Despite sounding pessimistic, one of the first concepts I understood at university was that education is a process to help you realize that you know nothing. However, I am more of a “the glass-is-half-full” type of person, so I will re-word this statement to say that education is a process to teach you what you don’t know in preparation for your career.
My dream job is to be a mechanical engineer. But – I’m skeptical. I don’t think solely sitting through lectures and writing tests and exams will fully prepare me for this profession.
I believe an engineer is someone who can apply the scientific and mathematic principles that make up our world to improve humanity’s quality of life. This means that to be a good engineer, this person must solve problems using both academic and practical knowledge. Academic knowledge is taught in the classroom, but where does an aspiring engineer learn the practical knowledge?
So far, I’ve found the best answer to that question is through co-operative work terms.
Although I am a student who is still early-on in my engineering program, I am fortunate to have already partaken in two work term experiences. One was an engineering outreach position with Actua where I travelled the Canadian North delivering STEM-based workshops and camps. The other was a mechanical reliability position with Irving Pulp and Paper where I was on a team that was responsible for maintaining large and expensive machinery. My program at Memorial University of Newfoundland makes it mandatory to participate in at least four of six work term opportunities.
Below I have listed my top eight reasons why students should take a work term during their degree, even if it means staying at school for an extra year.
Almost every job description will have the word “communication” written in one form or another. Depending on the job, this can be classified as writing emails, technical documents, progress reports, talking on the phone, or speaking in front of company executives. Whatever method it is, being able to communicate with people is key to success. Some students going into technical fields often overlook this important detail.
Increase Your Network
After working in different companies, you start to build connections with your co-workers and supervisors. This can be advantageous when you finish school as you will have the opportunity to re-connect with these people to ultimately work with them again. A great tool for achieving this is LinkedIn. Many recruiters at sought-after companies use this resource to sift through cover letters and resumés. As an example, a friend of mine was recently employed at Tesla from a LinkedIn post.
University is a large investment for most people, often requiring students to rely on scholarships or bank loans to pay for basic necessities. Although not every work term will compensate you, the majority of engineering co-ops will typically pay more than minimum wage. For some, this is enough to cover their ever-increasing tuition costs.
Figuring out What You Like
It’s okay not to know where you see yourself ten years from now. Work terms help students make difficult career decisions early by bringing them into different industries and work environments. Through these work experiences, students will find it easier to decide if they prefer working in an office or in the field, or even whether they prefer working for large public corporations or smaller local companies. I believe the sooner you can figure out your working preferences, the sooner you will start truly enjoying your chosen career.
New Ideas and Perspectives
Work terms are not only beneficial for students; most employers appreciate the added value of a student. Students bring new ideas and perspectives with them into the workplace. Have you ever repeatedly got the wrong answer to a math problem and then have a friend come along later to explain the exact solution with ease? This is exactly my point. Professionals can be stumped on a project and all they need is for an outside person to come and tell them the one small detail they are missing. If you can help your employer get over a hurdle like that, you’ve got a good chance of being hired back.
Resumés and Cover Letters
There is no doubt that landing a co-op position can be a long process. You may be applying for upwards of 20 jobs per work term. This sounds like a lot of cover letter and resumé writing – and it is – but it will pay off in the long run. Once you finish university, you will be far ahead of your peers with plenty of experience writing enticing cover letters and targeted resumés. The best part is that your resumé will be filled with valuable job-related experiences at the end of your degree.
Although laboratory portions of university courses are meant to teach the technical and practical aspects of material covered in class, it is not enough to prepare you for a full-time job. For example, in class I studied how the performance of pumps can be altered using thermodynamic principles. On my last co-op, I was also working with pumps. I learned how different physical components work together to affect not only the current performance but also the performance over the lifetime of the pump. I believe both viewpoints are essential for an engineer to understand.
For many employers, your work term is simply an interview for a potential career in their organization. They will be looking for how you react to certain situations, how you solve problems, and how you interact with different people. All these characteristics are hard to assess in a person over a standard interview. This is another reason why employers like to hire students.
If you are a student heading towards a professional career, completing a work term in university has many advantages. Although my reasons for participating in a work term were from a perspective of an engineering student, most explanations can be applied to any other similar STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) profession.
My advice to you is to take every opportunity to leave your comfort zone and learn something you don’t already know. Being in university is the perfect time to take risks and invest in yourself so that you can be more marketable to employers when you finish.
I will leave you with this quote:
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever” – Mahatma Gandhi