1 September 2002
Internships ensure sure footing
By Ellen Fussell
Getting your foot in the door of a corporation could be the most difficult part of your career journey—but if you've managed to score the coveted internship for your first corporate experience, keeping your footing as a valued employee is the next big step. Knowing your career goals and doing your homework about the corporation will help you decide what direction to take, and the experience itself can open your eyes to the road ahead as an engineer.
"As an outsider, you have little knowledge of the actual business working of a corporation," said Brock Thomas, a University of Tennessee chemical engineering major who's working as an intern at Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, Tenn. "Once on the inside, you actually see how much has to come together for the whole business to function properly. It's amazing how so many different people can do so many different things to accomplish a common goal profitably," he said.
Questions to ask during your internship interview
While full-time employment is the ultimate goal, Thomas said, the most important thing about an internship is that it "allows you to apply book knowledge to a real-life problem" and gives students "an introduction to what their career path could look like."
Thomas said his perfect internship would involve "projects that provide a good insight into the complete process. It may take several small projects or a few large ones to accomplish this, but it's important that I grasp the big picture by the time I complete the project," he said.
Also a chemical engineering major, at N.C. State University, Cameron Lea Cobb changed her internal picture of an engineer's life when she began her stint at Eastman.
"In my mind, I saw an engineer as stuck in a cube doing their own thing, going in the plant but not interacting with people," Cobb said. "But that's not the case. There's a lot of teamwork involved with fellow engineers."
Cobb said her ideas of what she would like to do with her career were actually formed by the projects she completed during her internship. As part of a development group supporting one of Eastman's polymers manufacturing plants, Cobb decided she'd like to work out in production or do development work for her career.
"I enjoyed the production environment—being out and seeing what was going on, working with operations, and being hands-on," she said. The administrative side of her internship, working on spreadsheets, gave her a view of what she'd like to avoid as a long-term project. "I probably wouldn't want to be stuck behind a desk the rest of my life," Cobb said.
What's in it for the company?
While students can experience real corporate life during their internships and make sound career decisions, there has to be something in it for the company, right?
"The companies have an opportunity to test out young potential professionals without the obligation of saying they'll hire them," said Dr. Arnold Bell, director of cooperative education at N.C. State University in Raleigh, N.C. "But there's no obligation for the student either," he said.
When selecting an intern, employers have in their minds a profile, Bell said. "They'll scan the resumes and select those who come closest to their profile. Those students who are invited past the resume filter portion for interviews stand a good chance of being hired as interns."
One thing that really turns employers off is when a student obviously hasn't done the homework—some research about the company's products and services. "We stress that with our students," Bell said. "The employer doesn't expect you to know everything, but they want to know you've cared enough to do some research."
Bell said the main quality employers look for in interns is the willingness to take risks for the sake of expanding their perspective. Bell described the university's co-op program as different from a onetime summer internship. "Our co-op students enter the working world while still in the curriculum. They'll work in the fall, take classes in the spring, and come back. We want our students to do three rotations to get a year's experience before they graduate," he said. "That way, they stay with the same employers, which gives them more depth of experience so they can't jump around and can truly experience their profession."
And it seems to be working. According to Bell, if a student does three full rotations with one company, the likelihood that the company will hire that student for full-time employment is higher than 80%—close to 90%, he said. IT
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