Virginia Hawkins, right, landed a job at the Kentucky Employer’s Mutual Insurance Agency after her time in the co-op program. (Photo Submitted)

By Anna Homa

Imagine walking into your first employment interview after graduating, wearing your brand new business suit and carrying a resumé so fresh the ink is still wet. You greet the recruiter with a firm handshake and sit down.Everything is going great until you’re asked what kinds of work experience you’ve had. Uh, oh. Right now that part-time job waiting tables at Applebee’s doesn’t sound as impressive as you once thought. You respond with nothing and suddenly that dream job starts floating out of reach and the recruiter says “don’t call us; we’ll call you.”

Now, snap back into reality and take a deep breath. It wasn’t real, but it could happen if you don’t take the initiative and get that work experience employers look for on your resumé, before you graduate.

But how do you get relevant work experience while still taking classes? The answer is as simple as walking over to the Student Services Building, taking the stairs to the fourth floor and talking to the staff of Cooperative Education. Within the walls of that office, students begin the process of finding not just a job, but a career.

“I can honestly say I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for co-op,” said Brooke Ratliff, a 2005 graduate in communication studies.

Ratliff started her co-op early in her college years and worked a few sales co-ops before realizing she didn’t like what she was doing and wanted something different. Connie Dirks, assistant director of the co-op office, called about an open position at a company involved in something other than sales and set her up with an interview, Ratliff said.

What started off as a summer internship just for experience turned into a yearlong paid co-op at Bechtel Parsons National, she said.

“It wasn’t what I was expecting, but was much better,” Ratliff said.

She is now a contract specialist with that same company, where she has been working with the Department of Defense to build the Bluegrass Chemical Agent Destruction Pilot Plant here in Richmond. Co-op provides a very valuable experience to students, whether they know what they want to do or not, Ratliff said. But you can also weed out what you don’t want to do, she said.

“You get the opportunity to test drive a career,” Dirks said. “You really get to see what work is in the field and you can change things you don’t like.”

It’s better to find out if you like what you’re doing while still in school, said Traci Patrick, a career counselor. If you start early you can keep trying, she said.

Starting early helped Virginia Hawkins, a May 2007 graduate in communication studies, with finding her career. In interviewing class, Karen Rudick told her she needed more professional experience on her resumé and directed her to the co-op office, she said. Hawkins was already working at a real estate office in her hometown and began receiving co-op credits for that, but decided she needed something more to add to her experience. The co-op office helped her find a paid position at Kentucky Employer’s Mutual Insurance as an assistant to the underwriter, Hawkins said.

After a year, she attended a job fair and handed her resumé to the same company as a prospective employee. She still had to go through the interviewing process, but having already had the co-op experience with the company, she started off with her foot in the door. If it had not been for the co-op experience she received, she might not have had as many job offers after graduation, Hawkins said.

Mark Bailey, a senior fire and safety engineering major from London, wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but he contacted his faculty and the co-op office and they helped find a co-op that would fit his interests, he said.

The co-op office set him up for an interview with Marathon Petroleum, which wasn’t a part-time job, while taking classes; it actually required him to move to Ohio for the spring and summer semesters. In the nine months he was working with them, he traveled to seven different cities across the U.S., while getting paid and earning school credit. But not only did he get to travel, he was able to get field experience, he said.

“It’s the best decision I ever made,” Bailey said.

Bailey today is working in industrial safety at the Georgia Pacific plant in Lexington, and he credits his first co-op with Marathon helping him get the job he has now. Forty to 50 percent of students who do a co-op are offered a full time position, Dirks said. But even if it doesn’t create a job at that particular company, it still helps in gaining references and contacts for networking, Hawkins said.

“Somewhere or other, you’ll reap something from it,” Ratliff said. “Even if you didn’t like it, you have that experience.”

Many students with the co-op experience under their belts will usually start out at higher entry-level salaries, Dirks said. The experience gives you a step up above everyone else wanting the job; it gives you an edge, Hawkins said.

“It gave me a better understanding of what I learned in the classroom,” Bailey said. “I realized how accurate the professors were when instructing the classes.”

The students need to take advantage; it’s a great opportunity and a fantastic way to get a foot in the door, said Gladys Johnson, director of the co-op office. The program is for the students.

“We’re here to help you be successful,” Johnson said.

“There’s no downside to doing co-op,” Ratliff said. “It’s only positive.