Industries Education

Experience counts

Companies size up job candidates through internships and co-op programs

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Print this page by Heather B. Hayes

Utilities are supposed to be recession-proof, but like most companies, Dominion Resources Inc. hunkered down in 2009, hiring new engineers only when absolutely necessary. A year later, the company is slowly normalizing its hiring levels — but with a sense of caution.

“Nobody wants to get caught in another downtrend and have too much staffing,” says Kerry Basehore, director of nuclear analysis and fuel for Dominion Resources Services. “But at the same time, we have engineers who are retiring and new construction projects under way, so we do need to hire and we are, in fact, hiring engineers right now.”

In looking at the pool of new engineering school graduates, though, Dominion is turning to those who have worked at the company as interns or in its co-op program. Basehore says the strategy provides Dominion managers with an unvarnished look at each student’s work ethic, personality and enthusiasm for the job. And the student also gets a sense of whether the company culture is a fit for them as well. The goal is to cut down on attrition. “You can look at it like dating — you really don’t want to marry someone sight unseen,” Basehore says. “Because the cost is really high if it doesn’t work out.”

Getting a look-see
Officials at engineering schools throughout Virginia are seeing this guarded approach. Experience — from internships, co-op programs or military service — is becoming a key differentiator for many companies, says Oktay Baysal, dean of the Batten College of Engineering and Technology at Old Dominion University. “Several employers have indicated that they would prefer a 3.0 GPA student with relevant experience over a 4.0 GPA student without any experience,” he says.
Richard Benson, dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, agrees with that assessment. “The most desirable new engineering students are the ones that don’t look entirely new; that is, they have had co-ops, summer internships and industry-sponsored design projects that have given them an early exposure to their future working environment,” he says.

Russ Jamison, dean of the School of Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University, says concern over economic stability is feeding this hiring trend. But he adds it also reflects a “sea change” in the type of engineer that companies increasingly need to employ. “The days of the geeky engineer who is looking at his shoes and is sort of socially dysfunctional are ending,” Jamison says. “That kind of work can go to China or India or Brazil, where engineers can do technical work at a much lower salary.”

Instead, he says, U.S. companies are on the hunt for problem-solving, team-focused innovators who can handle financially complex projects and write effectively for an audience of executives who may not be engineers. “Those are characteristics that can’t be picked up on from a résumé,” Jamison says. “That’s the type of engineer they want, and that’s what they’re willing to pay top salaries for.”

Headed up
School officials say that the normalization of college recruiting is just the first step in what they predict will be a steep upward trend in the market for engineers. Some of this demand will be driven by the pending retirement of many engineers in the work force, but other forces are in play, says Baysal. “There is greater emphasis on innovation as the competitive edge of the U.S. economy,” he says. “The governments at all levels are sending this message and passing bills to incentivize engineering and technology-related business. This will clearly have an impact on the employment horizon for engineering students.”

Demand also is being driven by the need for solutions to major problems. “The real growth areas, even if they’re just nascent, are associated with the grand challenges of the world — energy, health care, the environment, sustainability,” says Jamison. “If I were to project out 10 or 20 years, I would say that all engineering schools in Virginia will have configured themselves to turning out students who can work in these mega areas of social and global consequence.”
Meanwhile, an increasing number of students at Virginia universities are showing interest in engineering programs.  “We believe that our engineering class in the fall of 2010 will be the largest in the nation, with approximately 1,600 freshmen,” Virginia Tech’s Benson says.

During the past year, the University of Virginia has seen applications for undergraduate and graduate engineering programs rise about 30 percent, says Clarence J. Livesay, director of the school’s Center for Engineering Career Development. Students (and their parents) believe that an engineering degree is a good bet in an unstable employment market, he says.

Livesay also thinks that students recognize the expanding career options that an engineering degree can offer. “Some of our top recruiters are now management consulting firms, financial institutions, brokerage houses,” he notes. “And the reason is that they recognize that these kids are problem solvers, and the same skills they can use to solve technical problems can also be used to solve business problems.”

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