Internships and co-ops are the best ways to get practical, highly-valued experience in supply chain. An internship (or two or three!) or a single co-op (because it is a single, multi-semester program) will expand and test both your hard skills and soft skills. This article will help you understand the differences between internships and co-ops, why you should obtain one or the other, and help you understand when they typically take place.

Why Get a Supply Chain Internship or Co-op?

Attracting employers. Employers considering you for a full-time position after graduation will look first at your previous employment to see if you had practical, relevant experience in supply chain. If you weren’t fortunate enough to have already had a supply chain-related job prior to going to school, then your next best bet is an internship or a co-op. If you do a good job on your internship or co-op and are interested in continuing at the company, an offer is typically made to keep you after the company has been able to see what you can do. Employers increasingly look first at students with internships and will ask them in detail about their experiences.

Make classes more meaningful. When you come back from an internship or co-op, your classes will feel far different in the way you think about the subjects you study once you’ve seen how the principles are applied. You learn valuable skills and experiences in how companies operate and use what you are learning in class. Subjects are more relevant, your questions are better, and grades are typically higher.

Get some cash. Because internships and co-ops are typically well-paid, you can earn money for school and living expenses.

Internships vs. Co-ops

Although both are short-term, full-time employment, there are differences between them as follows:

Internships. Each internship happens for a semester. It is possible to spend multiple summers (or semesters) at the same company, but you can also get a variety of experiences by doing internships at multiple companies. They are shorter-term engagements rather than the longer-term co-op. Because of the shorter time frame, you don’t get as in-depth of experience, but many companies try to make their internships an experience that introduces you to multiple parts of the company or provides you with multiple types of assignments to see where you shine and where there might be a match in interests and capabilities.

Co-ops. A co-op typically happens over multiple semesters (three semesters is very common). Co-ops are the most in-depth experience, alternating in-school semesters with in-company semesters. They are intensive experiences that let you really get to know a company and for the companies to get to know you. Because you return to the company during each cycle, experiences build or the company may want to move you around to gain experience across different aspects of the company to help you grow and better evaluate your promise as a future performer or leader for them. Note that co-ops typically put you on the five-year plan or you may still be able to graduate in four years if you can take some intensive summer class sessions. However, it is typically worth it.

When Should I Have an Internship?

As soon as possible. And as many as possible. Internships are typically full-time, short-term (summer mostly, but can be during fall/spring semesters) positions. The most common time is the summer between your junior and senior years. But you can, and should, have more than one. Some students are even starting between their freshman and sophomore years, but the companies generally want you to have had some classes in your major that you can use on the job.

Start looking early. Don’t wait until it is almost summertime to decide you want an internship. Start looking well before summer, if that is your desired time, even as soon as fall classes have started.

Do more than one. If you have an opportunity to have two or more internships, do it. Your main question will be whether to find one at another company rather than spend a second internship at the same company. Our advice is to go for breadth of experience, but it depends on your career goals.

When Should I Have a Co-op?

Since co-ops are multi-semester experiences (typically three), they require more planning to work out the details of what semesters you will spend at the employer. Co-ops typically take place starting in the junior year, often spending a semester with an employer, then going back to school for a semester, then back to the employer, and so on until graduation. A co-op tends to extend your time in school an additional two semesters or more but makes you much more marketable to potential employers.

Schedule carefully. You have to determine when the classes will be offered that you need to graduate, then schedule the semesters with your employer. You don’t have to strictly alternate semesters between school and work. Sometimes students do two semesters in a row at an employer. You will likely have to develop a schedule with someone in your academic department that acts as an advisor, making sure your schedule of courses is realistic. The schedule is usually signed off and submitted to the career services office as well to help make sure your interests are being protected.

Take some classes online. If your department offers online classes, you may still be able to take some classes online while you are at the employer. It is a lot of work, but helps keep your graduation on track.

We hoped this outlined reasons why and when you should get a supply chain internship or co-op. We wish you luck pursuing opportunities! Check out our other article on how to find supply chain internships!