These days, college graduates have to do more than get good grades to be considered competitive upon graduation. One of the best ways students can stand out is to get a head start on work experience through an internship or co-op. Civil and Environmental Engineering students at the University of Tennessee have many opportunities to apply for internships and co-ops through the Office of Engineering Professional Practice in the John D. Tickle College of Engineering, which also sponsors the Engineering Expos held in the fall and the spring.
Todd Reeves, director for the office, says that he wants students to visit the office in person to begin to see the opportunities available to them. “We want students to register with us, come in and meet with one of our ambassadors and answer some early questions,” he says. “Then they can come back and meet with a counselor to discuss career goals. We can help students target which companies they want to reach out to. They will never have more people around them helping them look for a job than when they seek an internship or co-op.”
Internship or Co-Op?
An internship in CEE is usually over the summer between a student’s junior and senior years, while a co-op happens over three semesters. In both cases, while a student is working they are not in school. On the whole, the Office of Engineering and Professional Practice would like students to see co-ops as the most valuable opportunity to set them apart from their peers.
Here’s why. The co-op experience is the one that prepares students with the most hands-on experience before they graduate. “With a co-op, students get to see firsthand what the discipline is all about,” said Reeves. “The work is often different from the academic learning. Seeing it in the field gives them an advantage and they retain that information more deeply. Then when they are back in school, their academics usually reflect the extra knowledge gained through experience.” Employers also know that co-op students will be able to contribute more as employees as well as make a transition to full-time employment more swiftly than those without the extra training. This contributes to the reason about 75 percent of students in co-op programs will end up with a job offer from their employer.
Reeves reassures students that the average length of an undergraduate education in CEE is five years, whether they co-op or not. If students get started with a co-op early, then the extra year is more than made up for with the quality of job offers students have available to them upon graduation. Additionally, CEE allows three semesters of a co-op to count in place of one of the technical electives, so they can get academic credit for their work experience.
A co-op can turn students into working adults more quickly, but it also means students might have to find housing in another city to perform the work for a given semester if necessary. However, 90 percent of the companies that employ co-op and internship students outside of Knoxville and/or outside of the student’s hometown do provide some form of housing assistance, making the transition to the work experience cost-effective for these students.
One student who opted for an internship is Geneva Osborne, now a senior who had an internship at the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s Region 1 Traffic Office last summer. As a traffic intern, she assisted in engineering studies and crash analyses of state routes in the 24 counties of East Tennessee. She was trained to use multiple software systems and the TITAN database to analyze potential high-crash-risk roads and worked alongside supervisors to propose solutions. “Overall, I gained a tremendous amount of experience from working at TDOT,” she said. “I now have real-world application to the concepts I’m learning in my upper-level courses and am familiar with the software used to compute potential solutions.” In addition to the technical experience she learned, Osborne also gained in communications experience. She attended public gatherings to discuss upcoming road projects with community members, law enforcement and other leaders, and she assisted in representing the office at the Fall Tennessee Section Institute of Transportation Engineers conference.
Two students who are now second-semester juniors on the co-op track are Evan Lockhart and Emma Dixon, both of whom are co-op ambassadors for the Office of Engineering Professional Practice. Lockhart’s concentration is construction, and he has enjoyed the two semesters he’s spent working for Brasfield and Gorrie, a construction company headquartered in Birmingham, AL with offices around the Southeast. “When you do a co-op, the company invests in you and sees you grow,” he says. “It actually helped me with school and I got my first 4.0 after the first rotation.” When he came back to school in the spring after that rotation, Lockhart remembers getting cross-sectional drawings from Dr. Burdette, and people would look at it and not know what they were, but he had already seen them on the jobsite. “I loved it,” he said. “I now know what’s more applicable in the real world.”
Emma Dixon has also completed two rotations of a co-op with a construction firm, although she wants to take courses from all the disciplines before she officially decides on her concentration. She got connected with EMJ Construction in Chattanooga through a Fall Engineering Expo. During her first rotation she did office work and got to see how the business was managed and visit job sites for a day. However, her second rotation was on-site in Gainseville, FL, at the site of a new BassPro shop. “What’s cool about construction is that even if you don’t pursue it, it’s part of every aspect of civil engineering,” she said. “I got to see geotech and structural work, landscaping work and even mechanical and electrical engineering.” At first Dixon wasn’t sure she wanted to do an internship or a co-op, but after talking with other civil engineering majors and her parents, she decided it would be the best option for her academic path. “By the time an internship ends, you are just getting the hang of things,” she adds. “With the co-op, you have in-depth experience.”