Bridging the gap

University co-operative education programs offer engineering students valuable, hands-on experience in their chosen field, a crucial component to help bridge the gap between school, the workplace and the required 48 months’ experience to become a professional engineer. We reflect on why optional pre-graduation work placements are worthwhile.

Picture this: You’re 15 or 16 years old. Your best marks in high school are in math and science classes, and your physics teacher suggests you pursue engineering in university because you’re so good at it. You apply to a few engineering programs, and you’re accepted to all of them. You choose your favourite school, and four years later you’ve earned your undergraduate degree. Perhaps you’re 21 or 22.

You’re ready to start applying for jobs so you can make money and bank those mandatory 48 months’ experience to get your P.Eng.—except you have no clue how to apply for an engineering job.

Although you learned a lot through the university engineering program, the professors didn’t necessarily teach you how to write a cover letter or a resumé or the steps to getting a job in the real world, especially without relevant experience.

Does this sound familiar? It’s the same daunting challenge facing today’s engineering graduates as they prepare to leave school and head straight into the workforce, albeit with the challenges of LinkedIn and instant communication. If only they had had some engineering-related work experience prior to graduation, along with guidance around the so-called “soft skills” necessary for their careers.

Engineers Canada President Annette Bergeron, P.Eng., FEC, refers to “escaping the bubble of the classroom”: the ability to get hands-on professional experience prior to finishing your engineering degree. It’s a subject Bergeron feels passionate about: Earlier this year, she provided testimony on behalf of Engineers Canada to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities. In her testimony, Bergeron advocated for “mandatory and paid post-secondary engineering co-op placements in institutions where they do not currently exist.” According to Bergeron, only five out of the 24 Canadian engineering programs have mandatory co-operative education programs—although it should be noted that many engineering programs offer optional co-op streams.

Bergeron believes placements help guide students to choose their specialty. The 2015 Engineers Canada Labour Market Study reported that because many baby boomer–aged engineers will retire over the next five years, “universities are granting an increasing number of engineering degrees to Canadian and international students….” Certain engineering sectors—civil and computer engineering, for example—have greater need for new engineers.

Bergeron also recommended the federal government provide subsidies to encourage employers to host engineering co-ops, extend co-ops to international students and create an up-to-date database of engineering co-ops. Co-ops and internships, Bergeron told the committee, “are crucial in developing an engineering student’s professional network while simultaneously providing opportunities to gain relevant work experiences.”

Bergeron told Engineering Dimensions that paid co-ops and internships help students lower their student debt and gain valuable work skills that aren’t learned in the vacuum of school. “The most important asset is self-confidence,” she notes, adding that time management and communication are different in the workforce than school.“And the organizational skills are different than studying for exams and writing lab reports.” When asked if an engineering student’s work co-op should be like medical students’ residences or law students’ articling, Bergeron gave considerable insight: “[Those] placements are after graduation, so it’s different. For engineers, we want it to be integrated, because afterwards, we already have the four-year work requirement for licensure. If they’re having trouble, the benefit of a co-op is that you get the skills while you’re still in the bubble.”

What does an engineering graduate look like today, compared to when PEO’s veteran engineers graduated? Engineers Canada’s Final Year Engineering Students 2017 Survey–National Results shares select demographics, hopes and fears of students graduating with undergraduate degrees in engineering across the country and comparable results of the two previous years. Among the highlights:

  • 57 per cent don’t have a job offer upon graduation;
  • 26 per cent said finding a job was the biggest barrier to entering the engineering workforce;
  • 31 per cent of grads who feel very or somewhat prepared to enter the engineering workforce said it is because of their co-op, work term or internship;
  • 60 per cent used on-campus resources to find a job; and
  • 52 per cent used a mentor, usually from a co-op, to find a job.

