THE CO-OP EXPERIENCE
Though you might be nervous about facing your first work period and handling your first assignment, take comfort in the fact that it’s only a temporary feeling. The logistics of moving and settling in will soon be behind you, and you’ll find out what is involved in the reality of work beyond the classroom experience.
You can expect routine work at first, but you can also count upon being busy. Your employer will most likely devote a lot of effort to making you feel welcome and giving you an orientation to different departments and various procedures from safety and purchasing to analytical and other plant services, as well as organizational setups.
Though circumstances vary, large Co-Op employers often assign one contact person to coordinate your program. The person most responsible for your work on an immediate basis, however, will be your supervisor. The aim will be to plan and oversee your work so that it increases in challenge as time goes on. You might, for example, progress from group work to individual work and finally to being leader of a group. You can also expect variety in jobs and a balance between experimental and calculation work, and to move as soon as is practical to working with professionals in your own discipline.
However menial and trivial your early assignments may appear, give them your best. Don’t feel that the minor chores of a project are beneath your dignity or unworthy of your college training. The spirit and effectiveness with which you tackle your first jobs will be carefully watched and may affect your entire career.
Occasionally you may worry about where your situation is going to get you or whether it is sufficiently strategic or significant. It is true that if you take care of your present tasks well, the future will take care of itself. This is particularly so in large corporations where executives are constantly searching for competent people to move up into more responsible positions. Success depends very much upon personality, native ability, and the vigorous, intelligent execution of any job. Your ultimate chances are much better if you do a good job on some minor detail than if you do a mediocre job as a section head.
The Day-To-Day Approach
There is always a premium in any organization on the ability to get things done. This can probably be reduced to a combination of three basic characteristics:
The initiative to start things and aggressively keep them moving;
Resourcefulness or Ingenuity
The ability to find ways of accomplishing the desired result;
Persistence or Tenacity
The disposition to persevere in spite of difficulties, discouragement, or indifference. Don’t be a good starter but a poor finisher.
Don’t be one of those over zealous people who can make themselves obnoxious and offensive with browbeating tactics. Too much insistence and agitation leads to overkill and will hurt you.
Be careful to avoid the appearance of vacillation. Your opinion should reflect more than the thoughts of the last person you talked to, but don’t state an opinion or promote an undertaking until you have had the chance to obtain and study the facts. Then see it through unless fresh evidence indicates otherwise.
It’s also a good idea to express yourself and promote your ideas whenever you can contribute something. The quiet individual who says nothing is usually credited with having nothing to say. Correspondingly, when ideas or proposals are being sought, it often happens that the first person to come up with a definite and plausible response and can talk knowledgeably and confidently about the matter will end up with the assignment that goes with it. If you don’t want to get involved, you’ll be overlooked if you have nothing to say, but you’ll very likely also be passed by when it comes time later to assign larger responsibilities. Remember Output = TxC; that is, your output is equal to your technical ability times your ability to communicate.
Reports For Your Employer
Try to be concise and clear in oral or written reports. Time is at a premium for most employers, and they will appreciate answers that are not surrounded with excessive preliminaries and commentaries. The trick is to convey the maximum of significant information in the minimum time so that the essence of the matter is stated as succinctly as possible. Newspaper articles are a good example of the structure you should master: 90 percent of the basic facts are in the headlines; the first paragraph will give you most of the important particulars; and succeeding paragraphs give details of progressively diminishing significance. Plan your own reports so the facts are presented in the order of their importance, as if you might be cut off any minute.
Accuracy of Statements
Some Co-Ops lose the confidence of their superiors and associates by guessing when they don’t know the answer to a direct question. A wrong answer is worse than no answer. If you don’t know, say so, but also say that you’ll find out right away. If you aren’t certain, indicate the degree of approximation upon which your answer is based. A reputation for dependability can be one of your most valuable assets.
Your supervisor will exert considerable influence upon you. Only your coworkers will have more frequent contact with you on the job. You can expect him or her to make a significant contribution to your growth in the skills of tackling problems, using time efficiently, and communicating well. The supervisor should also call attention to problem areas in your work or unsatisfactory work habits. This is also the person who will select your job assignments and the actual work you do.
Since every supervisor must know what’s going on in his or her area, make sure that you supply the information which you feel constitutes the significant developments in your area. Just be careful not to overdo it. Your supervisor may be called upon to account for, defend, and explain your activities to upper management or coordinate your work into a larger plan, so keep your lines of communication open.
While your supervisor will be an important influence in your work, don’t find yourself becoming dependent to a fault. Avoid hounding your supervisor for minute directions and approvals, and be careful not to surrender all initiative. Do your own basic thinking and seek out your supervisor when you genuinely need help.
Whatever your supervisor wants done should take top priority. You may think you have more important things to do first, but unless you obtain permission, it’s usually unwise to put any other project ahead of a specific assignment. As a rule, there are good reasons for your supervisor to want a given job done, and your performance on the immediate project is apt to have a great deal more bearing upon your evaluation than less conspicuous projects which may appear more urgent.
