Why Internships and Co-ops are Crucial to Success

We’ve written about the importance of internships to career success. Dr. Curtis Odom has seen, firsthand, the incredible benefits for both companies in filling the talent gap and students in earning while they learn through the co-op program as a professor at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Combining this with his work as the President of Stuck On Start Coaching, in his newest book From Campus to Corner Office: How Co-Ops and Internship Will Help You Win In The Workplace, he offers actionable advice and relatable anecdotes for students and hiring professionals alike.


What is the difference between a co-op and an internship?

Your most useful source of work experience may not be one that pays well or at all. Begin looking for internship opportunities early in your college career—the summer after freshman or sophomore year, for example. Locating the right internship can be challenging, so be sure to do your research before you decide to pursue the opportunity. The benefit of completing an internship is its focus on educating you on the inner workings of a particular field or business. Interns are expected to be learning, as well as contributing. The downside of an internship is its low or non-existent pay. In the past few years, the role of the intern has shifted dramatically as a result of the gig economy.

However, a co-op program incorporates paid professional career training into a typical degree. Students alternate their time in the classroom with significant time (e.g. three semesters) in a real workforce setting. In addition to earning an hourly wage for their work, many participants receive academic credit or a transcript notation when they have successfully completed their co-op program. Co-ops are focused on training students for a career in their chosen major (e.g. IT, engineering, etc.). To that end, universities often partner with employers in government, industry, business, non-profits and more. Depending on the co-op job, students may end up working across the country or even overseas. However, each participant is usually supervised by a professional who has followed the same career path. The overall goal of a co-op is to give students combinations of theory + practice and knowledge + experience. Participants go through a continuous cycle of learning, applying and reflecting on their education while they earn money to pay for college.

Why are internships so important for career success?

Many entry level jobs are expected to be filled by graduates who have already worked for the company in some form, either through a paid internship, summer job or co-op placement. Furthermore, networking opportunities provided by professional experience will connect you with people who may be able to help progress your career. Working and earning while at university supplements your student loan. However, part-time employment also hones many transferable skills, while demonstrating that you can cope with the conflicting demands of work and study. These skills include organization, communication, leadership, decision-making and commercial awareness. The reason why gaining and developing these skills is essential is quite simple—employers value them. Students with some form of work experience are more likely to get jobs first. Indeed, most employees are offered jobs at companies where they’ve gained paid work experience.

How can a student find a good quality internship or co-op?

Many students prior to having a co-op or internship are light on having a true understanding of their major field. A co-op or internship can help to grasp how your coursework is preparing you to enter your chosen career. You may also discover gaps in your classroom learning and what you need to know in the real world and can strategize how you will fill those gaps. Some employers will even suggest additional courses you should consider.  Maybe you already have the great interpersonal skills employers seek. In a co-op, you can’t help but sharpen your skills by interacting with people on a professional level and in a way, that you would never have the opportunity to do in the classroom. The same goes for the teamwork, communication, leadership, and active problem-solving skills that all employers lust for. Lastly, you’ll build motivation and work habits. All that freedom you gained when you left home for college may have caused your motivation and work ethic to slip. You might be skipping a few classes, missing assignments, or building a class schedule that doesn’t require you to get up early. There’s nothing like an internship, or co-op — where you can’t slack off if you want to succeed — to instill in you the workplace characteristics you’ll need after you graduate.

Can you offers some tips for students on making the most of an internship or co-op?

The current job market has created a demand for those who have paid internships or structured cooperative learning (co-op) work experience while in school. So, job candidates with that experience rise to the top. That is why such experience is now an essential graduation requirement. Learning more about the industry you’re interested in, gaining experience, is something that not only impresses a potential employer… it helps you discover your own strengths and weaknesses. Your internship or co-op experience should be structured to provide learning that is purposeful, substantial, offer challenge and be relevant to your study program and career aspirations. It should have a structured plan for the duration of the placement, should focus on the skills required for that area, and be followed up by some form of reference/feedback from the employer based on performance. You will not become a managing director on your first day! You will often be given tasks that you think are not relevant. However, every opportunity is a chance to learn. You will often be working alongside people who have been on the job for years, and they may be willing be able to pass their knowledge on to you … but only if you ask.

Do you have any advice for colleges on how to create a successful internship/co-op program?

My advice is to think about how to best help the students coming out of college. While career plans may not be at the forefront of students’ minds during their first and second years at university, early and structured preparation can give them a significant advantage. Graduation can initially seem a long way off. Inevitably, making the most of their time at college is a higher priority than thinking about what job they’d like to do when it’s over. However, create a formal co-op program with one or two employers will make the process much easier for them in the long run—and help them to avoid the panic that can set in for those who leave university with no idea of their next move. 

Career planning is as much about students understanding themselves as it is about exploring opportunities and there are many ways in which you can develop their skills and experience to help them make informed career choices. Many students make very little use of their university’s career services office until they are nearing the end of their final semester, but engagement is the key to getting ahead. In addition to appointments and workshops, career services office often run employer and sector events throughout the academic year, such as careers fairs, industry insights, and employer talks.

There are two sides to career planning for students at this stage. The first is helping them on deciding the career path they want to follow. The second is ensuring that they have the skills and experience—alongside their academic achievements—to impress future employers. The co-op program should include goals for each academic year to make the most of opportunities, so they have a plan in place for their final year. Not only will early career planning give students time to explore job options, but it can also help them to develop the skills and experience they’ll need for a fruitful and fulfilling career. And that leads to satisfied graduates, who in turn, become generous alumni.


Dr. Curtis Odom is the President of Stuck On Start Coaching, a boutique career-coaching firm serving the needs of recent college graduates, and early career professionals. Prior to Stuck on Start, Dr. Odom worked in the field of talent management, supporting Fortune 500 companies around the globe with their hiring needs and challenges. He is the author of four books including Stuck in the Middle, Generation X Approved, and Mind the Gap, as well as his newest release, From Campus to Corner Office: How Co-Ops and Internship Will Help You Win In The Workplace. Learn more at www.stuckonstartcoaching.com.