What exactly is a co-op, one might ask

8/26/2020 Maddie Yang

Written by Maddie Yang

Internships are a well-known undertaking for any MechSE undergraduate student looking to find an optimal career path and build a resume. Lesser known but equally effective, co-ops provide a similar experience and are an invaluable way to achieve these same goals.

MechSE corporate after hours
MechSE corporate after hours
According to John Mahlmeister, an Engineering Career Services (ECS) advisor, the difference between an internship and a co-op is largely just a naming convention. Generally, a co-op occurs during the fall or spring semester and lasts a little longer, while internships occur over the summer and are for a shorter period of time. That said, some companies will label their positions differently. Following this naming convention, co-ops require students to take time off from school, which may cause a delay in graduation. So what’s so compelling about a co-op experience? While co-ops may adjust your graduation schedule, the advantage is that students have a longer time to connect to the industry in which they’re interested.  

MechSE undergrad Esmée Vernooij worked at Volvo during the spring semester in North Carolina. “I would 100 percent recommend doing a co-op,” she said. “It’s a little lonely at first, [knowing] all of your friends are at school and you’re separate from them, but it’s good to learn to be on your own and take responsibility for yourself as well as just being an overall good work experience.” Vernooij said she was able to work on more long-term projects and gain more experience with a big company, which could otherwise be difficult to get a foot in the door. She found that her work environment was very important to her and gained a lot of insight on what it’s like to work in industry.

Chris Oberg, a recent MechSE graduate participated in a co-op during his time at Illinois, noting that the classes he took on campus gave him a strong basis for the knowledge he needed to work at Exxon Mobil. He was also able to develop his soft skills as a course assistant for various classes. Oberg stressed that the longer timeframe of the co-op was important because it allowed him to grow and work more. Projects in industry can span a couple of months to even multiple years. Oberg has accepted a full-time position with Exxon, where he worked as a reliability and maintenance engineer, an area he gained an interest in through an earlier internship experience. 

“At the co-op, I felt I was getting a chance to experience the beginning of my career early,” said undergraduate Caitlin Benvau, who worked at Blue Origin, an aerospace manufacturer. “The motivations change and you feel yourself wanting to learn more engineering to understand phenomena you see at work. Learning becomes an adventure when everyone around you is excited as well and always willing to try new things. It was an incredibly fun and encouraging place to work.” Benvau said her RSO experience in Student Space Systems (SSS) gave her some of the knowledge needed to be successful during her co-op. Her experience helped her decision to go into the aerospace industry and helped reignite her passion for pure engineering. 

For students interested in participating in a co-op, potential employers can be found through Handshake or at Engineering Career Fairs. While Illinois has no official program, there is a 0-credit hour class, ENG 310 (ENG 510 for graduate students), that allows students to continue their enrollment while taking a semester off to participate in a co-op. 

ECS advisors can answer any questions about co-ops and internships and assist students in reviewing and improving their resumes.

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This story was published August 26, 2020.