 years earlier.

Persistent teacher, though. She’d oversee the student, she’d send us her best one, she knew it would be a good fit. On and on.

Lisa Lue started with us on a Monday morning in November and during the next 10 years, she was the first in a long line of high school students who spent an entire semester on a work co-op. And our lives were changed–all of us. Dana Roberts, Kylee Ferrier, Marilyn Genovese, Junior, the list is miles long now and co-op students have done every aspect of activity within our publishing venture.

Let me segue now to Pavliks.com, a web design, software development and hardware company, probably the largest in the region with 21 employees. Ian Pavlik, president, has virtually built the company’s human resources with the co-op experience from Georgian College.

“The very first employee we ever hired was a Georgian co-op student, back in 1995. We took the student from Georgian’s Computer Programmer Analyst Program,” remembers Ian. Brian Tait stayed with Pavliks.com for several years until he moved to a larger ecommerce company in Toronto.

In fact, three of the company’s first few employees started out as college co-ops and Ian now speaks to Georgian students about getting and keeping great co-ops. He says for small companies, co-ops are cost effective, even if you’re paying the students. College co-op students need an income for tuition, but certainly their hourly wage is below that of a trained professional. Ian points to another advantage… “it let us test somebody without making a commitment, and it gave us a deep pool from which to pick.”

Pavliks.com has currently four employees who started as computer co-op students.

Ian sees it as a win-win-win situation. The students get real world experience, exposure not availabale in a classroom. Businesses get youth, energy, and enthusiasm–worker bees. And the customer benefits from an enhanced labour pool.

Ian also takes high school co-op students on placement, but that’s an unpaid experience. “We just took our first high school co-op this year; I’ll have one all the time now.”

Is there a down side? Sure! It does take energy to ramp up a student. They need supervision. They need to learn about the business world, about customer service, about dress code, about appropriate communications, the nuances of doing business. But, it’s a small contribution to make for the world of experience that a student gains.

Most students feel a co-op experience almost guarantees ultimate employment somewhere, simply because they’ve had practical training to add to their classroom knowledge.

Today, I feel very differently than I did in 1985 when Lisa started with us on her first day. I feel co-op should be mandatory at the high school level. I believe that co-op students give as much as they get and it’s kind of a pay-it-forward leverage that makes a valuable contribution to the world.

It’s neat that colleges are devoting entire positions to co-op placements for each of their programs. For instance, Ian deals exclusively with Rita Pittman because she’s in charge of co-op for computer students. But every business in Barrie would likely find an eager co-op student from every program at Georgian.

For instance, Sue Cahoon is the co-op consultant for Business Accounting & marketing; Greer Christensen for Ski Resort Operations & Golf Management; Sara Christensen for Aviation Management; Cheryl Lawson for Hospitalityh and Tourism; Lise Mollon for Business & Computer Systems Technician.

Margo Renwick is the co-op specialist for Opticianry & Electrical; Audrey Taylor handles Tool & Die, CNC, Mouldmaker and Environmental students. Greg Taylor handles Automotive Marketing. Lisa Whalen is the co-op consultant for Electrical, Mechnical, Automotive Manufacturing & Product Design. And Lee Wilford-Allan is in charge of General Business.

See what I mean? What an incredible amount of skill and energy at our finger tips. And all because we’re willing as business people to open the door, read that smile and make a difference in a student’s life, while they’re making a difference in ours.

Thanks, Lisa. Because you were such a great co-op student, you opened the door for scores of others. And if you check out the masthead listings for this newspaper, you’ll see our young Kylee, who spent her co-op term writing press releases and interviewing rock bands for our teen magazine. Did it make a difference? You bet!