Insights to the benefits of internships for both students and the employing companies are discussed
Internships have become an important part of the professional landscape. Both students and companies in the chemical process industries (CPI) benefit from the relationship. For students, it is a great way to gain hands-on experience and supplement their engineering education, while starting to build a resume (Figure 1). The experience also provides an assessment of different technical areas that may provide focus when the student is seeking a long-term job.
For companies, internships provide needed labor for lingering tasks that are often pushed aside during a busy production schedule. Interns may, for example, be able to automate tasks that are unnecessarily cumbersome. CPI companies are also able to assess interns as possible candidates for long-term employment. Internships take effort on both sides to be productive, but the overall benefit for students and companies is immeasurable and can be a win-win relationship.
An internship, as discussed in this article, is a temporary work assignment for students that typically occurs during the summer break, but may take place at other prescribed time periods throughout the school year. Interns are generally paid an hourly wage and work in areas relevant to their engineering education. An earlier article written by the author, “Career Guidelines for Young Engineers” [ 1], stresses many of the key points that engineering students should focus on as they pursue an engineering career. This article provides additional information, specifically about internships. By mentoring students, the author has gained valuable insight into the benefits and challenges of students pursuing internships. Through a 44-year engineering career, he has worked with countless interns and knows the upside of working with these students in a corporate setting. This background provides an excellent foundation for providing a viewpoint on internships, a key aspect of engineering training and company staffing.
As companies take on their engineering workloads, it is strategically wise to assign work based on difficulty and engineer capability. It is not very efficient to have the more experienced engineers doing common-place tasks. Internships offer the possibility for the more routine tasks to be assigned to students with a solid technical base, but limited technical depth. From a commercial standpoint, this is most efficient and can preserve limited budgets. Interns are able to perform routine tasks with limited guidance and are able to learn engineering techniques in the process.
While interns may not offer the technical depth of experienced engineers, they do provide the opportunity to introduce innovations to companies. These may result from their coursework revealing more efficient computational techniques, or from information technology (IT) techniques that may be new. Students tend to stay abreast of technology changes and often have an interest in this area. It is a natural fit for interns to assist a company in automating tasks. For example, it has been the author’s experience that interns can add significant value by developing computational spreadsheets or tracking tools.
Internships offer companies the possibility for off-line focus groups to address lingering issues or to devise process improvements. Generally, full-time staff is consumed with ongoing work and cannot devote time to step aside to assess and modify processes. Interns provide the opportunity to interject unbiased viewpoints and manpower to address off-line issues. One possibility is to bring together a few interns under the guidance of an experienced engineer and allow them controlled reign to assess situations. The end result of such an exercise is a report by the intern(s), and often a presentation to staff. This is a great benefit to the company, and offers considerable training to the students.
Finally, internships offer companies the opportunity to assess the capabilities of potential long-term hires (Figure 2). By witnessing the daily performance of students, companies go beyond a snapshot of a candidate and get an in-depth view of their capabilities. The author’s experience is that some of the best hires have come through internships. These new hires are schooled in company processes and can be productive as soon as they join the company following graduation.
The student perspective
An engineering education covers the breadth of technical topics that are necessary to become an effective engineer, but training is not complete until experience can be realized. The most effective means to do this is to engage in internships during breaks in coursework. This allows students to apply academic coursework, and to gain insight into the professional life of an engineer. The interaction of peers and working as a team is generally not covered in the classroom. This is key to be effective in the engineering profession. An internship also permits the student to enhance communication skills, which are crucial in the workplace.
The author’s intern experience many years ago allowed him to get a much needed look at the real world of engineering. This experience made him realize how important a good education foundation is, but also emphasized the need to shift gears to work in a team environment. As opposed to the classroom, the work environment stressed the need to deal with inputs of others, and to provide timely outputs to others. Schedule, quality and budget received the focus he never saw in school, and this became a foundation throughout his career. Now, in mentoring students, providing focus on internships is the hallmark of any advice he provides to engineering students.
One of the great benefits of internships is the ability to look at different technical areas and develop insight into the area that a student may prefer upon graduation. Ideally, multiple internships are possible during a student’s education, and with each, the student should strive to work in a different area. For example, perhaps on a first internship the student can work in a design office, and then with a later internship work in construction in the field. The more variety that is achieved through internships, the greater cross section a student will have in choosing his or her career path within the engineering discipline. Finding a path that fits each individual can be vexing, and the more data points that are available, the greater the chance that an apropriate career choice will be made.
The author has reviewed countless resumes of graduating engineers seeking that first job, and those that stand out are the ones that show experience (even though minor) in their field. Competition is intense for a first job, and graduates must make every effort to distinguish themselves. Scholastics are important, but companies are looking for candidates who have at least some level of workforce training. Internships provide that threshold experience. Interns should keep an open mind to the thought of being hired long-term by a company that has hired them temporarily. By going above and beyond on assignments, interns can distinguish themselves, and receive serious consideration for a long-term position.
Finally, internships allow the students to earn some much needed money. Costs are generally staggering for students and earning money along the way helps with these costs. However, even if the only internship available is non-paid, the author strongly urges students to consider such a position. Experience is valuable and a differentiator down the road upon graduation. Students concluding their freshman year may have limited opportunities for an internship, and an offer to work at no pay may result in an early prized internship.
Making the match
Finding that internship match between student and company may be a challenge (Figure 3). A first start is for students to utilize university career centers. Companies will generally post their intern openings, and often attend job fairs sponsored by the schools. There are also websites that focus on internships and these can be used to seek out numerous companies, even international opportunities. These websites can be identified by simply searching the internet for “engineering internships.” The department leadership in an engineering school is also a source of internship placement, since sometimes they will be contacted with such opportunities.
In two articles the author noted the importance of networking in today’s competitive job market [ 1, 2]. Constant networking is the new norm in the professional world, as the dynamics of finding and holding a job have been exasperated. Through school contacts, faculty, friends and possible mentors, there may be leads to potential internships. These relationships should be built, and the school days are a good time to start. Networking is a give-and-take process, so perhaps a student will hear of leads that will help a colleague, while also gaining information that may help him or herself.
Once opportunities are identified, students should focus on crisp resumes and thoughtful and brief cover letters. For people just starting a career, there may not much experience to include. However, a demonstration of previous work, even if not related to engineering, shows companies that there is a solid work ethic. Remember, competition is keen, so it is important to include facts that are differentiators. Highlighting how you are a good fit is important to set you apart. For example, perhaps you have completed special course work or projects that align with company business. If an interview is achieved, candidates should be sure to have full knowledge of the company. This can be gained via an internet search and should include awareness of core businesses, knowledge of major clients, approximate annual revenue and even management structure. The author has interviewed countless candidates, and those that demonstrate knowledge of the company distinguish themselves by showing strong company interest and how they will be a fit. ■
Edited by Dorothy Lozowski
1. Rentschler, C., Career Guidelines for Young Engineers, Chem. Eng., pp 56–59, January 2018.
2. Shahani, G. and Rentschler, C., An Engineer’s Guide to Networking, Hydrocarbon Process., pp. 21–23, August 2016.
Carl Rentschler, P.E., is an engineering consultant specializing in project management, business development, client relationship management and procedure development (210 Main Street, Akron, PA 17501; Phone: 717-951-4772; Email: email@example.com). He has more than 40 years of varied engineering and management experience (in the power and petrochemical fields) with three international EPC companies. He holds a B.S. in civil engineering from Penn State University and an M. Eng. from Cornell University.
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