3. Closing the Workforce Development Gap: Northeastern’s Co-op Program

July 17, 2020 Amy Baron Season 1 Episode 5
3. Closing the Workforce Development Gap: Northeastern’s Co-op Program
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3. Closing the Workforce Development Gap: Northeastern’s Co-op Program
Jul 17, 2020 Season 1 Episode 5
Amy Baron

GUEST: MICHELLE SCHLESINGER ZAFF, ASSOCIATE COOP FACULTY, NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY. According to a study by Lumina Foundation and Gallup, “96% of Chief Academic Officers believe that their students are ready for the workforce, but only 11% of business leaders feel the same.” In this episode, Amy talks with Michelle Schlesinger Zaff about career planning and skill development, and how the two are connected through the undergraduate experience. Together, Amy and Michelle discuss the skills that are in high demand among employers, the role of the university in preparing college students for the workplace, and some of the results Michelle has seen through Northeastern's Co-op program.

Show Notes Transcript

GUEST: MICHELLE SCHLESINGER ZAFF, ASSOCIATE COOP FACULTY, NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY. According to a study by Lumina Foundation and Gallup, “96% of Chief Academic Officers believe that their students are ready for the workforce, but only 11% of business leaders feel the same.” In this episode, Amy talks with Michelle Schlesinger Zaff about career planning and skill development, and how the two are connected through the undergraduate experience. Together, Amy and Michelle discuss the skills that are in high demand among employers, the role of the university in preparing college students for the workplace, and some of the results Michelle has seen through Northeastern's Co-op program.

Amy  0:06  

Hey everybody, I'm Amy Baron. And this is upskilled solutions in the learning universe, where I talk with professionals in education and workforce development, about practices and perspectives that catalyze positive change.


Amy  0:26  

Just a note that this conversation was recorded back in February 2020, before the COVID-19 crisis really took hold in the US. So please take that into account as you listen.


Amy  0:40  

And the topic of today's conversation is Northeastern University's Co Op program, and it's focused on upskilling undergraduates through real world work experience. So our guest today is Michelle Schlesinger zaf, Esquire. Michelle is a an


Amy  1:00  

Attorney by training. But she is currently an associate cooperative education faculty member at Northeastern University, working with students in companies on the co op experience. So welcome, Michelle. 



Thank you. 



Michelle, Northeastern has long been known for its Co Op education program, which requires students to work in the real world, quote unquote, as they complete their undergraduate degree. Can you tell us a little about the program and about what you do there? 



Sure, I'd be glad to. So Northeastern Co Op program is a signature program. And the the gist of it is that students will integrate real world work experience with their academic studies. So historically, it started out where it was a way for students to pay for their education. Students who couldn't traditionally afford it could work for six weeks.


Michelle 2:00  

months and earn the money to then pay for their education and their classes for six months and then go back and work. And but it has evolved in many, many ways since then, although the the model still somewhat remains. So it's a it's a model where students do take classes in the classroom the same way at any other school, and then they would go out on a six month Co Op work experience. And we have very a lot of supports built in to help students navigate the process and the system, a lot of advisors and coordinators to help them navigate the journey.


Amy 2:40   

And that's what you do. You're one of those coordinators 



I am there are over 80 of us and northeastern working with different groups and demographics of students and employers and kind of


Michelle 2:55  

setup through disciplines, different disciplines and majors.


Michelle 3:00  

And so each of us does things a little different.


Michelle 3:03  

And so I when I'm speaking today, I can speak only toward my own practices and not kind of on behalf of northeastern as a whole, but the way I run my classes and my role in my, in my position here,


Amy 3:16  

and you are an attorney by training, so I'm guessing you work in some form of law or do counseling with your students on jobs in in legal services. What what exactly is your specific area? 



Yeah, so I work with students, undergraduate and graduate students who are studying criminal justice, who are studying political science, philosophy, religious studies. Those are kind of my, my students that I work with. And then I work with employers that would most typically interest those students, and many of those students are those


Michelle 4:00  

Those are big feeders into law school. So if you were to ask the students with whom I work, most of them would raise their hand that they're considering a career in law. So it makes me particularly


Michelle 4:14  

positioned to help them.


Amy  4:17  

What kinds of skills do you think students need nowadays? To prepare themselves, let's say for a career in law or for any career, and are they and are they getting those in these Co Op experiences?


