The multiplying effect: how university co-operative education programmes can create wins for young people, our economy, and society as a whole

CUHK Co-operative Education Programme

Over two years ago, the pandemic seized complete control over our lives. What has come afterwards is a wave of changes to all aspects of human life – a heightened focus on health, re-prioritized travelling habits, a boom in the biomedical industry, and so forth. The pandemic environment, or more commonly known as the new normal, has also exerted profound impact on the future of work, with organizations putting added emphasis on speeding up digital transformation, resulting in new developments in the workplace. Labour mobility is on the rise as more and more employers are adopting a hybrid mode of work. The labour market has also seen a surge in demand for new skills in the post-pandemic era. 

It comes without surprise that the more competitive job applicants are those with strong technical knowledge. The demand is high in Hong Kong too, with information technology, biotechnology, logistics, transportation, engineering and construction among sectors reporting skills shortages across the city. While China’s innovative industries continue to thrive, the shortage of skilled workers is set to accelerate over time, as the share of skilled workers accounts for only 30% of the national workforce and the population gets older. However, employers are looking for talent beyond people who can master new technology, but people with creativity, originality and business acumen who are able to apply technology with agility to help organizations transform effectively for an uncertain future in the new normal. 

Every year, approximately 30,000 graduates from Hong Kong’s publicly funded universities enter the job market. Ideally, this ample supply of fresh graduates could serve as a panacea to address the talent shortage in Hong Kong, provided that the graduates possess the skills required by employers. A fortunate fact is that local employers do recognize the work performance of university graduates. According to a survey commissioned by the Education Bureau in 2019, about 97% of the surveyed employers were satisfied with the overall performance of first-degree graduates. Graduates were found to perform the best in terms of their work attitude, information technology literacy and language proficiency. Yet they can improve on their soft skills, which ranked the lowest in the survey, with analytical and problem-solving abilities, self-learning ability and self-confidence and management skills being perceived as the worst-performing competencies. 

To enhance the competitiveness of university students in Hong Kong so as to meet the long-term needs of the local labour market, it is necessary to develop the in-demand soft skills among them, apart from hard skills that are usually well covered in conventional university curricula. This can be achieved through industry-institution collaboration. In fact, employers have expressed a general willingness to participate in such collaborations by means of arranging internship programmes, pre-employment training, skills development or mentoring for undergraduates, as revealed in the government-commissioned survey. In recent years, collaboration between universities and businesses to enable students to gain valuable workplace experience before graduation, also known as co-operative education or work-integrated learning, has been gaining momentum around the world. 

An example from Hong Kong is the ‘CUHK Co-operative Education Programme’ (‘Co-op@CUHK’) launched by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), with its first cohort officially kicking off at an event this week. The first of its kind among local universities (and modelled on highly successful programmes from places such as North America’s Waterloo, Drexel and Northeastern Universities and Australia’s University of New South Wales, the university-wide and pan-disciplinary credit-bearing experiential learning programme aims to cater for the unmet needs of the evolving new economy. Co-op@CUHK aims to bridge the knowledge gap between textbook theory and real life practices by setting up formal eight-month full-time and paid workplace training in reputed global companies with local operations, fresh start-ups, non-profitmaking organizations and statutory bodies for penultimate and final-year students. 

Over 60 multinational companies, local businesses and government agencies have signed up for the initiative already, indicating strong demand for this approach as Hong Kong looks to transform its economy. And this is just the beginning – we are already looking at expanding the scheme to the Guangdong – Hong Kong – Macau Greater Bay Area, and exploring international partnerships with universities around the world. 

The benefits of a co-operative education programme are immense. Students can jumpstart their career exploration and hone their competitive edge as the work experience will equip them with industry insights, technical knowledge directly transferrable to their future career and much sought-after soft skills, such as teamwork, adaptability and management skills, and provide them with the opportunity to establish essential professional connections. Employers will gain access to a high potential student labour pool that will be a good fit for addressing their future staffing needs. In addition, employers who are committed to the social responsibility of propelling young talent’s education will enjoy the advantage of an enhanced corporate image and augmented reputation. In the long run, co-operative education will contribute to social stability and economic productivity as it helps to tackle skills shortage in the city and lower youth unemployment rate by enhancing the competitiveness of university graduates. 

Co-operative education creates a triple win for university students, employers, and the community. It can serve as a viable solution that injects impetus to the long-term development of our city by building local expertise that best caters for the unique needs of our labour market.