PEO has long recognized that co-op placements can play a vital role in an engineering student’s development. In fact, of the 48 months’ experience licence applicants require to become a P.Eng., up to 12 months can come from co-op work experiences related to their area of study and practice and completed prior to graduation. PEO’s EIT and student programs coordinator, Sami Lamrad, EIT, says co-op students’ experiences are assessed the same as post-graduation work experience but PEO takes into consideration that “at this stage of their development it’s all about getting exposure to acceptable engineering experience.” And PEO encourages students to carry over their experiences to the EIT program: If you apply within six months of graduation through the Financial Credit Program, PEO may waive your licence application fee and the annual EIT registration fee for the first year.

Because a large majority of engineering students rely on assistance from their university’s campus resources to find work, there is perhaps merit to Bergeron’s claim that “engineering co-ops provide opportunities to gain relevant work experiences.”

Engineering Dimensions spoke with Ontario university co-op representatives who work closely with engineering students to gauge how they help these young future engineers to gain work experience and, perhaps more importantly, the crucial communication and networking skills needed to gain employment within the industry. We also interviewed a co-op host about the benefits of working with students, and we highlight the accomplishments of students who participated in paid co-op placements.

The University of Guelph has an active co-op program through its co-operative education and career services office. Approximately half of engineering students participate in the program, which includes one four-month and two eight-month-long work terms that begin after the students’ second year.

Before their work terms begin, students complete an introductory co-op course that highlights cover letter and resumé writing, job searches, social media and interview skills. “They’re very driven; they’re very project driven,” Sheila Hollidge, a co-op coordinator for the bachelor of engineering programs, says about Guelph’s engineering students, noting the co-op program is well developed. During the students’ job search, Hollidge and the co-op team send out job postings from employers and coach students on their networking and interviewing skills. The coordinators also work closely with current and new employers on securing valuable work experiences for the students—most placements are within a one-hour drive of the university, although students have gone as far as Nunavut, the United States and Africa.

Hollidge points out one of the many strengths of the engineering co-op student is their ability to communicate effectively: “With an emphasis on project design, our students are team players,” she says. “This translates naturally into the workplace where collaboration is the key to success.”

As part of their co-op requirements, students complete a work term report detailing engineering skills and attributes they’ve applied during their four- and eight-month work terms. “This report provides the opportunity for students to consider their experience in some depth and is a worthwhile approach to enhance learning and career planning,” Hollidge says. “In addition, the content of the report can be used by students when they complete the PEO pre-graduation experience record.”

In response to the significance of co-op, Hollidge says: “The objective of the co-op experience is to provide students the opportunity to explore a variety of work environments with engineering employers. We are fortunate to work with a wide range of co-op employers who help mentor our students during their work term and hire them after they’ve graduated.”

At Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, all students learn team skills in their design courses and approximately half the students take advantage of the university’s professional development programs, with a quarter of engineering students choosing to participate in paid internships. Queen’s works closely with over 400 organizations that host students, although “students are encouraged to gain experience networking; this can translate to great success finding their own hosts,” says Brian Frank, PhD, P.Eng., associate dean, teaching and learning, at Queen’s faculty of engineering and applied science. “[Internships] give students an excellent opportunity to experience a full year of engineering projects; it gives them an excellent view of what their career can look like after they graduate…[they] come back to class with a new perspective on how their classroom learning applies to the workplace.”

According to Chelsea Elliot, P.Eng., director of corporate relations, faculty of engineering and applied science at Queen’s, students don’t necessarily know how to write an engineering resumé. With very little engineering-related work experience, Queen’s students are encouraged to write resumés that include descriptions of design projects at school and extra-curricular activities. They’re helped to write a cover letter and coached through the interview process. And when they’re on-site, they’re coached on work etiquette and how to work with people. “I have a goal to change the word ‘soft skills’ to ‘professional skills.’ It’s a life-long skill set,” Elliot says.

Tej Gidda, PhD, P.Eng., vice president of GHD, a consulting company with a focus on resource recovery and waste solutions, is an enthusiastic supporter of hosting engineering co-op students. “We’ve done it for years, and it’s a benefit because you get to test the students, and the students get to test you. They like what they’re doing, you like what they bring to the table. And quite a few of them come back for multiple co-ops. We’ve hired a whole pile of them.”  

