A lot has changed with the Bachelor of Commerce program over the past 100 years. The most significant change and growth is the co-op program – read to find out more.
It was 1991 and Dalhousie’s School of Business had just launched its mandatory co-op education program for all Bachelor of Commerce students. Knowing that transition students would be looking for work terms the following January, Peter Valee (on secondment to the new Commerce Co-op Program) sent a memo to his colleagues. “I am hopeful,” he wrote, “the Dalhousie community will be able to take advantage of this unique opportunity.”
That hope has been validated over the years. One of only three mandatory business co-op programs nationwide, the four-year program quickly earned a reputation for quality by delivering a combination of formal education through academic terms and relevant experience through work terms. Within three years, it achieved certification from the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education, now known as Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning. By 2012, the program’s 20th anniversary, it reached a milestone of 10,000 work terms—a feat it is on track to double before its 40th anniversary. And Commerce Co-op has grown from a first-year class of approximately 100 students in 1991 to 400 in 2019.
Equally impressive is the success that program graduates have achieved in the workplace. Available data shows that they have higher starting salaries, are more likely to be employed, and are more likely employed in an industry related to their field of study. And the statistics for 2020 revealed strong employment rates for graduates despite the challenges posed by the pandemic. These notable results reflect the program’s dedication to providing students with marketable skills for building successful careers, not job placements.
“The placement mindset is very transactional, short term, and thus not as beneficial for students over the long term,” explains Robert Wooden, director of Management Career Services. “Our students conduct job searches with our co-op employers, and we help students develop skills such as creating resumes and preparing for interviews so that they can land the jobs they want. The result is a toolkit they can use for the rest of their lives, one that will help them transition smoothly through layoffs or career changes, for example.”
Students enrolled in the co-op program complete three work terms over the course of their studies, each one lasting 12 to 18 weeks. This enables them to accumulate almost a year of industry experience, which can be attained through one employer or multiple work environments. “It could be a small-to-medium-size business so they get to be a jack-of-all-trades, a large organization where they can focus their attention, or a government position to see if they are suited to a very large and hierarchical organization,” Wooden says. “By trying different employers, workplaces, and styles of work, students can get a better sense of what they want in a career and thus not be inclined to take the first job they are offered upon graduating.”
Participating employers benefit through access to talent during busy seasons or for short-term needs, such as a maternity leave or extended illness. “Because the program runs work terms year-round, we have students available every single semester,” Wooden says. “We have dedicated employers that hire a student every semester, which makes the program a great pipeline for talent.”
Ongoing program renewal studies and employer surveys ensure that the curriculum remains relevant and innovative. Wooden points to the launch of cofacilitated courses with faculty from the Management Area Group at the Rowe School of Business and the introduction of a supply chain and logistics major as examples. “Those offerings are the direct result of our connection to the business community,” he says. “By bringing their feedback to our faculty, we are continuing to make changes in our program that prevent us from becoming complacent.”
More changes are in the works. There are plans to increase student diversity by growing enrollment from Black and Indigenous students across the province and from more countries internationally. Efforts are also underway to meet growing industry demand for work integrated learning and future ready graduates. “I want our focus to be not just on growth but on quality as well,” Wooden says. “We are well positioned to do that because a mandatory program enables us to do things that optional programs can’t. And that will enable us to maintain our high standards and our national accreditation status.”