Michelle 4:35  

So I believe they definitely are getting those and the students are required. All students know, regardless of your major, are required to take a course before they go out on their first Co Op experience. And in my opinion, this course should be offered at every university across the country. The course is called professional development for Co Op and it's a course that I teach as a course that


Michelle 5:00  

All Co Op coordinators teach. And the course teaches hard skills concrete skills like how to draft a resume, how to decide what types of jobs you might want to apply to out of the thousands of jobs that are offered, how to interview for those jobs, how to brand yourself, both verbally through interviews, and digitally through social media presence and LinkedIn, how to create a LinkedIn profile and how to use LinkedIn to network. It teaches students how to get the most of their Co Op experience when they are on the job, how to network, how to behave professionally. So in my humble opinion, this course is the most important one that students will take at the university. Others may disagree, but but I really do think it's a very important course that that is really unique to Northeastern. 



Yeah, I mean that sounds incredibly impressive.


Amy  6:00  

And I know that


Amy  6:02  

there's a lot of talk nowadays about the match between an undergraduate education and life in the workplace and that there's not so much a match as a mismatch, that students are not necessarily prepared for the workplace. And actually, I have a quote here that I found from a study by Lumina Foundation and Gallup that says 96% of Chief Academic officers believe that their students are ready for the workforce, but only 11% of business leaders feel the same. So there's a disconnect happening nowadays in in terms of the undergraduate education students are receiving and what's actually needed in the workplace. Do you have you observed that or do you can you speak to how Northeastern is addressing that


Michelle 6:59  

I can


Michelle 7:00  

I really think that the co op program is the answer to many of these issues and the feedback that we get from employers who have hired our students through the co op program. And even after the co op program as post grads is that they, they love the co op program, they find that the, if they hire interns from multiple institutions, that the students that are coming from Northeastern are much better prepared, they're ready to hit the ground running, where others students have to be brought up to speed and that they're much more professional. And they take the position much more seriously. And they're able to contribute a lot more based on the preparation they've had through through Co Op


Michelle 7:48  

and the course as well. So


Michelle 7:51  

I think that actually applying what you're learning in the classroom in the real world setting and and getting a


Michelle 8:00  

exposed to what it means to be a professional, or what's going to close that gap.


Michelle 8:07  

So there are my we've been told from employers that things like coding or Excel, these are skills that can be learned on the job and can be taught. But things like being a professional and showing up on time and sending professional emails, and and navigating office politics, or these are things that only come really from experience and from being in situ. And those are the types of things in addition to excel on the other pieces that students on Co Op experience and learn. And then they have that advantage of having that under their belt


Unknown Speaker  8:45  

as they enter the workforce. 



So it's really the soft skills, a lot of the kind of the soft skills, the cooperation and collaboration and communication and the kinds of skills that you hear about in in


Amy  9:00  

K through 12. They talk about 21st century skills, those skills that are really harder to teach than the sort of knowledge base skills where you're learning facts or you're learning. You know how to talk about a novel or how to solve a math problem. Those are more of the hard skills, but the soft skills were, you know, nowadays, because the economy is changing so rapidly and technology is evolving so quickly. The skills that are most important are these adaptability skills. These are the ability to learn, you know, the ability to to identify your your areas of of weakness and try to work on them.


Amy  9:47  

So, actually, another quote i have is that just 28% of liberal arts majors and 35% of STEM majors feel that they will graduate with the skills they need for


Amy  10:00  

Success, which is a little upsetting, especially for me as the parent of a college student, that these kids are coming out and feeling they're really not ready, even though they've gone through four years of education and it sounds to me like Northeastern is really taking steps to to mitigate that with this program.


Michelle 10:22  

Yes, I think that's true. The students in all majors so liberal arts, from from liberal arts to stem all participate in the co op program is not required of students. What is required for Northeastern is that the students complete experiential education, but that can come in many different forms, including research or study abroad programs. But the vast majority obviously choose to do the co op participate in Co Op.


Amy  10:51  

So what kind of results has Northeastern seen I don't know if you know this, but as far as placement of their graduates


Amy  11:00  

It's and they're graduates getting jobs. I mean, they must have a very high success rate I would imagine.


