Could cooperative education close Israeli graduates' skills gap?

"In today’s world, you have excellent universities with excellent facilities and laboratories, and while all of that is necessary, it is simply no longer sufficient."

May 29, 2019 01:39
3 minute read.
Could cooperative education close Israeli graduates' skills gap?

Prof. Ami Moyal, president of Afeka Tel Aviv Academic College of Engineering (L) with Dr. Manny Contomanolis, Senior Associate Vice President Employer Engagement and Career Design at Northeastern University. (photo credit: OMER SHAPIRA)


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Among the 73,500 students commencing their undergraduate studies at Israeli universities and colleges during the 2017/18 academic year, more than 14,000 opted to pursue courses in engineering and architecture.

Fast-forward several years, and those same students will be seeking to take their first steps in the world of work, but faced with the well-known gap between graduate expectations and engineering industry requirements.

One approach to closing that gap, assisting students in their post-degree hunt for employment, is the method of cooperative education: combining classroom-based education with relevant industry. Among the historic champions of the method – first integrating a cooperative program as early as 1909 – is Boston’s Northeastern University.

Recognizing that the need to bridge the academia-employment gap is the same worldwide, Manny Contomanolis, senior associate vice president employer engagement and career design at Northeastern, arrived in Israel last week to present the model at the annual Conference for the Development of National Human Capital in Engineering, held at the Afeka Tel Aviv Academic College of Engineering.

“In today’s world, you have excellent universities with excellent facilities and laboratories. And while all of that is necessary, it is simply no longer sufficient,” Contomanolis told The Jerusalem Post.

“Graduates, especially engineering students, have to supplement that education with the ability to apply what they are learning to real-world problems and in real-world settings.”

Under Northeastern’s cooperative education model, higher education and industry partner to educate engineers. Students alternate periods of full-time study with full-time paid work assignments, usually in periods of six months and directly related to the learner’s field of study. The university boasts more than 850 engineering cooperative employers, including many internationally known firms.

“Much of the research in this arena demonstrates that students who go to work for one of their cooperative employers will stay longer with the company, will be promoted more quickly and benefit from being a part of a company culture, while still a student,” said Contomanolis.

“Most companies in the United States that participate have a goal of converting those cooperative students into full-time hires. In the meantime, they can have a flexible workforce, as a company can set aside several of their spots for cooperative students.”

While students benefit from gaining relevant experience and employers from tapping the best talent at an early stage, Contomanolis emphasizes that the cooperative method is also advantageous for the educational institution, where students remain for an additional year to complete their studies.

“If you think about the US marketplace, it’s very competitive. Universities compete for the best talent and these kinds of programs attract students, who can also earn while they’re doing their assignments,” he said.

“When they come back to university after gaining experience, they think about their classes in another way. Professors are teaching the concepts and the student has already seen how that works in the automotive or hi-tech industry, for example.”

Alon Barnea, VP of development of Afeka College and CEO of Afeka Yissumim, believes the adoption of the model in Israel would benefit the majority of engineering students who don’t serve in IDF’s elite hi-tech units.

“While the army does provide vital or soft skills to some extent, such as working in a team or an environment with unknown factors, soldiers don’t necessarily gain professional skills needed for working within an engineering organization,” Barnea told the Post.

“But adopting such a model won’t work if we simply add another year. Students already spend at least three years in the army and another big chunk of time when on their post-army trip, and we therefore need to tweak the model according to Israeli needs.”

Barnea hopes that the conference will assist the formulation of a nationwide program that will foster greater partnerships between academia and industry, with work placements potentially taking place during the long summer vacation period.

“If we think that such a program makes sense on a national level, let’s try to come up with a national incentive,” said Barnea. “Currently it’s not clear to the industry whether it’s worth hosting a student for three months. We’ll need to be creative.”

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