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The co-op approach to creating a workforce

Anne Wallace Allen 2015When LaVay Lauter joined St. Luke’s Health System last spring as director of the Center for Learning and Development, she brought with her a background in internships and cooperative work experiences from several health systems in North Carolina and Kentucky.

St. Luke’s, the state’s largest employer, hired or rehired nearly 3,000 people last year; finding the right workers is a pressing need.  Internships and co-ops had partly served this need in Lauter’s other jobs. Finding nothing similar in Boise, she joined forces with Gordon Jones, the dean of Boise State’s College of Innovation and Design, last spring and this fall welcomed the first group of nine co-op students to the administrative offices at St. Luke’s. She expects 20 next semester.

Boise State and St. Luke’s are among many organizations beefing up their internship-type opportunities because research has shown these work experiences are a good way for the employer to try out a prospective worker, and vice versa. Boise Valley Economic Partnership is also trying to help employers set up internships.

A co-op is distinct from an internship because students do the work experience as part of a structured for-credit class. The employer provides a mentor, and in return gets 10 to 15 hours of work a week. Jones called it “an internship on steroids,” a social contract designed by the university that allows the student to learn marketable skills in a real-world environment.

Lauter’s co-op intern, Griselda Raymundo, a senior in the College of Innovation and Design, learned about the co-op from a friend. She works between 12 and 16 hours a week for Lauter and then attends classes with other interns where the co-op students discuss what they have learned. Lauter said the only cost to St. Luke’s is her own time, and she said Raymundo had contributed measurably through her work.

Worries about the time spent mentoring often hold managers back from implementing internship programs. Jones said that’s a comment he gets a lot. The co-op program is a lot easier for a large organization like St. Luke’s, with a fully developed HR department, to manage than it would be for a small business. Jones is talking to another large Boise company about taking interns next summer, and J.R. Simplot Company also has one co-op intern this semester, he said.

“It does take a level of commitment to have a co-op student,” he said. “Part of the design is learning by doing, and benefitting from someone sitting down with them and saying how their work went.”

But he said he hoped to be able to open the program up to smaller employers in fall 2017.

“My real goal is to have hundreds of students taking this kind of experience,” Jones said. “Every student should be able to apply what they are learning in the work environment.”

To managers at smaller companies who are interested, he said: “Let us know so we can let you know when we’re in a position to open up more doors.”

Boise State’s co-op program is loosely modeled after those at schools such as Northeastern University in Boston, which has had a co-op program in place for more than 100 years with employers all over the country; Drexel University in Philadelphia; Georgia Tech: and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

The co-op program is a good way for students to expand their scope beyond their majors, said Lauter, herself a music major. She said at one of her prior employers, Cone Health in Greensboro, N.C., only a quarter of the 34 interns she worked with over two years were majoring in a health care field.

Many bright, capable students in majors such as political science or psychology are missed in typical recruiting, Jones said. “This enables us to put larger numbers of our students into that opportunity, where they can demonstrate their skills,” he said.

The distinction between an internship and a co-op position is important to Jones, who started his own career in business with an accounting internship at Pepsico.

“A lot of times I am worried people confuse internship for summer job, and summer job for me isn’t always something that is designed to build a career,” he said. “It may be more about earning money.

“Co-ops to me are very deliberate about trying to identify an experience that can lead to employment outcomes that are worth spending time for getting a degree.”

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.