Explaining Co-ops, Internships (& Mini-Internships)

There are a lot of ideas about what the terms co-op and internship mean. I asked Lauren Starr from Western University to explain.  Here’s an over view of what Lauren has learned in her her role as Career Services Officer over the past 5 years;

We actually use the terms interchangeably because we don’t want employers to think that an internship is unpaid. This is a huge misconception and problem. Most internships in the US are unpaid but it is seriously frowned upon in Canada.  We say our internship program is a form of co-operative education, which it is.


Co-op is usually multiple (4-5) short work terms of 4 months (sometimes one of those work terms will be 8 months long). This is the typical model that Waterloo uses and they are the grandfather of co-op. Students usually sign up for the co-op stream when they are admitted to school in their first year.


Western has one work term of 8 to 16 months. Some schools only have 12 to 16 month work terms. In most cases, students choose to do an internship later in their degree (Western students sign up at the beginning of third year).

Queen’s, McMaster, University of Toronto, York and Western are the big users of this type of model. Although you will find many other co-op programs on these campuses as well. For example, you might see professional graduate programs that have 8 months of class with a 4 month mandatory co-op.

Benefits to Employers

There are huge benefits to having one long work term and many employers agree, the students often require significant training in tech or lab roles. If they are working for 12 or 16 months they can make significant contributions and employers will get a good return on investment.

There’s also a good chance–as long as the experience was positive for both the student and employer–that they will return to that employer as a long term hire.

Shorter co-op work terms are good for students as they allow the student to try out different employers (and Lauren noted that many of her interns say they got to do more serious projects than the 4 month co-op student working beside them).

Renewed sense of purpose going into their fourth year

I have heard that a criticism of the internship model is that students will be away from school for too long

However Lauren said she often sees them coming back with much more confidence and a renewed sense of purpose so that they are very successful in fourth year.

Company Internship Programs

Many large companies advertise internship positions that are essentially summer jobs. These companies are looking for an intern to support their needs, often not concerned if a student is in a co-op or internship program at their school. While the company calls them internships its important to be aware that the school would consider them summer jobs.  This provides great work experience for the student, but will not provide credits for school.

Subsidies for Employers

Any employer that hires a student from a formal co-op or internship program at a university or college is entitled to the co-op tax credit.

There is also an NSERC Experience award of $4,500 that an employer can get if their student is working on research work. Although the student doesn’t have to be in a co-op or internship to get this grant for the company (this is the old Industrial Undergraduate Research Award).

Valuable Work Experience

I really appreciate Lauren’s perspective, as it is the one most valuable to students.  If a students’ program requires a completed coop or internship its important employers have taken the right steps through the school or university, so that the experience can be credited.

That said, practical work experience is the key to landing their first job so any form of job for students whether its a formal internship, coop, summer job or a mini internship is better than nothing!

In a recent meeting with TYFPC 8 guest speakers–who employ people right out of school on a frequent basis–all confirmed that volunteering to demonstrate passion, drive and the ability to ‘roll up sleeves’ and do the work outweighed additional formal education every time.

My advice is to use good judgement, its not always about the money.  Students and recent grads are well advised to think ‘big picture’, a little upfront investment can pay dividends in the long term.

Food Employers

Do you see an advantage to hiring a coop student, intern or have a summer job available? We understand that if you are a small or medium sized business, you simply don’t have the time or resources to facilitate this.  However, you also offer the best training ground as students get to see the entire business and work in several areas wearing different hats.  Exposure to more areas of the business can help in choosing career paths.

If you are an Employer in the Food & Beverage Industry, a student or educator and have a question or feedback please email me or leave a comment below.

*What are Mini-Internships?

Students need valuable work experience to better their chances of getting a job.  We know the time restraints for employers (especially small/medium with limited resources) so FoodGrads came up with a different option.

Mini-Internships are low cost, low commitment, remote projects that allow employers to try out ideas, gain perspectives and complete a task that has been on their desk or ‘to do’ list, while providing an opportunity for work experience, skill development and networking for a student or recent grad.  

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