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+ By Margaret Loftus


Industry internships can boost students’ skills and confidence – and keep them in engineering.

Starting that first job out of college can be nerve-racking, but newly minted civil engineer Kyle Kwiatkowski arrived cool and collected when he began work as a project engineer for Clark Construction in Washington, D.C. Any job butterflies had already been vanquished when he interned for the Dubai Construction Co. the previous summer. “The projects we were on in Dubai were pretty impressive. That helped me starting out here,” the Syracuse University graduate says. “[Internships] go such a long way to help you prepare for industry. They are pretty invaluable.”

Whether they work for a summer like Kwiatkowski or a semester, savvy engineering students have long depended on internships to earn some cash and gain a leg up in the job world. But increasingly, academia and industry are recognizing internships as key to addressing the country’s engineering exodus. Experiential education, proponents claim, can help reduce the staggering 40 percent dropout rate of STEM majors and groom fresh grads to hit the ground running as they fill the shoes of retiring boomers. Schools are finding new ways to support internships, and industry is showing more interest. At a meeting of President Obama’s jobs and competitiveness council in September, some 40 major companies agreed to double their number of engineering internships to 6,300 in a bid to retain and graduate 10,000 more engineers a year. Texas Instruments, for one, recently increased its engineering internships by nearly 60 percent.

The push is supported by research showing that engineering students who’ve interned are more likely to work as professionals in a related field. Among new engineering grads at Iowa State University between 1996 and 2009, 80 percent of those with a summer internship under their belt reported postgraduate plans that included a job or graduate study related to their major, compared with 54 percent of those with no work experience. The longer the experience, the higher the percentage: Eighty-three percent of those with semester-long internships and 90 percent of those with co-op experience ended up in engineering or a related pursuit.

Internships engage students in a way that’s difficult to replicate in a classroom. “They go through lectures and labs, but internships give them a sense of reality of what engineering is,” explains Gerard Jones, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of mechanical engineering at Villanova University’s College of Engineering. And that’s just the hook many students need to stay the course, says Leah Jamieson, dean of engineering at Purdue University, one of a handful of deans who met with the president’s job council Aug. 31. “There’s always the question ‘What will I do with what I’m learning?’” adds Jamieson. The more opportunity that students have to get good glimpses of that, she says, the better it is for retention.

“I have a more specific idea of what I want to do, whereas some of my peers still have no idea.” – Villanova University senior Cynthia Schrank, describing how an internship steered her toward biomedical engineering Anecdotally, interns report being more enthusiastic about their studies and future. For Villanova chemical engineering senior Cynthia Schrank, an internship in immunology at the University of Connecticut Health Center last summer clinched her hunch that biomedical engineering was her calling. “It helped direct my interest. I have a more specific idea of what I want to do, whereas some of my peers still have no idea.” As a Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) scholarship recipient who’s done three consecutive internships at the Naval Air Systems Command, fellow Villanova student Emberle Lawson finds her industry experience motivates her in the classroom. “When you know exactly where you’re going, you never have room to slack off. It definitely focuses you,” says Lawson, a junior in mechanical engineering.

What’s more, interns have the opportunity to develop communication and other professional skills highly sought by employers. Schools started to recognize this back in the early 1990s, says Jamieson, prompted by feedback from industry. “They said, ‘Your students have great engineering skills, but they don’t have professional skills.’ Internships are one of the best understood ways we can increase this capacity.” She adds that in postgraduate surveys, alumni report that they use communication skills more than anything else in their jobs.

The ability to establish networks has become crucial, particularly in firms where new hires are replacing retirees. “When [retired engineers] walk out the door, the attrition to the organizational network is astounding. The ability of young people to come in and rapidly establish working relationships is essential,” says Larry Hanneman, director of engineering career services at Iowa State University. “The expectations for students graduating today are at the level of someone with five years experience five years ago. It is essentially impossible to simulate that practice field in a classroom.”

How schools deliver these experiences varies from traditional co-ops to unique work/study hybrids. Most students at Boston’s Northeastern University graduate in five years, a period that accommodates three six- month-long co-ops. One of the pioneers of the concept a century ago, the school now places 7,000 students in co-ops with 2,800 companies worldwide each year. Northeastern Provost Stephen Director says that a full six months is essential for a meaningful experience. Shorter stints are limited in value, he argues. “It takes them a month to figure out where things are and then they have to leave,” he says. “Six months is deep; they’re considered full-time employees.” Multiply that experience by three and you’ve got a more seasoned student. Director adds,“Teaching students who have gone out on co-op is different. They are much more mature.” And hirable: Most get job offers from at least one of the companies for which they’ve worked.

Still, some students want options. Iowa State revamped its internship offerings 15 years ago to include the full range: the classic co-op, semester-long experiences, and summer internships. Today, 83 to 85 percent of Iowa State engineering students graduate having had a co-op or internship, and 50 percent of them have had more than one experience. As a result, most engineering students forgo interviewing their senior year because they already have a job lined up. More than half of the interviews on campus are for internships. Says Hanneman, “The employers’ identification of talent and relationship-building has moved into freshmen and sophomores.”

Other schools have incorporated industry experience on campus. At Villanova’s Multidisciplinary Design Lab, launched last year, engineering seniors spend a year working on capstone research projects alongside mentors from industry partners. In one of these so-called in-house co-ops, a team of students is working with Boeing to develop “swarming” robots that communicate with one another. While not mission critical, the projects are real and not academic exercises – a win-win for everyone, says Jones. “The students get a good sense of what it’s like to work for that company, and the company gets a good chance to get to know the students.”

At Syracuse in 2007, Kyle Kwiatkowski was part of an inaugural group of civil engineering students who participated in an internship that sends juniors to the Middle East for an intensive course in construction management. At the Dubai Construction Co., founded by SU alum Abdallah Yabroudi, the team is immersed in all aspects of the business, from touring work sites and pitching in with projects, to getting lessons from DCC staff and SU faculty on the operational end of the industry, such as financials. The stint lasts only six weeks, but Kwiatkowski says the experience made all the difference in his career choice: “It went a long way to showing the potential of working in construction as well as the bigger picture down the road and how fun it can be.”

Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Boston.




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