Written By: Raina DeBrouwer, Co-op Coordinator, Co-operative Education
Completing a co-op work term is a rewarding experience for so many reasons. You get to test out new work environments, forge new connections, and apply your classroom knowledge to real world situations. When you finally emerge from your program with diploma in hand, you’ll have more than just education to show for it – you’ll have a year of related work experience.
That’s not to say that completing a co-op work term is always a breeze. Much like in the workforce, there are obstacles you may face as you work to put your stamp on organizational initiatives. Luckily, these obstacles are rarely outliers and oftentimes solvable. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of the most common issues that our co-op, internship and work experience students face and how they can be zapped before they escalate.
Communication, Communication, Communication
When issues arise for students or supervisors in the workplace, the usual suspect is lack of communication. Learning how to communicate openly and professionally in a new work environment is not innate. Instead, it’s a skill that needs to be developed. What better opportunity than your work term to get started?
It’s critical to have regular contact with your supervisor. Building a rapport early will help you flag any issues that come up and avoid misunderstandings. Don’t assume the responsibility of facilitating regular communication should fall on your supervisor. If they don’t already have weekly check-ins scheduled with you, approach them early and ask to meet on a regular schedule – once weekly for a half hour, for example. This is a reasonable request, so don’t be shy! Regular communication is so effective in solving issues as they arise, so make it a priority.
Accepting and Applying Feedback
It’s never easy to hear criticism of our performance or work. While the tendency to defend ourselves in the face of criticism is natural, it’s not particularly helpful. We often see students struggle with separating constructive feedback of their work from who they are as a person.
Try to view all feedback – positive and negative – as an opportunity for growth. Our employers work with students for many reasons, but a major driver is the chance to help shape emerging professionals. With this in mind, try to approach any constructive criticism assuming positive intent. In the rare event that feedback you receive does feel personal or malicious, reach out to the Co-op Office for assistance.
The transition from student to professional can be a challenging one. You’ve entered into a new arena where sweatpants, messy buns and tardiness are no longer acceptable.
There’s no question that workplace cultures have adapted over the years, particularly since 2020. In this new era of work, it’s possible that casual dressing is encouraged at your new workplace. It’s also possible that it’s not. Take the time to establish how the organization functions before you bust out the new graphic tee. You know what they say – it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed.
It’s also important to gauge how your new workplace communicates among colleagues and with external stakeholders. Do they use email exclusively? Maybe they chat on MS Teams or Slack? Perhaps your team has its own iMessage group chat! Find out the preferred mode of communication in the organization and stick to it.
Wherever you’re chatting, be sure to prioritize professionalism in your communication. Don’t start an email with “Hey, so-and-so” unless you have an established relationship. In the age of instant messaging, it can be tricky to know how casual you should be with your co-workers. A good rule of thumb is to always err on the side of formality. You never know who might be your next professional reference!
As a university student, you’re familiar with deadlines. Juggling the many projects competing for your time might be an art you’ve mastered. That said, there’s nothing quite like the pressure of a real-life work deadline. You’re now getting paid to produce deliverables, so the stakes are higher than ever before.
Luckily for you, you’re surrounded by people who have come up against the same pressures for some time now. They have likely developed a system of their own to manage their time. If you’re struggling to prioritize projects, examine what your colleagues are doing. Engage in discussions about tools and strategies they may be using the keep them on task. You may also want to do some independent research to understand what tools are out there. We all work differently, so it’s good to get acquainted with the various task management platforms you can use.
Above all, don’t be afraid to talk to your supervisor if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Asking for help in advance of a deadline is much better than coming up empty-handed at the last hour. Your supervisor is there to help you produce your very best work, so use leverage them when you need to!
While this list of common co-op challenges can be a daunting one, we hope you’ll instead view it as reassurance. Every person entering the workforce comes up against these obstacles. The beauty of your situation is that you’re in a safe learning environment, specifically developed to kickstart your professional growth. Remember that you’re not supposed to know how to manage every single obstacle right from the start. Your obligation is simply to recognize if you’re facing some of these challenges and do your best to combat them. Always remember that no matter what comes up, you’ve got a team of people behind you happy to help.