When chemical engineering students graduate, they face a career dilemma other recent grads would kill for. Should they go into oil refining or biotechnology? Pharmaceuticals, nuclear energy or the food industry? Process development or project management? Whether they’re investigating toxins in our oceans or researching polymers in space, for new chemical engineers looking for employment the sky is literally the limit.

Alex Upenieks, a third-year student in the chemical engineering program at the University of Waterloo, has already made up his mind about how his future will unfold. 

“I have a very specific plan,” Upenieks says. “I hope to go into medicine and use chemical engineering as a pathway for that. Surprisingly, there aren’t many chemical engineers in medicine but engineering is very applicable.”

At Waterloo, Upenieks’ decision to venture into unchartered territory isn’t all that unique. The chemical engineering students are known for pushing boundaries, whether they’re examining the adhesive properties of gecko footpads or creating new ways to detect pathogens using our in-house water treatment plant. With one of Canada’s largest undergraduate programs in chemical engineering, we’ve worked hard to merge theoretical research learning with co-operative education. 

Both students and employers say it’s Waterloo’s world-renowned co-op program — the first of its kind in Canada — that creates success. There’s a 90 percent hire rate, buoyed by career-counselling support, and students graduate with two years of paid job experience. All engineering students must participate in six co-op terms and become active employees in corporations, small businesses, non-profits and government offices. 

Unlike other internship programs where students work for one employer, Waterloo believes in giving students room to explore through diverse work terms with different employers. Some of the co-op students do return to the same company term after term because they are given progressively more challenging work. 

Ideas generated on those work terms are often brought back to the university and incubated. Waterloo’s unique intellectual property policy enables the inventor to own their idea and have the freedom to launch entrepreneurial ventures that showcase their innovation. 
The program also helps potential employers get a better sense of who they might eventually hire. This is particularly important for companies such as Hatch Ltd., a professional services firm for the mining, metallurgical, energy and infrastructure sectors with project experience in over 150 countries. Hatch has hired about 200 Waterloo co-op students since 2004. Amar Grewal, the company’s talent acquisition manager, explains that in the war for talent, competition for excellent chemical engineering grads comes not just from its own direct competitors but from technology and financial services firms, too. “I love that the chemical engineering education is flexible and can be applied in various Hatch sectors,” Grewal says. “Their skills are highly transferrable since students have a deep education in mathematics, material science, chemistry and physics.” 

It’s estimated that 10 percent of all working chemical engineers in Canada today graduated from Waterloo. Knowing our influence, we’re cognizant that we must stay current and address industry’s challenges, whether we’re building more process safety and life sciences into the curriculum, or updating labs in our 10,684 square metres of new space.  

That ability for students to develop a hands-on and visual experience with the latest equipment, combined with their theoretical studies, means new graduates are entering their fields prepared to make a significant contribution from the start of their careers. Upenieks has found that to be true already. During one of his co-op terms at a pure chemistry lab, his employer asked him to repair an evaporator unit. Undaunted, Alex thought back to what he learned in his thermodynamics, materials science and fluid mechanics courses and developed a plan. It worked. “I couldn’t imagine being successful in that task without having an understanding of chemical engineering,” Upenieks says. “That knowledge helped me immensely.” 

Christine Moresoli is the associate dean, Co-operative Education & Professional Affairs for the Faculty of Engineering at the University­ of Waterloo. Visit uwaterloo.ca/hire to learn more about the co-operative education program or to hire a student.