Skip to main content

Competing for the Best and Brightest

February 2015  » Feature Articles » Firms in Focus (published in Civil + Structural Engineer)
Internship programs benefit firms and young engineers and help identify rising stars

This is a good time to be starting an engineering career. With the economy back on the move and development once more underway, engineers have never been in greater demand. At the same time, many engineers from the baby boom generation are approaching retirement, which is increasing the demand for young engineers even more. No wonder U.S. News & World Report named engineering an “it” degree.

But what’s good news for young engineers isn’t necessarily good news for engineering firms, public agencies, and other organizations that employ engineers. It’s a seller’s market out there, and the competition for the best and brightest young engineers can be fierce.

stars? In this war for talent, an internship program can be the secret to success. Internships can help organizations build relationships with future stars, while at the same time provide a glimpse of how well candidates will perform outside the classroom.

Of course, engineering organizations aren’t the only beneficiaries of internship programs. Students also profit from the experience by getting an opportunity to show their stuff and to learn skills that aren’t taught in the classroom. Students also get an opportunity to try out potential employers and get a head start on their careers when they find the right place to work.

I’m living proof of the impact that an internship can have. In the summer of 1993, I had just finished my freshman year at the University of Illinois, and I didn’t know what to do with my life. I had always been fascinated with buildings and looked at structural engineering as an attractive career option.

In searching for internship opportunities that summer, I was particularly intrigued by an offer from Walker Parking Consultants. My course work had revolved around basic engineering, chemistry, physics, and drafting. I certainly wasn’t learning how to design parking structures!

he thought of learning a new type of engineering was attractive, so I decided to accept an offer to intern in Walker’s Elgin, Ill., office.

I soon found that my internship was like an after-school program that rounded out my education. I was learning designless on sand approaches that were not taught in my college engineering classes. Exposure to budgets, design process, quality control, and the importance of effective communication had an extraordinary impact on my growth as a budding engineer and sparked my entrepreneurial identity.

From the beginning, I knew it was a great fit. I fell in love with the people and the corporate culture. While I primarily handled office work early on, I eventually had an opportunity to learn all facets of the parking business, including design, consulting, client management, and firm management. I was interacting with the firm’s clients every day, and I gained a new perspective on what they needed, not only in terms of design, but also in terms of client service. I wasn’t just learning how to design structures; I was learning how to operate a business. I was also fortunate to have a chance to work closely with the firm’s leaders. They were some of the most accomplished professionals in the parking industry, and the lessons they taught me were invaluable.

I continued to intern with Walker the next three summers, and I got to work on many fascinating projects. I didn’t know it at the time, but this experience was putting me on the fast track to firm management. I had a four-year head start on other engineers who were graduating with me, and I was learning firm management from the industry’s most accomplished and experienced leaders.

Walker Parking’s internship program obviously had a profound impact on my career, but I think the program was (and continues to be) equally beneficial to the company. Engineering internship programs like this allow organizations to give promising young engineers a “tryout.” Book smarts are one thing, but real world skills and experience are what sets apart engineering stars from their colleagues. Internships let organizations see how students perform in a real-world business environment, away from the classroom.

Internships also provide an opportunity for organizations to immerse promising interns into their corporate culture. This not only gives organizations a chance to determine whether the intern is a good fit, but also serves as a sort of “cultural training ground,” ensuring that the prospect will be ready to fit seamlessly into the corporate culture if and when he or she officially joins the team.

Internship programs also give organizations a head start in preparing rising stars for leadership roles. Organizational leaders are in a position to identify those interns who show the most promise to become leaders, and then provide mentorship to help them learn the skills and gain the experience they need to start on a management path. As in my case, an internship can be the first step toward helping to run an organization in the future.

Yet, as valuable as internship programs can be, many organizations struggle to build effective programs. Too often, internships are treated as sources of low-cost labor. Students are limited to doing inconsequential work, rather than having a chance to get involved with more important functions such as design, client relations, and management. Organizations that treat internships like entry level temp agencies don’t just shortchange their interns, they shortchange themselves, as well.

So, how do you build a successful program that benefits both your organization and the students who participate? First, interns should be given responsibility. If your interns’ workdays revolve solely around filing and other menial tasks, you are wasting a tremendous resource and doing a disservice to the students you are supposed to be training. Let your interns help with design, meet face-to-face with clients, and participate in management projects. Not only will the students get more out of their experience, but you’ll likely find that they have useful skills and good ideas that you can use.

Also, treat interns like members of the team. Let your interns sit in on staff meetings, and let them work with firm leaders. They are there to learn your business, and that includes learning how to run it. Give them full access to the business side of what you do, including how decisions are made and how leaders behave. This may even be the first step in creating your organization’s future leaders.

Finally, make sure that your organization is partnering with the right colleges and universities. Not every school is the right fit for your organization. Just as organizations have their own unique cultures, so do universities. Seek out institutions with values that mirror your own.

Additionally, many university engineering programs have co-op programs through which students are expected to gain real-world work experience as part of their academic work. They earn course credits for the work they do as interns, and their professors are involved in both their course work and their internships. Co-op relationships also benefit engineering organizations because they give the internship program a more formal structure, and they permit educators to provide input into the internship process.

Internships are not pro forma business practices that are included in a business plan because they are expected — or because it makes firm leaders feel good. They are valuable elements of an organization’s operations that can provide access to capable young engineers. Nor can internships be managed haphazardly. Organizations need to value their interns, offer meaningful work, and provide mentoring opportunities from the organization’s leaders. When organizations approach their internships in these ways, the internship experience will be valuable to both the student and the organization.

As my experience demonstrates, an internship can play a crucial role in an engineer’s career. But just as importantly, an internship also can provide enormous benefits to engineering organizations by providing early access to the brightest future stars, and a leg up in the neverending war for talent.

Casey Wagner, PE is the managing principal of our Houston office, the regional leader for our western region of the United States, a senior vice president of the company, as well as a member of our board of directors… but once upon a time, he was an intern at Walker!  Email Casey.