Engineering work experience: a beginner's guide
Recruiters value work experience. An engineering placement is the gold standard – it shows that you have hands-on industry experience to complement your degree, demonstrates your commitment to the sector and indicates that you know what to expect when you start your graduate job. It will also help you get a feel for where you want to work, and indicate to employers that your decisions about where to apply are based on more than guesswork. However, if you can’t manage an engineering placement or you’ve left it too late, take heart – work experience or part-time jobs in any environment can help you develop transferable skills and a feel for the working world. As such, they too are well thought of by employers.
Some degrees incorporate a year in industry; if yours doesn’t, you may be able to arrange one. There are also plenty of shorter-term options. Summer internships usually last between six and ten weeks; some employers also offer shorter placements over the Christmas and Easter breaks. Placements will give you a sense of what life as a graduate engineer is like and help you build skills that are relevant to graduate positions, as well as build up a network of contacts.
A placement is also a great opportunity to get to know an organisation better than you could through simply reading company literature. This will give you a good basis from which to figure out whether it’s the sort of business you could work for on a long-term basis – and whether you feel the area of engineering and kind of role are right for you. It also gives employers a chance to get to know you better. Many graduate recruiters like to hire students who perform well on their placements and some may even offer sponsorship to help you complete your degree.
Small engineering companies
Small engineering employers may not run formal schemes but can still be a good source of work experience. You could ask to shadow someone in an area or organisation that interests you for a couple of days, volunteer to come in on an unpaid work placement or look for paid, part-time work. Go to your university’s careers service for advice and contacts, and check jobs boards and the local press.
Many companies will happily consider your application for graduate jobs even if you don't have engineering work experience, as long as you've done something else worthwhile with your time that you can draw upon when discussing your background and skills.
Part-time work during university terms or vacations will help you develop communication and teamworking skills. You might even be able to go a step further and come up with a suggestion or improvement that will help the business to prosper.
Helping to run university clubs and societies also offers the opportunity to develop skills and provide examples of these. For example, you might have led a team effectively, come up with innovative ideas and carried them through, solved problems or organised events.
Charity work, volunteering and independent travel will also help you develop in ways recruiters like and give you something interesting to talk about in your applications and at interview. Apart from anything else, having a range of interests shows you’re a multidimensional person who is enthusiastic, motivated and likely to be an asset in the workplace.
Tips for getting an engineering placement
- Start planning your work experience from your first year of study - and don't just look at blue chip companies! Most employers looking for placement students only take applications from the beginning of your second year, but planning ahead is ideal.
- Getting an industrial placement isn't automatic - employers will view your application favourably if you combine good academic results (first year results do matter!) with evidence of career commitment. Have something on your CV that will attract interest.
- Placement officers (if applicable) and the university careers service are the key starting points, but the more people who know you are looking the more help you can get. There is always competition for advertised placements so apply your networking skills to look for alternatives.
- If you really can only find a supermarket job, try to make more of it by asking for additional responsibility. Find out how the business is run and talk to managers. That way, you might be able to get a bit of work experience in a more relevant job function.
- Try to arrange your own placement or work shadowing through contacts from your careers service or your university's job shop.Year-long industrial placements and formal vacation programmes are the ideal, but there are never enough of the latter to go round.