Gidda is quick to point out that a repeat co-op or an employment offer isn’t a given: Some students don’t work out, saying four- and eight-month placements allow him the opportunity to assess students’ comfort at GHD.

“It’s the enthusiasm more than anything else,” Gidda says about his expectations of students’ work experiences in engineering. “We do non-traditional consulting work in areas where we wouldn’t count on co-op students to have a lot of experience or schooling. But if they’re willing to jump right in and learn it, they do quite well and can come back full-time.”

Nevertheless, even though co-op students may not have vast professional engineering experience, the soft skills still matter to Gidda. “Most of the schools I see do training on cover letters and stuff,” Gidda says. “Every once in a while, you see one that’s so poorly written you know you’re not going to hire them. But that’s rare now. Most people have a reasonable one. We want somebody with particular knowledge in what they’re applying for and not just wanting a job. You can pick that up right away. Research the company; that’s the easy thing to do. If they’re applying for a particular position and [they’ve put effort into looking up that job], it shows. That’s not something everybody does.”

A student in the electrical and electronics engineering stream at Queen’s University, Shayla Klinger’s bachelor of applied science will be her second undergraduate degree. She previously earned a combined honours science degree with a major in neuroscience, where she graduated with high distinction. Klinger, who is seemingly never at a loss for words, sounds like a glutton for punishment for enrolling in two programs that most people would find demanding. But there’s a reason for the switch: “I was planning on working with deaf people and working with ear implants, and I needed to get an engineering background to work on implants,” she explains. “I realized I liked to work with customers to provide solutions.” Her 16-month paid internship, which is just wrapping up, is at Aviation and Defense IFS (AnD IFS), a software company that specializes in financial systems, maintenance and supply. Klinger is a solutions analyst, meaning she is involved in helping to develop solutions for the software that allow aviation maintenance departments to communicate throughout the inspection process of a plane. The goal is to reduce ground time and increase the safety, reliability and efficiency of airplane maintenance checks. “For an airplane to be released, you have to do a walkaround,” Klinger says. “We make sure the materials are there.” It’s a complex system to design, she says, because engineers, planners and mechanics are all doing work and need to be able to communicate with each other. And customers want their plane to leave on time. Although the placement sounds unrelated to her neuroscience background, Klinger states the co-op “led me to realize the focus [of my studies].”

Klinger notes she was proactive in finding her own internship when the opportunity presented itself: Queen’s internships normally start after the third year, but she began after her second year. She introduced herself to the AnD IFS contact, who was impressed with Klinger’s medical internship, so they created a position for her. But it wasn’t a guaranteed position, and Klinger notes, “I have Chelsea [Elliott] to thank for where I’m at.” Elliott and Queen’s University career services taught Klinger key job-seeking skills, including saying your name at a job fair, having your resumé ready and interview tips. “I cannot express how much I’ve enjoyed it,” she says. “They’ve helped me realize I want to focus on the business and solutions side. They have the mentality of ‘Let’s see what you can do.’” She’s grateful she has been treated like any other employee, not just in responsibility but in pay, for she has benefits and a travel bonus. “Before [the internship], you don’t know what you want. Before, I thought, ‘Finish school; get a job.’ Now I know how to work.” But most of all, Klinger is grateful she was able to work on a project from nearly the beginning to almost its fruition. “Even when I’m gone, I’ll know I made an impact…I was fortunate enough to work with people high enough in the company who know I’m competent. You need a lot of acknowledgement. The internship let me know.”

Katie Gwozdecky, a recent graduate of the University of Toronto’s mechanical engineering program, has a single-minded determination to work in space, and it shows in her work and schooling. This past May, she won a Rising Star Award from Northern Lights Aero Foundation (see p. 41), no doubt in part because of her role as director of the University of Toronto Aerospace Team’s (UTAT’s) space systems division, a student-led group that, among other things, builds sounding rockets and components for small satellites. While there, she actively rallied for a student levy that raised almost half-a-million dollars to launch their amateur satellite, HERON MKII, which is scheduled to be launched into space next year by the Indian Space Research Organization to conduct microbiology experiments.

