After undertaking work experience for my engineering degree, I learned that there are just some things you can’t learn in a classroom.
Despite being halfway through my engineering degree, I still wasn’t quite sure what an electrical engineer actually did. Spending six weeks as an intern at Nulux Energy Solutions in Albion Park during the summer of 2017-18 went a long way towards clarifying things.
To soak in information from engineers who have worked in the industry for more than 30 years was eye opening, and I felt that working at a small, regional-based company allowed me to take on responsibilities beyond what my credentials would suggest.
There were many highlights from my time there, but three experiences in particular stand out:
1. The grind with the electricians
On the first day, my boss placed me to assist an electrician who was manufacturing a load bank. His reasoning was, “At the end of the day, they are building what we design, so it’s our job to make it simple for them”.
Working with tradesman tools, installing the electrical components that we study in class, and learning how three-phase systems are implemented was engaging and certainly added fuel to my interest in the field of electrical engineering, and engineering overall.
I sometimes feel that in university, a lot of engineering students aren’t aware of the connection between the work of electricians and other tradesman, and our work as engineers. Although it’s certainly not the main aim of the engineering degree, I think professors in this regard should provide some context and clarity for the work we will be doing, and how it relates to other fields.
As this internship was done in the peak of summer, observing engineers solve complex technical problems in the midst of 30-degree heat and high humidity was a definite reminder that I was out of the university bubble.
Even if engineering students do have more contact hours than other university degrees, this was certainly a lot of hard work!
2. Soft skills
I found it surprising that even in a largely technical role, the amount of soft skills an employee needs to succeed are fairly large. The number of little irritations the company had to deal with, such as electrical components not being delivered on time or being delivered with the wrong specifications, were plentiful. A manager certainly needs to be flexible and resilient in these situations.
It was also interesting to see how the managers at Nulux would involve their clients in the design process, which involved adjusting their communication styles depending on the technical knowledge of the client.
The other soft skill I found extensively used was the care that managers stressed towards aesthetics when manufacturing a product, even if it doesn’t hinder performance. A cleaner looking product and schematic sheet (which includes details of the product’s design) allows safety and technical problems to be debugged more easily.
3. Knowledge from university
One thing I was very interested to know was how much of what I learned at university would apply to my work experience, and I was pleasantly surprised at the results. I learned about many on-the-job issues and technicalities for the first time, but the quantitative analysis we are taught in university, such as using MatLab or Microsoft Excel, came in handy when I was asked to undertake some power consumption analysis.
To further expand on this point, at a recent engineering industry event run by engineering societies based at the University of Sydney, industry representatives in attendance stated graduates are expected to be competent in artificial intelligence in the future. This is because for most recent engineering students and graduates, the whole concept of AI has exponentially increased in importance during our time at university.
This is just one example of how industry can influence academia. It will be interesting to see how universities respond, and whether they will adjust their curriculum to equip students with the skills industry finds desirable in the future.
Do it yourself
I would highly encourage first- and second-year engineering students to look for work experience opportunities. While many university programs require it during the third or fourth year, I found having some experience early on is a great way to figure out whether you have chosen the right engineering discipline for you. Plus it’s never too early to get an idea of what life is like as a working engineer.