Note particularly that if you are instructed to do something and you subsequently decide it isn’t worth doing (in view of new data or events), don’t just let it die, but inform the supervisor of your intentions and reasons. This point has caused trouble more than once.
You and Your Employer
It is important to remember that although you’re a Purdue student, you are now working in the capacity of an employee. By all means, you’re working for society, the department, and yourself as well, but primarily you should be working for your employer through your supervisor. As a rule, you can serve all other ends to best advantage by working for your supervisor and your employer. It’s not uncommon for impatient young Co-Ops to ignore or circumvent their superiors in their attempt to get things done, and sometimes things move a little faster that way for a while. Sooner or later, however, it will turn out that such tactics are not tolerated in a large organization. Generally speaking, you can’t get by your supervisor; this is the person who determines your evaluation and rates you, among other things, on your ability to cooperate.
Your Relations with Associates and Outsiders
Never invade the domain of any other division without the knowledge and consent of the person in charge. This is a mistake which causes no end of trouble. If you attempt to perform any function assigned to another division or individual, you’ll very likely discover that people dislike others "muscling in" on their territory and undermining their job. This kind of interference can also lead to mistakes and confusion. The person in charge usually knows more about it than you do, and it’s quite likely that you’ll overlook some important factor in the process, to say nothing of neglecting your own work. Give the other people a fair chance to get their jobs done first, and intervene only when they know that you are stepping into their territory and agree to it.
Similarly, should you become involved in the initiation of some new undertaking, be sure to include everyone who has a right to be in on it. It is extremely easy, especially in a large company, to overlook the interests of some division or individual who doesn’t happen to be represented at the moment. This can create unnecessary and unfortunate difficulties later on which can have a negative effect upon the progress made in the project.
If you encounter problems with the services of other sections, check first with the individual most directly responsible for the function involved. Going over a person’s head to a superior leads to strong resentments and should be resorted to only when a direct appeal fails. In many cases, complaints are made without giving the person involved a fair chance to correct the grievance, or even before they realize there is dissatisfaction. Put yourself in their position and act accordingly.
Correspondingly, be careful how you handle written materials such as memoranda and letters. Though it’s sometimes difficult for a newcomer to recognize the "dynamite" hidden in some documents, your own comments can cause trouble if they constitute damaging or embarrassing statements or reveal a serious shortcoming on anyone’s part. Once such documents get into circulation beyond the intended recipient, the damage is done and difficult to remedy. Next to a direct complaint to a coworker’s superior, it is sometimes almost as serious an offense to route to a person’s boss a copy of a letter containing a complaint or an implied criticism.
In dealing with customers and outsiders, remember that you represent your employer, ostensibly with full responsibility and authority. You may be only a few semesters along in college, but outsiders will regard you as a legal, financial, and technical agent of your employer, so be careful of your actions and your commitments.
One of the most important traits you can have is the ability to get along with other people. As you work with others, remember that whatever your own position, there is always room for improving your effectiveness. Whatever your natural handicaps, you can achieve wonders if you have the will and determination.
TIPS FROM FORMER CO-OP STUDENTS
The following comments were gathered from over one hundred Co-Op students in response to the question: "What do you wish you had known before you started your first work period?" No matter what work period you may be initiating, you should find this advice useful.
- Have your housing arrangements settled before you report for work. It’s hard to be psyched up for work when you don’t know where you’re living. There is information on the Co-Op Short Term Housing Program. It contains ads from Co-Ops and other Purdue students about semester leases and subleases at Purdue and can help you identify potential roommates or housing opportunities in your work location. It is a bulletin board format where students can access the program to place ads and read ads at any time. If you need more information about this program, contact the Office of Professional Practice (765-494-7430).
- If your employer does not offer suggestions or provide housing arrangements, consider contacting Co-Ops working in the same town before or during your work period. You may be able to take over housing from a previous Co-Op (and alternate in the future as well), or share it with current Co-Ops. Consult your Purdue Co-Op Coordinator for names and addresses, or use the PPA (Professional Practice Ambassadors) Housing website.
- If you make arrangements to take over someone’s lease, whether they are a Co-Op student or not, make sure you have a written agreement concerning the payment of past rent, phone bills, damages, etc.
- If there is a college nearby, you may be able to rent dorm rooms at reasonable prices in the summer. Taking an evening class at a university may also make you eligible for campus housing during the school session.
- Some Co-Ops recommend placing an ad in a local newspaper which describes the Co-Op situation and time period needed. Since the lease period you want is shorter than usual, this helps by putting you in contact with people willing to accommodate your needs.
- Plan ahead for the expense of transportation associated with your housing. You may need a car to drive to work, but car pools can cut the cost.
- Initially, have enough money on hand to cover such expenses as advance rent payment, security and utility deposits. Many companies will help you with an advance on your paycheck, but inquire first.
