Engineering co-op students at Ryerson struggle to find placements amid COVID-19

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By Pooja Rambaran

Ryerson engineering students have found it difficult to secure co-op placements due to the impacts of COVID-19 on the job market and the economy.  

With high competition among students and fewer opportunities available, third-year biomedical engineering student Arham Sheik said he has been unable to find a placement.

“I was really hyped when the [co-op] portal opened [but] now I’m burnt out,” Sheik said. “Before, I was applying [to jobs] a week to two weeks earlier, now it’s like last minute or two days before [the application deadline.]”

“It’s been difficult waking up to rejection emails every day from [many] companies while others don’t even bother to reply,” he added. 

Sheik said attaining a co-op placement in his fourth year is a chance for him to alleviate some of his family’s financial obligations. Three of his siblings will soon be attending university while having limited external financial assistance. 

“I grew up in a low-income household and here’s an opportunity where I can help contribute,” he said. 

“It’s been difficult waking up to rejection emails every day from many companies while others don’t even bother to reply”

The Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science (FEAS) Co-operative Internship Program is a centralized program that supports students in all FEAS departments, except architectural science and chemical engineering. 

Throughout the academic year, engineering co-op students receive support and resources from the co-op office. From there, they can apply for jobs through an online portal.

While the co-op office assists students with building resumes and interviews, Sheik said he has found the onus is placed on students to network and actively look for opportunities.

“Outside the basic workshops, there isn’t much [and] it’s more up to you to network yourself, contact people and actively look for opportunities,” Sheik said, adding that he has applied for more jobs through LinkedIn and Indeed than the school portal.

He said he would like to see the co-op office provide workshops based on specific jobs and requirements within the engineering sphere. Pat Vellalaghan said FEAS should also host self-care events for students who may get burnt out in the process of applying for placements. 

Vellalaghan, who is in his third year of industrial engineering, is currently seeking opportunities involving data analytics and quality assurance. 

Vellalaghan said a co-op placement is an opportunity to figure out what he likes and dislikes about a job to help him make better career decisions in the long run.

“The co-op experience gives students a look outside the ivory tower,” he said. “We can get our hands dirty within the industry and see what positions are out there for people with the degree.”

Vellalgahan said he sees the value in utilizing the school’s resources to build one’s resume but he also has issues about the way resources are provided online.

“I find it difficult to seek help over the internet and prefer face-to-face advice from advisors instead,” Vellalaghan said.

He added that he believes the co-op office should provide one-on-one calls with students to give them the opportunity to ask questions. 

“I believe they do great work, just that the transition to online has been difficult for all parties and there might be better, more innovative ways for [the office] to assist those that are a part of the program,” Vellalaghan said.

Co-op office ensures safe working experience for students 

Husam Olabi, senior manager of the co-operative internship and experiential learning initiatives, said the FEAS co-op internship program team works closely with Ryerson safety and legal offices, Ted Rogers School of Management (TRSM) co-op program and Ryerson Career Co-op Centre to ensure that a consistent set of safety measures are followed by all employers.

“What’s new during the pandemic is really ensuring that we run a pre-risk assessment process with the employers we’re working with to ensure that they are able to provide a safe place for our students,” Olabi said. “The first thing that we do normally when we connect with an employer, before we post a job, is to ask the employer if they can have the placement be virtual or hybrid.”

The FEAS co-op internship program office conducted two surveys of 200 students across various programs in October 2020 and January 2021. The results, posted in FEAS co-op internship program monthly newsletter obtained by The Eyeopener, shows that 46.7 per cent of placements in January were fully virtual as opposed to 23.6 per cent in October. 

However, Olabi acknowledges that there are some employers who are choosing to assess the impacts of the pandemic before they are able to fully operate and offer positions to students. 

“The industry as a whole has had a year to adjust to ever-changing restrictions, and I feel that the situation will only get better moving forward”

Darko Joksimovic, an associate professor and civil engineering co-operative internship program faculty advisor, said the impacts to civil engineering students were more drastic last year as the industry was adjusting to the changing work environment.

However, Joksimovic said there are fewer cancellations of work opportunities than one might expect. 

“The reason for [the few cancellations] is the high activity in construction, particularly on large municipal and infrastructure projects, as well as maintenance of existing infrastructure where civil engineering students tend to get positions,” Joksimovic said. 

“The industry as a whole has had a year to adjust to ever-changing restrictions, and I feel that the situation will only get better moving forward,” he said. 

He added that he has seldom experienced issues with safety, payments and general working conditions and expects that this will continue in the future.

Since the co-op internship program is optional, students who are unable to secure a placement can return to their regular school program and complete their final year, which creates a lot of flexibility for students, Olabi said. 

“In normal times, we would hope that every student would enrol in co-op to get a placement, but the expectation is that some students might not end up with a placement for different reasons,” he said.

For students who are prematurely terminated from their jobs or have their job offers rescinded due to the pandemic, the office would return them to the job portal so they could apply for new jobs. 

20 student positions were created in the faculty last year to support various faculty members and academic leaders, meant for co-op students who were directly impacted by the pandemic, said Olabi. 

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