How to grow and manage a successful co-op/internship program

Consider factors that make your co-op program unique from other engineering firms.

By Kirstie Nugent, RMF Engineering, Raleigh, N.C. January 23, 2019

Cooperative education (co-op) and internship programs are great opportunities for employers within the architectural, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry to attract engineering students to the industry. The students learn about the industry, build a resume with relevant experience in their chosen field, and develop skills to help them in whichever direction they choose to take their career, all before college graduation. For the employer, the program is an excellent method of filling entry-level positions—they already have a terrific understanding of the candidate thanks to the time spent training and working with them.

But before advertising a co-op or internship program, it is important for employers to understand which factors will make their programs successful and competitive with other companies and industries. Factors such as compensation, work arrangements, and office culture need to be addressed for potential candidates.

When attracting engineering students, offering an unpaid position is unrealistic. These students are in high demand and will be an important part of the team. In addition, these students are evaluating offers across multiple industries, so it’s often not enough to offer compensation that’s only competitive in terms of an internship. When determining what to offer in regard to pay and benefits, research what other engineering firms are offering. These students have a lot of options, so having a competitive recruiting strategy is crucial to landing the best candidates.

For many of these students, this will be their first experience with anything remotely like a professional, full-time job. The variety of work they will be exposed to is a big factor in their decision-making process. The AEC industry traditionally has more office-based work available for interns, making this a difficult aspect of the recruiting process for the industry and needs to focus on opportunities that are more hands-on. For example, in RMF Engineering’s co-op program, all students are able to get out in the field at least once during each rotation. When possible, students are taken on site visits for projects they helped design. Experiences like this are emphasized during the interview so they have a realistic understanding of the program.

Since co-op work is largely office-based, the office culture is a determining factor as to whether the student will be happy with the experience. Before hiring interns, determine how they will fit into the office culture. Students tend to excel the most in a program where they feel like members of the team. They understand the importance of their work and take pride in the quality of the projects we submit. Including them as part of the team means they’re included in department meetings, company events, and any status updates for projects they have worked on. Keep them in the loop and emphasize the importance of their contributions.

Ultimately, co-op students will pick the firm they feel is the best fit for them, depending on the factors most important to their career goals. As an employer, focusing on what you bring to the table in terms of salary, variety of work experiences, and office culture is the best way to recruit the students you want. Most important, employers must start their recruitment planning early to have a successful program. By getting these students interested in your industry and company early on, you have a better chance of hiring successful entry-level candidates for your firm and, ultimately, growing your team with the best possible employees.

Author Bio: Kirstie Nugent is a mechanical designer at RMF Engineering with experience in designing HVAC, plumbing, and medical-gas systems. Her project experience includes assessment of existing conditions, building information modeling/coordination, as well as contract document production. She has experience in coordinating designs with all disciplines including mechanical, electrical, plumbing, architectural, structural, and specialty systems. Nugent currently hires and manages all co-ops for the Raleigh, N.C., office’s Mechanical Buildings Department. She, herself, was a co-op for RMF before being hired as a full-time employee.