Tonight, I went with my boss and a kiwi student working at Trimble to give a presentation on how tertiary (post-secondary) institutions in Christchurch could partner with industry to establish some sort of co-op program.
First, my boss talked about how Trimble does it and the specific needs that Waterloo students fill (enthusiasm, available at any time of the year, cheap) and how he wishes there could be something similar in New Zealand. Then, I talked about Waterloo and the system in place there, as well as my personal experience with the system. Lastly, the kiwi student talked about how he started working in Trimble in spite of the lack of support from his university.
The audience was part of a local computing society and there were a variety of backgrounds. People came from tertiary institutions and from industry, were students and teachers, and had both good and bad things to say about co-op in New Zealand. Some debated that a similar system in New Zealand would cost too much to the universities. Others mentioned that, because most NZ companies were smaller, they didn't have the manpower in place to teach and bring students up to speed. The general idea was that co-op was a fantastic thing for both students, industry and universities...if certain systems in place.
I tend to agree. The system in Waterloo benefits from having a lot of established infrastructure. Co-op coordinators find employers to hire students. Companies like RIM hire co-op students and have systems in place to integrate them. Waterloo sets up its curriculum in preparation for students to go on co-op. All of these things are difficult to get up and running without a large initial investment and time to wait for that investment to pay off.
I think the key thing that is holding back co-op in New Zealand is government involvement. If government were to fund the first phase, universities could integrate a co-op system with their studies (at the moment, it would cost them too much to have a sizable chunk out of the classroom not paying tuition at one time and to offer classes twice - once for students aren't on co-op and once for students who would miss the class because of co-op) and could hire the full-time staff needed to ease the transition for the first co-ops. If this first round is a successful partnership between industry (they need to be willing to take in students as well), academia and government, then it can continue until proper systems are in place.
Successful co-op placements perpetuate the system. The students become ambassadors for the program; the employers see the benefits and become more competitive, prompting other employers to do the same; and the universities attract more students to the program to fill the seats of other students on co-op. Christchurch is the technology and entrepreneurship hub of New Zealand (so I'm told) and his a population 3.5 times Waterloo. It seems all it needs is a little push.