Michelle 11:07  

Yes, very, very high success rate. I don't have the any kind of actual statistics or figures. But I think they I think they're posted even on their website, but just anecdotally, from the students with whom I've worked, I can say the majority have gotten offers, after graduation from either Co Op employers or contacts from their Co Op employers. It's great. It's great. So what are some success stories? It's so many so many success stories, and we have a lot of student spotlights on the website that you can check out. Through through the co op website. There's there's actually a video that we show in the co op class. It's it's an excerpt from a lecture that Mr. Bose gave


Michelle 12:00  

Bose stereo fame. And he talks about two different students who kind of experienced a job that was kind of a bummer. It was this was done through MIT. And he was partnering with MIT on some engineering project. And one of the students


Michelle 12:17  

said in the video involves two students who were, I think, electrical engineers, and the they went to work at a company and the company lost its contract. So there was really very little work for these students to do. And he went in to check on them, Mr. Bose and the one student said, you know what they have me doing, I'm sitting at the end of an assembly line, and I'm plugging this transistor in and if it turns red, I put it in this box. And if it turns green, I put it in this box, and this is just terrible. And I want to be out of this internship and it's absolutely horrible experience. It's really unfair. And you know, and then another student was doing the exact same job and he was even brighter, and Mr. Bose was listening to his report.


Michelle 13:00  

And he was like, Well, I'm gonna get I'm gonna get it now he's gonna let me have it. And the other students said, you know what I'm doing, it turns red, I put it here. And if it turns green, I put it there. But you know what, this has been the best experience I've ever had. And and I can't believe it. I'm so fortunate to have had this experience. And Mr. Bose is thinking, like, what couldn't be any more different from the first student. And what he said was, what happened was, I noticed that the red ones, they were defective. So I asked if I could keep those and they said, Sure, we're gonna throw them away. And he said, I bought a special microscope, and I bought some tools, and I've been dissecting these transistors and trying to figure out where the defect is. And then I have been kind of repairing them and trying to see if I could make them into and so he went on and on and he was like, if I had been at school during the semester, I would never have learned this. If I had been at this job under the expected normal circumstances, I would not have gotten this these skills.


Michelle 14:00  

It's just been fantastic. So He really said his lesson was the job is what you make it. And there couldn't have been kind of a worse type of job. But one ended up one student hated it and said, I've been dealt a bad hand. And the other one said, this has been great and and what a great experience. So that's part of what we're working on in the class and teaching students


Michelle 14:26  

to get the most out of every experience. 



Wow, that's really great. I wish that I had the benefit of your counsel when I was 18 1920 years old. 



And there's also a great Ellen DeGeneres clip where she pits baby boomers against millennials. 



I've seen that 



and so I show that in class and say the person at the cubicle next to you may be a boomer and you're gonna you can't just say, OK, Boomer, like my younger daughter does, you have to embrace and engage and connect with those people. So


Michelle 15:01  

They're your network. They're your professional network. And so you want to make the most of those relationships on a professional level, but also on a personal level and ask how their daughter's soccer game went and, and share about yourself. So these are skills that only come through a six months Co Op. 



These sound like really important skills, they're learning that it can take a young professional years to learn some of these lessons on the job. 



Absolutely, absolutely. And, and for the employers. The benefit is that when you've been there for six months, you can really be contributing. So a summer internship by the time the intern kind of knows the lay of the land and understands the office, it's time to go back to school. Whereas here, when you're working for this kind of longer term, you can really be an important contributor to the office. So employers have really appreciated that piece of it too.


Amy 16:00  

Is there a way for students to kind of track their skills on in some kind of digital environment where they're tracking their skills, they're tracking, you know, their


Amy  16:13  

certifications, if they've gotten any that type of thing. 



There there is there's a really like hot off the press new initiative that I've been involved in, called sail. And it's It stands for self authored integrated learning. And it's a whole new platform that's evolving as we speak. But it is does exactly as you've just referenced, where students can track all their experiences, all their skills, they can see connections between their different skills, the skills that they've developed in different contexts, and then really map out where they strengths where their strengths lie and where they are looking to improve


Michelle 17:00  

It's it's a really exciting initiative. And, and I've been really excited to be a small part of it in my co op role.


Michelle 17:11  

But yeah, that's that's a really new piece newer piece that's that's


Michelle 17:16  

continued continuing to develop. 



Yeah. Because it seems to me that that any university that would want to implement this type of program would need some type of support like that, or, you know, an infrastructure that could help not only the students, but the faculty, the businesses that that, you know, to have some common digital platform where everyone could kind of


Amy  17:42  

do what they need to do. 



Yes, definitely. Definitely. 



That's great. Well, I think that's a great way to end. Thank you so much, Michelle. Sure. Really interesting, and I appreciate your being on the podcast and we'll catch up with you at North theaster


Michelle 18:00  

Excellent. Thank you very much.


Amy  18:08  

And thanks to all of you who've been listening, I hope this has been informative for you. This episode has been brought to you by Cantina, an innovation shop in Boston. We do strategy, design and development of digital products and experiences, working across industries to help organizations innovate and grow. Thanks again and we'll see you next time on upskilled solutions in the learning universe.


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