Whether working at home or abroad,
students extend their learning curve -- while employers benefit
from youthful enthusiasm, knowledge and intelligence.
By VICKI MOWAT
How does simulating the combustion process or working with
robotics in Switzerland sound? Or perhaps developing software
for a major firm in Calgary? While you're still in university?
For students in the University of Calgary Engineering Internship
Program, these are just a few of the hundreds of opportunities
The internship program is understandably popular among Calgary
engineering students. About 60 per cent of them take part
- almost double the national average for placement programs
- with 228 students earning some $9 million last year. As
well, about 75 per cent of interns are offered permanent,
after-grad jobs by their placement companies.
The program, which adds an extra year to engineering students'
degrees with 12- to 16-month work-terms, has many benefits,
says Nima Dorjee, P.Eng., the program's director. "The
experience and the challenge are attractive, and at very little
risk," he says.
Building Confidence Abroad
Fourth-year student Mackenzie Baker, whose internship took
her to ALSTOM Power in Switzerland and ABB Applied Mechanics
in Sweden last year, says the advantages include work experience
and clarifying career goals. "It's really neat to apply
what you've learned on the job in school and vice-versa,"
she says. "As for motivation, it's like, wow, I've got
one more year and I can jump into the work force, and I know
a bit about what the work force is like, and I can feel confident."
Manpreet Aulakh, a current intern with Autodesk, a software
development firm in Calgary, echoes Ms Baker's sentiments.
"It's excellent," he says. "I'm actually doing
some networking and site support, and compiling software for
major software releases."
Students typically earn about 70 to 80 per cent of new graduate
salaries during their internships. The year's work can be
credited to their professional designation requirement, too.
Employers Like It Too
The program is also popular among employers. They get first
crack at the University of Calgary class, and access skilled
employees with up-to-date technological knowledge. "The
employers we work with have shown incredible support, but
it's not just altruistic; they're getting enthusiasm, knowledge
and intelligence," says Mr. Dorjee, who also serves on
Barry Lester, P.Eng., vice-president and COO of Stantec,
a strong supporter of the program since its inception in 1993,
agrees. "Students get the opportunity to participate
in industry and get some valuable experience, and the companies
get willing workers and a chance to look at a number of potential
candidates for future employment. I really can't say enough
about the program. I truly believe it's a win-win for both
the students and the employers."
Employers often put a lot of thought into how to benefit
both students and their own companies. At Stantec, students
rotate through each department. "In the summertime, we
get the kids out on construction, land development, transportation
or building sites. In the wintertime, we have them in the
office, working in different departments, helping with design,"
explains Mr. Lester.
Beginning to End Projects
Other companies, such as TRLabs, a non-profit research consortium,
give students cutting-edge projects to complete from beginning
to end. "What we have most of the interns doing is developing
prototypes for futuristic communications systems," explains
Dr. Grant McGibney, P.Eng., director of wireless research
at TRLabs. "The intern who's working with me is working
on a piece of hardware that will implement a wireless computer
network. They do exist right now, but they're very slow, so
we're trying to boost the speed up to the same as a wired
The interns "actually build the hardware; they're in
on the design," Dr. McGibney adds. "The staff member
acts as a mentor, but the intern does all the work - from
design to finding parts to laying out the circuits to actually
building the prototypes."
TRLabs also uses the U of C program for recruitment. Since
most of the staff members are professors and grad students,
they try to recruit students for grad school and promote TRLabs
as a "place to do high quality graduate research.
"We've had interns that came here, did their intern
project, and that was three, four years ago, and they still
haven't left," Dr. McGibney says with a laugh. "They've
done their master's and they're onto a PhD or whatever else."
Another interesting aspect of the intern experience is the
marketplace philosophy the department uses for placement.
Jobs are advertised on a website, students apply, and companies
interview their top choices. About 70 per cent of the students
end up working in Calgary, 10 per cent in the rest of Alberta,
another 10 per cent in the rest of Canada, and a further 10
per cent abroad in countries such as Sweden, Japan, the U.S.,
Australia and Malaysia.
There are benefits to domestic and international internships,
as the experiences of Mr. Aulakh and Ms Baker aptly illustrate.
Mr. Aukakh's work at Autodesk has confirmed his decision to
work in the software field, and he hopes to be permanently
hired after graduation.
Internationally, the opportunity to be hired on is obviously
not a factor. "I was pretty keen on the traveling aspect,"
says Ms Baker. "(An internship) is the way to really
get to know a culture and a country. If a student was thinking
about backpacking through Europe for the summer, I'd say no,
try to get an international placement."
It's clear the experience is almost always extremely positive
for both employee and employer. As Mr. Lester comments, "The
first internship student that we hired in the first year of
the program still works for us today. I don't think you can
say anything better than that."