Her year-long internship, done during her third year, was at Synaptive Medical, where she worked on the development of a neurosurgical system. And although she was primarily responsible for the design of the power distribution system and the customer-facing connector panel, “it wasn’t exactly the area I was interested in, but it taught me a lot. I felt like I was part of a team. It taught me what matters in a job, and I developed new skills,” Gwozdecky says. Throughout the internship, she devoted her free time to aerospace. However, it was her other placement, which she completed in 2015 after her second year, where Gwozdecky found her calling. At MDA (Maxar) in Brampton, she relished the opportunity working on medical robotics, testing and building prototypes for flight-bound hardware. “Working at MDA, [I] had to learn a lot. Plus, I learned to work with people of different age groups and skill sets. Work is a lot more creative [than school]. I was accomplishing to-do lists.” 

Gwozdecky spent this past summer at Sinclair Interplanetary and returned to the University of Toronto this fall to complete her master’s degree. For her master’s, she’ll be doing her work at Space Flight Laboratory, a University of Toronto laboratory that launches satellites for customers. “From my inclination, school can help you approach problems, but work gets you out of your comfort zone,” Gwozdecky says. “Things you learn in school don’t always get you into the workforce.” And that may explain Gwozdecky’s strong record in extracurricular activities, for she rose through the ranks at UTAT, where she was also a business development officer and thermal lead. And it may also explain why she pursued her private pilot’s licence in the summer of 2016. She flies low-performance, single-engine aircraft—mainly the Cessna 150 and Cessna 172—although she aspires to be able to pilot float planes or aerobatic vehicles. “I was home for the summer and able to fully pursue it,” Gwozdecky says. “It has certainly given me a better appreciation of aviation, considering I was interested in space vehicles and exploration. Now I understand how flight works and [its engineering]. [It] was the cherry on top after my year-long co-op.”

Linda Chigbo graduated this year from York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. It seems that electricity and power has been a life-long focus for Chigbo. Born and raised in Nigeria, she says: “I grew up in a country with poor energy and utility infrastructure. I wanted to help make a difference. Living in Canada now, I feel very privileged. I turn on the switch and the light comes on. The same cannot be said for people living in developing countries.”

Chigbo has a single-minded determination to succeed in the electrical engineering field. She was the founding chair of the York University branch of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and volunteered with the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering. “Every opportunity I get to pass info to younger girls, especially if they’re just starting out, I do it,“ she says. “When I started at York, I was one of a few young girls. When you partner with a guy for a lab assignment, you have to convince him you know what you’re talking about.  [And] people think that electrical engineering is about climbing poles…anyone can do it.”

Chigbo’s two co-op placements were at Hydro One. Her first placement, a year-long internship, was as a protection and control engineering intern at Hydro One’s head office. She had learned about electrical circuits in school, and Hydro One gave her an opportunity to learn about the transmission system and see the engineering drawings. “It made a good connection between what I learned in school and what I saw in the real world,” Chigbo explains. “This is where I realized that my passion is in power. I knew I wanted to target protection and control.” Chigbo was fortunate, because of her networking skills, to be offered a second placement at Hydro One, a four-month field placement in Barrie, ON. Chigbo says in the field, “your actions have to be calculated and exact because you see the changes happening in front of you.”

Chigbo was employed almost immediately after graduation by Alectra, an electrical distribution company, where she is employed as an operations engineer-in-training, tending to the maintenance and reliability of the distribution systems infrastructure; she also schedules and plans key operation initiatives. “I don’t think I would have done well in my interview if I hadn’t had the co-op experiences,” she says, adding that she was able to assure herself through the hiring process: “I know what I’ve accomplished; I know what I’m talking about; I’ve seen what it’s like in the field; I’m a better candidate.”

Chigbo says Alectra is fully supportive in her P.Eng. licence application process and enrolment in the EIT program. “My EIT development includes a plan to meet PEO’s criteria for acceptable engineering experience. The application process is straightforward: I’m a new grad, so my application fee is covered under PEO’s Financial Credit Program.” Chigbo appears to be on a track to become part of PEO’s next generation of engineers.