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What to plan for your summer if you can't find an engineering internship

If you don’t have a formal engineering placement lined up for your summer vacation, don’t despair. It’s possible to pick up some more low-key work experience, or boost your employability through activities that have nothing to do with engineering.
'Go travelling' one graduate engineer advises students looking to increase their employability.

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.

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

Nims Mepani, graduate resourcing partner at AMEC, spoke to TARGETjobs Engineering about activities outside engineering that increase students’ employability. ‘Experience doesn’t have to be related to engineering as long as you’ve picked up some transferable skills,’ she explains. ‘For example, students who volunteer with children or the elderly demonstrate commitment and flexibility. A candidate who has spent six months as a maths tutor comes across well because this shows a certain level of initiative and strong coaching skills. Some of our graduates had previously gone travelling or helped build houses in deprived countries in university holidays, which ties in with our focus on corporate social responsibility.’

There are plenty of simpler options too. ‘Don’t forget opportunities right on your doorstep,’ Nims advises. ‘For instance, some universities run courses over the summer. Our roles often involve heavy use of specialist software packages – find out what packages are used in the businesses that interest you and start learning how to use them. You’re using your time effectively, you’re adding to your skills and technical knowledge, and it will put you above your competitors when it comes to applications.’