By Ed Brennen
When chemical engineering major Kelsey Martin landed a six-month co-op job with medical technology company Getinge Group her junior year, she expected to develop technical skills while getting her foot in the door with a potential future employer.
Earning thousands of dollars from the full-time position was also significant.
“The co-op absolutely changed my life,” says Martin, who continued working at Getinge’s Merrimack, N.H., location when her co-op was complete – right through her graduation last May. Martin is now an associate product development engineer for the company, where she also coordinates the onboarding program for new co-ops.
Martin’s experience is a familiar one for the hundreds of students who take advantage of the university’s Professional Cooperative Education program each year.
Since the 2013-14 academic year, more than 1,300 UML undergrads from the Francis College of Engineering, the Kennedy College of Sciences and the Manning School of Business have landed co-op positions at nearly 350 companies. With an average hourly wage of $19.70 and average six-month earnings of $18,505, students have collectively earned $24.4 million in co-op pay over the past five years.
“That’s a little better than working as a lifeguard in the summer,” says Director of Cooperative Education Rae Perry, who has seen participation in the program skyrocket from 28 students in 2009-10 to a record 431 students last year. “That kind of earned income can pay for a semester of school.”
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2018 Internship & Co-op Survey Report, the average hourly wage for co-op positions increased $1.36 last year to $19.35.
With student debt a growing issue nationwide, co-op earnings can help defray college costs.
“Students who make money in co-ops have a better likelihood of being able to pay for their education,” UMass President Marty Meehan said while visiting campus this fall for a student forum on college affordability.
“It’s a good opportunity to take a break, earn some money, put something into savings and then be in a better position when you go into your upper-level courses,” she says.
Over the last five years, 49 companies have each paid UML students more than $100,000 in co-op wages, while five companies have topped $1 million in pay: Getinge, Kronos Incorporated, Pfizer, Vicor Corporation and Draper. Students have worked in a variety of roles at the companies, including marketing, analytics, supply chain, human resources, engineering and computer science.
Kronos, which ranks No. 44 on Glassdoor’s annual list of the Top 100 Best Places to Work in the U.S., has hired 86 UML co-op students since 2010. Nearly 200 of the 1,500 local employees at the multi-national time-management software and cloud-solutions company are UML grads.
At Vicor, an Andover-based company that makes modular power converters, 66 UML students have been hired for co-op positions since 2013.
As one of “many” UML alumni working in technical operations at Vicor, Director of Operations Engineering Steve Sadler says it’s no coincidence that the company turns to the Francis College of Engineering to fill many of its 17 co-op positions every six months.
“We find the UML students come in ready and willing to work on anything we assign to them,” says Sadler, who earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology from UML in 1987 and has worked at Vicor for 28 years.
Most co-ops at Vicor work in engineering (automation, manufacturing or operations), but some work in the analytical services group. Sadler says they all “expand their knowledge base and relate what they are doing in school to the real, working world.”
They also greatly enhance their job prospects. Sadler says every associate engineer the company has hired in the past five years is a former co-op, either at Vicor or somewhere else.
Down the road at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, another alum, Wentao Wang, has helped build a steady pipeline of co-op talent from UML over the past decade.
Wang, an engineering and project manager at Pfizer, is a Double River Hawk who earned his bachelor’s (’97) and master’s (’99) degrees in chemical engineering. His department hires between six to 10 co-ops from UML every six months, conducting rounds of interviews at the Career & Co-op Center that have become known as “Pfizer Day.” He says other departments at Pfizer have seen their success and developed their own co-op programs with the university.
“UMass Lowell students have a strong work ethic and work well with the team,” says Wang, a member of the college’s Chemical Engineering Industrial Advisory Board. He sees the co-op program as a symbiotic relationship between industry and students.
“At Pfizer, we focus on top-quality products and lower price, so we try to be lean and mean,” Wang says. By having co-ops work on easy to intermediate-level projects, he says, “Our engineers have more time to work on more complex projects, which helps us.
“And students earn a good income while they learn,” Wang adds.
Ultimately, of course, the co-op experience can lead to the all-important job offer after graduation.
In a survey of 2017 graduates, the Career Services found that 95 percent of former co-op students were employed “upon or soon after” graduation. An additional 4 percent went on to graduate school.
“The employment numbers are very good for our co-op students,” says Perry, who adds that local employers, particularly alumni, “are thrilled that we are in the co-op business.”
“They’re happy to come back and hire our students and reconnect with the university,” Perry says. “And for our students to be making money while out on co-op to defer the cost of their education, and to do it in a field that’s going to help them get a job when the graduate, it’s a win for everybody on multiple levels.”