Co-Op vs. Internship: How Do They Differ?

Co-Op vs. Internship: How Do They Differ?

Companies that want to provide training programs for the next generation of employees will find that many different options exist. Internship programs are perhaps the most common of these work experiences, but they are far from the only choice. A co-op, which is an abbreviation for cooperative education, can provide a similar experience to an internship, along with many benefits for both co-op students and employers alike.

Because internship programs and co-ops share similarities, some employers have confused these experiences as being the same. In reality though, co-ops and internships offer two distinct experiences, each with their own unique benefits. How can a company compare co-op vs. internship opportunities when selecting a model for their training program? Here’s a closer look.

The Similarities Between a Co-Op Program and an Internship ProgramCo-Op vs. Internship: Both allow working in a group

Employers provide co-ops or internship programs with the intention of offering valuable educational and working experiences. Although the exact structure of these programs may differ, there are many aspects that are comparable.

For starters, the overarching goal of both of these programs is very similar. Both co-ops and internship programs provide a practical learning experience in the workplace. They also offer relevant work experience for young and interested participants. In either scenario, students gain real-world experience in their chosen career fields.

Both co-op programs and internship programs are specific to a participant’s field of study or chosen career path. Generally, participants pursue the opportunities best suited to their major or intended career. Both co-op programs and internship programs are forms of experiential learning. Participants join each with the expectation of gaining practical skills and relevant work experience that will be useful in a future career.

Another similarity between co-op programs and internship programs is the general demographic of participants. These programs commonly attract a young workforce. Interns and co-op students usually have some idea of their intended career path and are just starting to work towards it.

Co-op vs. Internship: 4 Differences That Set Them ApartWide view of an enormous library filled with people

Co-op programs and internship programs have many similarities on the surface, so it’s not surprising that they are often confused as being the same thing. However, they are two distinct training models. Here are the primary differences when it comes to co-op vs. internship.

1. Academic Affiliation

Perhaps the biggest difference between a co-op program and an internship program is the affiliation (or lack of one) with a college or university.

Co-op programs usually exist as formal partnerships between an employer and a college. Colleges establish and formalize these relationships in advance, and often co-op students select from a list of approved co-op experiences. In many cases, co-op programs are an official degree requirement and most co-op students earn college credit for their work.

On the other hand, internship programs may or may not offer academic credit, and may or may not be associated with a specific college. Interns can generally be of any age, though most are inexperienced in the workplace. As such, they tend to be on the younger side. While interns are often undergraduate students, they might also be recent graduates or graduate students. Being a college student is not a prerequisite.

Interns may use their college’s career services office to find an internship, but this doesn’t mean that the internships are formally associated with the college itself. Most internship programs are operated independently by the employer, and many have rigorous independent application processes.

2. Cooperative Education vs. Entry-Level Work

Another big difference between co-ops and internships is the focus of the experience. In a co-op, as the name implies, students receive cooperative education. This means that the experience aligns with their academic goals and contributes towards academic coursework. Co-op students generally receive college credit that reflects the educational value of the experience. Often, a co-op takes the place of college courses.

Internship programs, on the other hand, specifically provide relevant work experience at the entry level. Interns pursue career goals by starting with an internship and working their way up. The intern experience is similar to having an entry-level job with an assigned mentor and regular feedback. Although some colleges might partner with employers to provide college credit, this arrangement is less common.

3. Expected Level of Commitment

Co-op students usually work full-time within the program and don’t typically take coursework during this period. Instead, they focus all their time and energy on the co-op program and the full-time work it requires. Sometimes, this means that a traditional college degree program incorporating co-ops may take longer to complete. That said, the student will finish it with significantly more work experience than the average college graduate.

During an internship, though, interns may work either full-time or part-time through the program, depending on the work terms. The time commitment is established in advance with the employer. The intern might continue to take college or graduate classes simultaneously, or might even have another job.

4. Agreed Upon Duration

A co-op program is usually a long-term arrangement. Co-op students might participate for a semester, or may participate for a number of semesters. Sometimes, co-op students will enroll in classes full-time during the fall semester and then participate in the co-op full-time during the spring semester each year. In this arrangement, it’s common for students to cycle back to the same co-op each year.

Conversely, internships tend to be much more variable in length. An internship may last for as few as three weeks or as long as a year. It’s unusual for an intern to cycle back to the same program repeatedly, though. Instead, internships are usually completed just once within a finite period of time.

How to Select a Training Model for Your CompanyCo-Op vs. Internship: Four people doing fist bump

Companies that want to implement a formal training program to recruit new, young employees are wise to consider all the choices available. Internships, co-ops, and even fellowships are all great options. Be sure to read more about fellowships vs. internships to make the best decision for your business.

If it boils down to a co-op or an internship, here are some questions to consider before making a final choice.

  • Is there an established relationship with a college or university?
    • If your company often works directly with a specific college or university, a co-op model may be easier to implement.
    • If you don’t have a standing relationship with any colleges, an internship program may be the more practical option.
  • Will there be a formal element of academic education included?
    • If your program will include specific academic content related to college courses, it could be a good fit for a co-op.
    • If your program will focus more on job training, practical work experience, and skill development, it’s probably a better fit for an internship.
  • Will the program be full-time?
    • If the program is full-time and takes place during the school year, it’s a good fit for the co-op program model.
    • If the program is part-time, takes place only during the summer, or has some flexibility in establishing a work schedule, it might be a better suited for an internship. Keep in mind, many internships are full-time and take place during the school year, but nearly no co-ops are part-time or summer-only experiences.
  • Will participants join more than once?
    • If you want participants to join the program for a set period each year, year after year, a traditional co-op model could be the way to go.
    • If your program is designed for participants to join for a single finite period, go with a traditional internship program.

Co-Op vs. Internship: The Final SayCo-Op vs. Internship: Woman looking at dual computer screens

Co-ops and internships can both be valuable opportunities for young people who want to gain experience in the workplace. Both offer solid, relevant work experience through a structured program. And both can lead to full-time job offers or other networking opportunities.

The greatest difference between these two training models is their association with academics. Co-op programs are affiliated with a college or university and often take the place of a semester’s worth of coursework. In exchange, co-op participants gain real-world work experience and academic credits.

Only internship programs operate independently of colleges and universities. They are designed by the employer to offer job training and practical work experience in an intern’s field of interest, and can often be tailored to the requirements of that profession.

To learn more about how to hire interns, attract top graduates, and find high-quality candidates for entry-level positions, check out the services of Scholars.

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