Even as early as 1896 W.N. Ferris was concerned with cooperative work experience as a proving ground to see if students could actually do the work in the real world and to see if they really liked the career they had chosen. Cooperative work experience also proved a good way to get his graduates placed, and a student working in a firm would have his foot in the door if a job opened.
At the Industrial, Ferris had set up model businesses in the Business Department, and for several weeks students worked in a mercantile situation or a banking situation. In a second actual business department (as Ferris named the work situations) the student worked in a business office, a freight office, a commercial exchange office, a wholesale office, a commission office and a bank. Each student was required to carry out all of the routine transactions common to these offices.
Students were warned that the teachers checked each transaction carefully and did not simply rubber stamp each week's work as having been completed. Telegraphy students (the Telegraphy Department was considered the first of the trades programs) were actually sent to railroad stations and other sending stations for practical experience. W.N. Ferris wrote to several stations a letter like this:
"I do not like to write you repeatedly for favors, but we have a telegraphy department in connection with this school. We limit the number, we discourage students in the matter of taking up the course; in fact, we wage war on it all the time.
"We are aware railroad companies have more telegraphers than they know what to do with now; nevertheless, we have a few worthy, faithful young men pursuing telegraphy. After they have been here four months we wish them to go into a railroad office and learn office work. I am aware some of your operators belong to a telegraphers' union; they will not consent to having a student in the office. I secured permission from the L.L. & N. to permit our students to get into offices wherever the operator does not have a personal objection. Of course I have sense enough to know you cannot have anyone experimenting or fouling up your line . . . ."
Probably the reason Ferris started the letter off with an apology for asking repeatedly for favors was that he was in constant communication with the railroads asking for permission to ride the freights so he could make better connections for his own travel and arranging for connections for students' travel to Big Rapids.