Need to Attract More Gen-Z Workers? Start a Co-Op

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With Gen Z expected to comprise 27% of the workforce by 2025, your business needs to fill your talent pipeline with great Gen Z candidates as soon as possible, or risk getting left behind and stagnate in the dreaded skills gap. In a few years, there simply won’t be enough qualified young hires to go around, especially in fields such as accounting, cyber security, and engineering. Due to the intense competition for Gen Z talent, even offering a high salary may not be enough to attract the right employees to your company. And let’s be honest: the industry titans like Amazon and Google will match any salary your business may stretch to offer, and then some. To be more competitive, your company should be trying to educate college students about your brand before they “hit the market,” so to speak. And one of the best ways to do this is to implement a co-op program.

What is a Co-Op Program?

Co-op programs are collaborative education experiences where a business partners with a university to provide real-world working experiences to students. While a co-op can sound similar to an internship, they differ in a few key ways.

Mainly, internships are meant for students to discover if they want to pursue a specific field, while a co-op helps students determine where exactly in the industry they want to work

Co-ops are expected to have a higher engagement from participants. Hours are longer, usually 35-40 hours, and students have an obligation to contribute to important work tasks and projects. Internships, on the other hand, are more flexible for the student and the organization. They can be paid, unpaid (although it isn’t suggested), part time, or full time for a few months.

Co-ops also bring unique benefits to your business over internships. Since co-op salaries are lower than most entry level roles, you are able to gain a low-cost hire that you can easily skill-up in the way your business wants, decreasing your cost-per-hire. Universities aren’t teaching students the skills they need to succeed in the workplace, so the only way you will be able to find employees that have the skills you want is to teach them yourself. The retention rate for hires also increases over the years, with the five year retention rate for co-op hires being up to 8.5% more than intern hires. Co-op programs help you build greater employee loyalty and that’s a huge advantage over your competition who would not have this early-access to a prospective hire. 

Let’s discuss what co-op’s actually entail for Gen Z applicants, and how you can start implementing a co-op program to benefit your company. 

Why Co-Ops Attract Gen Z 

Unlike what most businesses assume, Gen Z isn’t solely looking for a larger paycheck. Rather, Gen Zers value strong ethics and authenticity, and these values can be best showcased by companies through co-ops. Gen Z also has an entrepreneurial spirit and they want to work at a business that can help their existing skills flourish as well as teach them something new, which is where co-ops come in. 

A great example of a successful co-op program is General Motors, who partnered with multiple universities across the world to implement rotational experiences for students. For the University of Waterloo specifically, the company has operated a program there for 20+ years, gaining 90% of its co-op students from a single partnership. The main goal of their program is to cultivate an environment where co-op students can create innovative solutions to existing business challenges. The idea of “innovation” is key, as Gen Z wants to work at a place where they can feel empowered and feel like they’re accurately applying their education to real life issues. Co-ops are an attractive opportunity for both the students and the companies to “try before you buy.”

General Motors encourages their co-ops to leverage ideas and solutions from life experiences, classroom ideas, or previous internship experiences. They are then tasked with finding potential efficiency enhancements in the car production process, and work to prototype and test solutions alongside a larger team. It’s real work experience for these students, not only molding them into skilled employees (which is exactly what they’re attracted to), but skilled employees that are created to be the exact workers you want to hire.

How to Start a Co-Op Program 

Co-ops require a greater time commitment compared to internships, so it's important to survey the availability of your current managers. Fortunately, most of these evaluations can be provided by the university, based on its accreditation criteria, so all you would need to do is ensure your business is following these models. 

You will also need to have in mind 3-4 potential universities to partner with. Make sure to keep your search varied, as there is a chance that a university may deny your proposal. When you do finally narrow down your list, base your decision off the quality of the students, not just the brand associated with the university. Do you have current alumni employees? Is the university a popular site for co-op partnerships? Are the students learning the skills necessary to be successful on the job? Whatever information you do find, it's imperative to ensure the academic institution is accredited and provides a quality education. 

Once you have taken stock of your businesses’ situation, there are 3 key steps you need to take to structure and launch your program. 

1. Develop a program structure proposal

Since your business will be partnering with a university, you need clear program objectives. Working with your HR and legal department, outline what types of roles and responsibilities potential applicants will be expected to fill, as well as what you expect of them after the program ends in an official proposal. Note necessary information such as the type and timeframe of employment, salary amount, and possible benefits. 

2. Implement various university requirements in your program

The key is to make your program flexible, so it can fit with any university you are attempting to partner with. This proposal will later be submitted to the university, so make sure you get accurate feedback from potential partners. Once you have a university partner that accepts your proposal, you can start the last step.  

3. Recruit applicants

Utilizing online channels can help your local business target new audiences and monitor campaign success closely. Gen Zers embrace social media, so in order to market to them, your business needs to start having a digital presence. You can also consider “co-branding” with the consent of the university you are partnering with. (Or better still, let PathMatch help you find top co-op candidates in your area

Although co-op's can be an invaluable resource to invest in a Gen Z talent pipeline for your business, it definitely requires effort on the employer's part. Before you dive in, you will need to do research on the availability of your employees and resources to divert to these new employees. However if you take the time to do these initial steps, implementing a co-op program to recruit Gen Z applicants becomes much easier in the long run. 

It’s not easy starting a Gen Z-friendly co-op that draws in valuable job applicants. PathMatch can help connect you to young applicants who have the skills your business is looking for. Learn more here.

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