It's been 20 years(!), but I still recall my co-op experience with Tampa Electric Co. with fond memories. I was a junior at the time, studying for my electrical engineering degree and taking classes at the University of South Florida in Tampa. The decision to get involved in the program was an easy one. First, I wanted to make sure that I really did want to work in the electric utility industry after graduation. Second, I thought it would help me gain some real-world work experience and give me a leg up on other electrical engineering graduates come interview time. And third, it was a great way to bring home some serious money, which I desperately needed at the time to pay my tuition bills. I also figured my current and past work history (busboy, waiter, and auto parts counterman) wouldn't look too impressive on my resume.
At the time, the program was structured so that I worked full-time every other semester for two years. Sure, it took me a little longer to graduate, but I did so with a full year of work-related experience under my belt. Did it pay off? I think so. I was offered a job as a transmission engineer with another electric utility just before I graduated. On the other hand, my classmates who didn't complete the co-op program had a much more difficult time finding their first job.
As beneficial as the opportunity was, though, it was lacking in one important way. Despite learning some valuable lessons as a regional office draftsman, corporate office telecommunications grunt, and distribution area-planning assistant, it failed to give me some guidance on the business side of engineering. As a result, I struggled as a young engineer to learn how to draft formal letters, run meetings, work with a team, and juggle multiple projects. These business tasks were the most difficult part of the job. The bottom line was that my engineering courses and co-op experience didn't prepare me well enough for the real world in these critical areas.
But I'm happy to say that after 20 years, the engineering education landscape is changing to meet the needs of a more demanding business world. The information that Staff Writer Beck Finley uncovered in this month's cover story, “The Business Minded Engineer” (page 50), and the second feature article, “The New Electrical Hybrid” (page 56), truly excites me. Both articles examine the faculty members and institutions that are creatively reshaping engineering and electrical technician education in America. These forward-thinking schools and universities should be applauded for their efforts as they work with today's business leaders and owners of design and construction firms to graduate more qualified students. The speed at which we all work today and the heavy workloads we carry require that new recruits enter the workforce better prepared for all facets of the industry. And it's programs like these that will help them do it.
If I were you, I'd pay close attention to the graduates of these next-generation programs. If you don't, I'm sure your competitor will be more than willing to hire them.