Not every engineering student will land a 16-week paid internship with a household-name company for their summer. In particular, first years (and second years on four-year courses) can struggle to line up summer internships. While some engineering companies do take on first years, others do not, or prioritise those with more experience. Some large employers offer insight days or weeks to first- and second-year students. Chantelle Patterson, emerging talent manager at Mace, says 'Insight weeks are a good way to find out about the range of opportunities available to you. They also give you the chance to shadow graduates and network.' Plus, it will be a good addition to your CV ready for applying for placements and internships.
If you’re in this situation you’re not alone. Plan ahead to spend a few days with a local engineering company or build up skills that can transfer to the engineering industry. Both will be a big help when it comes to applying for internships or graduate jobs at a later date. Employers have commented to TARGETjobs Engineering that students with some sort of experience of the working world fare far better when answering competency questions – a staple of engineering application forms and interviews – than those with no experience whatsoever.
Finding engineering experience if you can’t get an internship
TARGETjobs Engineering questioned graduate engineers in the first few years of their careers for its Recent Graduate Survey. They had the following advice for students trying to find engineering experience outside of formal internship schemes.
- Research local engineering companies and apply (in writing) for a week’s or two weeks’ unpaid work experience. I found it was actually the smaller firms who were more enthusiastic about this idea as they aren’t bound by strict company-wide policies.
- If you are looking at small companies, consider dropping your CV off in person and asking to speak to someone about a placement. Their response may be very favourable.
- Don’t be afraid to just get in touch with people working in the industry to try to create your own opportunities.
- Apply to a breadth of engineering sectors – any experience is preferable to none.
- Don’t restrict yourself to finding something in the UK. There are plenty of opportunities available worldwide.
Gaining skills and experience outside engineering
The graduate engineers also had plenty to say on the value of experience outside engineering, and suggestions of the different forms it could take.
- All experience is valuable. I hate the term ‘relevant’ experience. When interviewing students I often ask what experience they have outside of engineering. Get a job in a burger bar while you’re searching – you never know, you might end up having a eureka moment that’ll make millions in the engineering sector.
- Try to find a role that enables you to develop and demonstrate key skills (leading teams, problem solving, negotiating, etc) that can then be transferred to engineering.
- Learn how to program.
- Go travelling.
- Try to get some experience writing reports, rather than just in university format.
- Do something unpaid, like charity work, to build up softer skills.
- Work on showing interest and passion. Create your own projects, follow your own processes, contribute to open-source projects, etc.
- Get involved with sports and other areas including voluntary work, societies and the local community.
A recruiter's view on experience outside engineering
Many engineering graduates may discount non-engineering work experience as not relevant to an application, but this could be a mistake. Your experiences do not need to be related to engineering to be suitable; you can demonstrate important skills through other ventures such as volunteering, travelling, extracurricular activities and part-time employment. A student who has spent time travelling solo, for example, shows organisation and planning skills, independence, confidence and people skills.
'Industry experience certainly strengthens your CV but we are also keen to receive applications from students who have developed relevant skills through other work experience or extracurricular activities,' says Chantelle. 'For example, activities that involve working with other people such as sports, volunteering, society membership and fundraising to name a few. Just remember to demonstrate the link between the skills you've gained and the job you're applying for.'