Can co-op programs close skills shortage gap?

Mahfuz Chowdhury. (Candybox Marketing)

Co-operative education programs at universities and colleges are helping close the gap when it comes to skills shortage in businesses, said recent Sheridan College award winner Mahfuz Chowdhury.

Chowdury fully credits his co-op experience at Sheridan College’s Hazel McCallion Campus for landing a job specializing in social media with the Mississauga-based digital firm Candybox Marketing after graduation.

“I don’t think it’d be possible to do what I do today if I didn’t go through Sheridan’s co-op process,” he told YourMississaugaBiz.com, citing the business program’s resume help, interview training and connections to businesses.

Chowdhury said prior to his time at Sheridan, his only job experience was as a server at Tim Hortons.

But co-op work terms that allowed business student Chowdhury to learn by doing helped him apply class lessons to the real world, determine what they actually liked to do and even earn some money to help pay for tuition.

“I’ve heard students earning $40 an hour,” said Mississauga’s Robin Speziales, University of Waterloo graduate and founder of the website CoopJobs.ca.

Specialty co-op positions in areas like finance and advanced engineering positions usually pay some of the better rates. But Speziales said that in 2010 the average was still around $19-20 an hour across all the programs.

For businesses, co-op placements can also be a way to discover potential part-time or full-time hires.

Chowdhury made such an impact during his four-month work term with Candybox that the company’s CEO, Darrell Keezer, requested he stay on. “We acquired so many clients he needed me to work part-time during school,” Chowdhury said, adding that Keezer was also a Sheridan business program alumnus.

The part-time job also made it easier for Chowdhury to learn time-management and transfer into full-time employment after graduation. “I didn’t have that break in between,” he explained. “I was always working with Candybox.”

The company continues to offer co-op positions and regularly recruits other Sheridan students.

Now when other students come to him for advice, Chowdhury advises them to specifically seek out post-secondary education programs that offer co-op. “I really don’t feel like your college experience is complete without it,” he said.

While nearly half of his class chose not to pursue co-op in order to try and save time, Chowdhury said many of them have come to regret it.

“They’re asking me if I can get them an internship at Candybox or other companies,” he said. “They’re finding it’s very difficult for them to find a position right now so they’re almost looking backwards to see if there’s any opportunities.”

Last week, Chowdury was named Canada’s co-op college student of the year by the Canadian Association for Co-op Education. He was the first Sheridan College student to win the award.

Established in 2006, Candybox Marketing employs nine people and is located in Mississauga on Queen Street South.

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