Many companies offer a variety of unexpected benefits, including health care, credit union privileges, housing, transportation allowances, financial assistance for course work (some may pay for night school classes or your Co-Op fee), etc. Consult the personnel section of your company about benefits for which you may qualify
On The Job
- First impressions are often changed only with difficulty. Be aware that the image you create during the first few days can have a long-lasting effect.
- Wear practical clothes at the outset until you see what is appropriate.
- Throughout the initial days on the job, you can expect to be besieged by new names, faces, locations, procedures, nomenclature, and equipment. Try consciously to remember what you can, but after a week or so of repeated contact you really will find it all familiar.
- Before you complete your first week of work, be sure you discuss with your employer Coordinator or supervisor your personal goals for this work period. You can 'clear the air’ this way and permit your employer to respond with their goals. This is a good time also for you to learn about the system your employer will use in rating your work experience. It is better to reach this understanding earlier than later in the work period.
- Be prepared to be on a first name basis with practically everyone, no matter how much older they are than you.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions or talk to co-workers.
- Talking to an operator or technician for ten minutes can save you hours of trying to figure out what’s going on.
- Always, not just the first week, show interest, enthusiasm, and a positive attitude, even if the work you are doing seems trivial. Do your best work at all times. The way you handle your early tasks can very likely determine the course of your future assignments.
- Remember, too, that you will not be doing advanced work from the beginning. Most employers take a "start at the bottom and work your way up" approach. This experience can be invaluable to you later on when the perspective of the technician or operator will enable you to see both sides of a working situation.
- It’s always important to show your willingness to do and to learn. Many employers will be happy if they see that you have simply learned "something" from a particular task.
- Though it may not happen to you, many employers give their Co-Ops a considerable amount of reading material to digest at the outset. Break it down into manageable units and tackle it with a will to familiarize yourself with your company, procedures, your job, etc.. A demonstrable grasp of such information will not only help in your relations with your employer, but will do wonders for your attitude and performance.
- Don’t panic if you find yourself wondering what you are supposed to do in your own job as you make your way through the large amount of information that usually comes with the first few days: your role and duties will soon become comprehensible, and even comfortable.
- Employers aren’t always good communicators. Always be sure you understand instructions given to you, even if they have to be repeated several times. This is particularly true of operating instructions for a piece of equipment.
- Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know something. Many employers forget that you are a Co-Op and may at times expect more of you than you could actually know at this point in your career. It’s far more embarrassing to ask such questions after you have your degree in hand.
- Be personable and treat people with respect. It’s a big mistake to come on as a know-it-all or to put on a front rather than being yourself. Your fellow employees have the experience whatever their educational background, so don’t lose their support.
- Try to solve problems that arise at work by yourself before calling for help. You’ll be surprised what you can accomplish. Many Co-Ops have found that they could think up ways to make an un-challenging job better, or if they were simply not busy enough, were able to get more to do by asking the supervisor.
- If, after an appropriate amount of time, you find that you are dissatisfied with the nature of your work, do take the initiative to talk it over with your supervisor or employer. You may be able to branch out into other areas or increase your responsibilities. Many Co-Ops who were afraid to ask discovered later that their employer would have been more than willing to make positive changes.
- In any case, after about a month on the job, it’s a good idea to seek out your employer’s evaluation of what you are doing. This not only can prove helpful to you, but will remind your employer of your presence. In general, try to communicate upwards throughout your assignment.
- Be a member of the team. While the University is oriented toward individual competition, the outstanding Co-Op is not only technically competent, but understands his/her importance in the overall thrust of the group’s work. Your boss looks best when the whole group does well, and the compliment will be returned to you.
- Finally, if the company does not automatically provide orientation information, find out as much as you can about it on your own. The better you understand the scope of its operations, its business structure, geographical distribution, and local layout, the more effectively you will be able to interact with others in the company while keeping an eye on the future.
- If you are working on your own project, be sure to leave enough time to tie up loose ends so you can hand your project gracefully to someone else in the group with an explanation of what has been done. Don’t just dump a pile of papers on someone’s desk on your way out.
Off The Job
- There is much more to your Co-Op experience than simply working for your employer. Explore fully the off-the-job opportunities available both in the community and the company.
- Above all, don’t be afraid to socialize with your employer and coworkers. Take advantage of the social, cultural, and recreational activities that are an inevitable part of company life. You can make new friends and valuable contacts from other areas of the company while enjoying these leisure time periods.
- Be wary, however, of dating fellow employees, especially those higher in the management. An unfortunate dating relationship can lead to real problems at work.
Other Points of Interest
Keep in touch with your Coordinator at Purdue. Your Coordinator can only advise you and help other prospective Co-Ops when he/she is on top of your situation.
Don’t expect to get rich on the job. Though the salary you are offered may seem like a great deal at first, much of it will go for housing, food, and transportation. If you want to save some money, see about having all or a portion of your company check deposited in the credit union or a local bank. This method has proven highly successful for a number of Co-Ops.