Student engineers are required to engage with professional practice throughout their degree, which ideally includes a real world work placement. But this placement doesn’t only benefit budding engineers — it has flow on effects for the businesses that provide them.
Internships help students begin to put into practice what they have spent years learning at university. They are also a chance to get valuable real-world experience and try out different areas of the profession before committing to a career path.
But despite the importance of these opportunities, engineering students report finding it increasingly difficult to find high-quality placements. That’s why Engineers Australia is launching the Internship Hub, an online platform that provides resources, advice, answers to commonly asked questions and exclusive content for students and industry to help create successful internships.
The aim is to help build a stronger engineering workforce by helping students find placements with engineering companies, and to arm businesses with the tools they need to create — and benefit from — internships.
Laying the foundations
From working on supersonic ship self-defence systems for NATO to a role as a Senior Strategy Advisor within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Engineers Australia’s Chief Engineer Jane MacMaster FIEAust CPEng has had an exciting and varied career.
She said it was her experiences as a student that helped build her confidence and develop her ability to form sound judgements and decisions.
“When I reflect on each of the chapters of my career, I’m struck by how important the early opportunities I had to learn were in opening up the future opportunities,” she said. “It all started at university, where I was fortunate enough to have three six-week work experience placements.”
With just 60 per cent of qualified engineers working in the engineering profession, combined with a current engineering skills shortage that is predicted to get worse, MacMaster said it’s more important than ever to nurture the pipeline of engineering talent
Providing internships helps get young engineers excited about their profession, which is vital given engineering firms compete with businesses in other industries, such as banks and consultancy groups, for high-quality graduates. It’s not hard to see why — student engineers have topped Australia’s Employer Satisfaction Survey for the last three years.
“Internships or work placements are not ‘nice to haves’ but are critically important for building our future pipeline of competent, ethical and high performing engineers,” MacMaster said.
“We need our student engineers to be engaged and excited about a future in an engineering role. And we need to work together to keep top talent in the profession.”
Engineering internships provide opportunities for employers
For engineering companies, the benefits of offering internships are manifold. Not only do students bring new perspectives and ideas, but internships are also a chance to scout talent for graduate programs and to develop a pool of future employees.
The prior experience means graduates will already have bridged the gap between university and work life and will be ready to hit the ground running.
Placements can also be structured to suit an organisation’s needs in terms of duration, complexity and frequency.
Professor Elizabeth Croft, Dean of Engineering at Monash University and a member of the Australian Council of Engineering Deans said internships are “what we need to do to secure Australia’s engineering future”.
“A fantastic thing about industry placements is they are very flexible,” she said. “You can take one student or you can take 10 students. And you can use them to fill those gaps you may have in your workforce [such as] vacation places or gaps where you need a surge workforce.
“Industry placements are a great way to recruit your future workforce and give students the opportunity to really try their skills out before they go out into the workforce.”
MacMaster described internships as a “win-win arrangement” for students and industry.
“Internships or work placements support the transition from the learning environment to industry and the benefits are reciprocal,” she said.
“An organisation nurtures young professionals, and they provide the organisation with new perspectives, current knowledge and enthusiasm for innovation, as well as a potential pipeline of resources who understand your business.”
Applying her theoretical knowledge to a real project helped Engineers Australia Student Ambassador Hana El-Chanti “fall in love” with her engineering degree.
During her six-month placement, the electrical student engineer was tasked with working on different ways to unlock a Tesla car. This involved designing the circuit and calculating the power required to make the project work — things she had little experience in.
Although it was a steep learning curve, working on a project from scratch gave El-Chanti confidence in her skills that she will take with her throughout her career.
“I saw the other side of engineering that university doesn’t expose us to — the non-theory part,” she said. “I was lucky to be involved in hands-on activities, which allowed me to strengthen my current engineering skills and knowledge.
“The internship also made me an expert researcher and taught me to be an independent learner … I was able to turn my weaknesses into strengths, and to grow my knowledge. I was thrown in the deep end, but starting my internship like this made me reach the stars in the end.”
It wasn’t just El-Chanti who benefited from the experience. Recruiting and supervising a cohort of student engineers was also a positive experience for Ohmie Hardware and Research and Development Lead Sunny Pack.
“We had bi-weekly meetings and catch-ups with regular reviews and updates on their work,” he said. “This experience allowed me to accelerate my management capabilities while also reviewing my fundamentals. It was very rewarding.”
ADG Engineers NT/WA Regional Manager Brian Loughlin met then student engineer Allison Ma through Engineers Australia’s mentoring program in 2019.
“I was highly impressed at our initial meeting,” Loughlin said. “Allison displayed a high level of technical competence and had a clear understanding of where she wanted to take her career in civil engineering.”
Ma’s extracurricular activities, including volunteering with the RSPCA and the Australian Collaboration Cambodia, helped set her apart.
“She displayed a passion for helping others, which was very aligned with our business’s values,” Loughlin said.
Based on this meeting, ADG offered Ma a six-week work placement, where she got experience conducting site visits and in design and drafting. After the initial work experience, Ma was hired as an undergraduate civil engineer.
ADG provides internships for civil and structural student engineers in its eight offices across the country each year. The internships are a step towards permanent graduate positions with ADG and pursuing the ADG Way Graduate Training Program. Ma said she discovered new things about herself through the experience.
“I surprised myself by being able to grasp some solid IT skills, such as drafting, and I also surprised myself by not being shy to ask questions,” Ma said. “I think that’s really important when you’re at the starting point of your career or as a newbie in the office.”
When University of South Australia student Freyja Leinonen needed an internship, she took it upon herself to find one, emailing Toolcraft Australia with her resume and cover letter.
Toolcraft Innovation and Aerospace General Manager of Business Greg Stevens was impressed with what he saw, and the firm offered Leinonen a placement. He said Leinonen, who he described as “motivated and honest”, was a great asset to the team during her five months with the company.
“Freyja had the confidence to challenge the electrical engineers about the safety of the company’s power system prototype, despite studying a different discipline, mechanical engineering,” he said
“This prompted several design improvements and resulted in a test facility upgrade.”
For Leinonen, attending events such as Engineers Australia’s Elevation career fair was a good starting point.
“Attending networking events … completely fast-tracked my professional development as an engineer,” she said. “[During my internship] I felt really grateful, confident in my knowledge and inspired by the other engineers I was able to meet.”
To access all the resources you need to find or provide an engineering internship, visit Engineers Australia’s Internship Hub.