Learning During Coop
Coop is a unique opportunity to get valuable experience of the working world. It also gives you the chance to develop some of the core skills that employers look for in graduates. All research and evidence suggests that placement is a transformative part of the third-level student experience. The Cooperative Education Programme is based on a reflective learning model that prompts the student to consider how the placement experience builds employability and develops skills, and how this professional development can be measured through pre and post reflection on the following core competencies:
For many students, Cooperative Education placement is their first experience of the professional world of work and, as such, developing good work habits should be a standard outcome of the placement. At the very minimum, employers will expect you to behave in a professional manner, comply with company regulations and conditions of employment, carry out your placement duties and behave in a manner appropriate to the work environment. In assessing your basic work skills, can you show evidence of e.g.:
- Reporting to work as scheduled and on time
- Dressing appropriately for work
- Complying with the company's policy regarding computer usage
- Complying with the company's telephone etiquette
- Having an awareness of how formal personal interactions in the employing organisation are
- Showing a positive and constructive attitude
- Respecting company policy regarding absence from work
- Working within the relevant procedures
Your ability to communicate with colleagues, clients and the community in general is a skill regarded as essential by most employers. Communication skills cover business correspondence, report writing, presentation, face-to-face or telephone communication. When completing your initial and follow-up assessments, try to pinpoint specific examples of communication skills. For example:
- Listening to others in an effective and attentive manner
- Participating effectively in meetings and/or group settings
- Developing the ability to read and understand written materials
- Communicating ideas and concepts clearly both verbally and in writing
- Recognising the importance of non-verbal communication
- Communicating effectively in working language (in the case of foreign-language placements)
Problem solving involves developing an objective approach to isolating the causes of problems, showing a realistic understanding of the key issues and reaching reasoned decisions that solve the problem. During your placement you may be given the opportunity to contribute to or to observe the organisation's approach to problem resolution. As many graduate employers ask very specifically for this skill, look for ways of developing problem solving skills by e.g.:
- Gathering data to support the decision-making process for a defined problem
- Being able to identify the key issues surrounding the problem
- Being objective even though you may feel emotional about a particular work issue or situation
- Setting out logical arguments and presenting clear recommendations
Your ability to work productively alongside others will be central to the success of your Coop. Increasing numbers of graduate jobs will include a managerial function with responsibility for managing other people whether colleagues, customers or clients. Your ability to operate effectively as part of a team should be a core learning outcome of your placement. Assess your interpersonal and teamwork skills by thinking about your ability to:
- Support and contribute to a team environment
- Assert yourself appropriately and effectively
- Offer and receive constructive criticism
- Deal with a range of colleagues, including the difficult ones
- Build a good rapport with a wide range of people
In a world of global business and an increasingly multicultural environment, global or international awareness is coming to be recognised as a core graduate skill. Whether you are doing your Coop in Ireland or internationally, you should use the opportunity to develop an appreciation of other cultures. When completing your initial and follow-up skills forms, think about things like:
- Being conscious of different cultural values
- Being sensitive to others with different cultural backgrounds
- Developing an understanding of cultural differences in the way businesses are run
- Making an effort to communicate in the local languages where relevant
- Working on your language fluency, both written and spoken
- Finding out about graduate job opportunities in your target country
Regardless of what you're studying or where you are placed, you will almost certainly have exposure to IT. This can range from using standard software packages to working with sophisticated workplace automation systems. Use your placement to apply your existing skills and to develop new ones. Depending on your initial skills level, think about things such as:
- Being able to use appropriate computer software products to assist with your daily work
- Understanding what IT products are available within your organisation and when it is appropriate to use them
- Understanding the capability of any technology such as computer hard and software, particularly industry-standard systems
It is important that you take the time to understand the organisation you are working in, to show that you are genuinely interested in it, to respect the expected standards of professional behaviour and to receive a positive evaluation at the end of your placement. To develop organisational effectiveness skills, you should:
- Seek to understand and support the organisation's mission and goals
- Fit in with the norms and expectations
- Work within appropriate authority and decision-making channels
- Be sensitive to organisational politics
- Demonstrate a self-motivated attitude to work
These have been identified by the Engineers Ireland as the key professional skills required by graduate employers in this particular sector. During your placement, you will have the opportunity to apply the technical knowledge you have acquired during your studies.
- Apply your knowledge of mathematics, science and engineering in the workplace (e.g. design a production layout; use algorithms to solve engineering problems; select networking solutions to meet specific requirements).
- Understand how to design and conduct experiments and analyse and interpret data (e.g. undertake controlled experiments to optimise manufacturing processes; select appropriate test equipment to perform measurements; specify and implement a software program to meet in-house/customer requirements).
- Design a system, component or process to meet desired needs (e.g. design an analogue/digital circuit; design software to automate system/administrative tasks).
- Identify, formulate and solve engineering problems (e.g. develop a manufacturing strategy to optimise set-up times; de-bug software to identify cause of errors; troubleshoot the performance of a network/device using a systematic approach).
- Be able to use the technologies, skills and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice (e.g. develop a Failure Mode and effects analysis (FMEA) process to meet quality standards; set up and install network components and software tools, use test equipment to monitor equipment performance).
How do I assess my skills?
Having reflected on the above definitions and before you go on placement, consider your current skill level and self-assess using the rating provided on the Pre-Placement assessment form. For each skill, rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 4 and enter it in the appropriate column.
1 = I have started but I need more practice to feel confident.
2 = I am able to do this with some help.
3 = I am competent at this and don't have to ask for any help.
4 = I am very competent and I am able to help others.
- Be honest and critical when filling out the Pre Coop Assessment Form. You might find it helpful to ask previous employers, your academic supervisor or a trusted friend how they see you and your skills.
- Be specific about each skills area and think hard about the reasons for giving yourself a particular rating.
- Ask yourself 'what do I do well?', 'what could I improve on?' 'what steps can I take during my Coop placement to improve on this skill?'.
At the end of your placement, you are required to complete a Post Coop Assessment Form. This time you have the benefit of hindsight and professional experience. Ask yourself:
- Have I improved on any of the skills listed?
- Would I give myself a higher rating now?
- Did I have the opportunity to practise this skill?
- Have I acquired any new skills as a result of my Coop placement?
- Has my placement influenced my career choice in any way?
If you feel you have improved on any skill during your placement, describe how in the evidence column of the Post Coop Assessment Form. By comparing the pre- and post-Coop skills assessment forms, you can track your progress and reflect on the role of your placement in developing your skills profile.
A detailed instructions on how to access and complete the Pre and Post Assessment Form are available here.