As the country was emerging from World War I a century ago, the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry created a cooperative education program to support the workforce.

It began with 152 engineering students, and was just the third of its kind in the United States.

Since then, the program, which places students at what is now Drexel University in paid six-month work experiences, has grown to be one of the largest in the country. More than 5,000 Drexel students work co-op jobs nationally and internationally annually, with a median salary of more than $18,000 for the half-year. More than 1,500 businesses, including Peco, JPMorgan Chase, Penn Medicine, Independence Blue Cross, and Comcast, participate.

Now, the program is operating during another world crisis, the pandemic, and despite economic turmoil, 78% of students scheduled to be on co-ops this spring and summer are in their jobs or will have a delayed start, though virtually all are working remotely.

“When you take a look at a 78% employment rate in the middle of a pandemic, where people have had literally no time to even plan ahead for this, I’m very, very happy about that,” said Ian Sladen, Drexel’s vice president of cooperative education and career development.

But, he said, it also means several hundred students haven’t been able to find a position. In a typical year, 96% would have one by this time, he said.

The challenges are significant. Drexel pulled the plug on international co-ops earlier this year as the virus spread, leaving about 200 students in search of other opportunities. Some co-ops that were delayed have since been canceled, as employers face financial struggles and difficulties with remote work.

Sladen said Drexel is continuing to work with students who don’t have co-ops. If students complete a professional development module, including advanced job search techniques, they will get academic credit for the co-op, he said.

“I feel very lucky to have gotten what I have,” said Iain Zwiebel, 20, a biomedical engineering major.

He started his co-op for Johnson & Johnson on time. The firm sent him a company laptop, and he spends his days working on the launch for a product line for an orthopedic device from his home in Nashville.

In the past, Drexel rarely approved remote work because the school wanted students to have hands-on supervision. The pandemic changed that.

Zwiebel was supposed to be working at the pharmaceutical company’s West Chester office. “I’m hoping by the end of the summer, I’ll be able to be there in person,” he said.

The co-op program was one of the main reasons Zwiebel and many others chose Drexel.

Irem Baytas’ co-op was so important to her that she stayed in the United States during the pandemic rather than returning to her native Istanbul, Turkey, before the borders closed.

“The co-op at Pfizer is something I’ve been looking forward to,” said Baytas, 22, an economics major, “because it’s one of the biggest pharmaceutical [companies], and also the position. It’s project management, and I’ve been wanting to try this out for a very long time.”

She started April 6 and is working on financial forecasts and budgets from her Philadelphia residence. Her manager helped her adjust, including one-to-one video call meetings several times a week, she said. The global team she works with also holds video conferences and conducts activities to keep up morale. When she started, all shared personal photos to get to know each other.

Iain Zwiebel, a Drexel student, works his co-op job for Johnson & Johnson from his home in Nashville.
Courtesy of Iain Zwiebel
Iain Zwiebel, a Drexel student, works his co-op job for Johnson & Johnson from his home in Nashville.

“They are really trying to keep up the communication," she said.

Co-ops are different from internships in that they run longer and, at Drexel, 83% come with pay, with employers helping to design the curriculum. The university recently raised $7.2 million for the program, with some funds to cover salaries of students working at nonprofit cultural institutions.

Students can get co-op jobs in just about any field. But that’s not how it began.

Started by Hollis Godfrey, president of the school, the program was just for engineering students. Then, during the Great Depression, the school approached smaller employers. By 2005, there were 1,000 co-op programs nationally, serving about 200,000 students. At Drexel, 92% of eligible students participate; freshmen and seniors are not eligible.

Because of co-op, most students take five years to earn degrees, working three co-ops during that time. Students do not pay tuition while on co-op.

Nearly half of co-op participants working full-time receive job offers from a former employer, the university said.

That was a draw for Matthew Rantz, 21, a computer engineering major.

“The co-op program opens up a number of networking opportunities,” Rantz said.

He now works from his home in Pottstown for Centauri, a software and engineering technology firm. Every day, he’s had plenty of web application projects to work on and learn from, he said.

"Centauri has been really good about making sure I can get as much as I can out of this co-op,” he said.