Remote work opens up doors for co-op students during pandemic

Alicia Leslie, 22 of Windsor, is pictured here doing remote work during her co-op placement at Preteckt. (PHOTO COURTESY: Alicia Leslie)

Graduating during a pandemic can be a scary time for people looking to land a job. But despite some hardships at the onset of the pandemic, co-op programs report an uptick in the number of employers bringing students onboard.

Placement managers say that’s because the COVID crisis has created the silver lining: remote work placements.

Alicia Leslie, a University of Windsor computer science co-op student, learned this last April, when she was about to enter her final co-op placement.

“When I lost that job when the position was cancelled, it was incredibly disheartening, given everything going on in the world, it was just another thing that piled on,” says Leslie, who is now 22.

More than 100 at UWindsor alone lost their placements, according to Kristen Morris, the manager of co-op work placements at UWindsor. She says companies were going through uncertain times, budgeting issues, layoffs and many staff were sent home, making it difficult to take on co-op students during the initial wave.

“The pandemic really changed the game,” says Morris, adding along with that included concerns on her part over putting co-op students into remote work.

But those concerns were quickly quashed.

“The students have shown that not only can they stay motivated in hard times and built a lot of resiliency, they also can work in any environment the employer puts them in,” says Morris.

Morris says more flexible federal grants for employers who take on co-op students and the ability to work virtually actually opened up more doors to some smaller businesses not already taking part in the placement program.

That’s how Leslie got a last minute placement at Toronto and Memphis-based company, Preteckt.

“It was the first time they had ever hired a co-op student so it was a great opportunity to kind of change their mind to the idea of having a co-op student and the benefit that it can bring to an organization.”

Preteckt uses data sensors to track component wear and tear on heavy duty vehicles and advises companies when their fleets require predictive maintenance.

“We thought this is the best possible opportunity for us to step in and bring in top-tier talent,” says Ken Sills, the company co-founder and chief technology officer.

Sills says the experience was so good with Leslie, and the grants from the government are at the right level that they are now on-boarding co-op students permanently.

“It’s now part of our DNA,” says Sills, who personally designed processes for students to get fully engaged in the work, rather than perform menial tasks that don’t prepare them for the working world. “We’ve trained ourselves how to utilize them properly and we’re now reaping the benefits permanently.”

Morris believes the silver lining opportunities caused by the pandemic will stick around for good — for the benefit of both students and employers.

“Some of this will last beyond COVID in how we operate our co-op program,” says Morris.