When I first logged onto my computer in summer 2021, I was beyond nervous. I had just accepted the role of corporate intern at Caterpillar Inc., where I would be working on the product service development team. As I started my internship, I felt like I didn’t know anything—and I mostly didn’t. The scariest part for me was thinking I would be expected to perform a job I didn’t have the knowledge or experience for. But that first day made me realize that I wasn’t expected to know everything. I was there to learn.
What helped me become more comfortable in my position was being welcomed by several individuals who created an inclusive work environment. One of those individuals was my mentor, Christine. Within a week, I got involved in Caterpillar’s Women’s Initiative Network and was assigned a mentor to guide me through my internship. Christine not only mentored me but encouraged me to find purpose in my work. She provided me with knowledge and insight into the corporate world, and she encouraged me to learn about the different career paths at CAT. Because of her, I made a variety of connections from the marketing, engineering, and leadership rotational programs, and even learned more about travel engineering opportunities.
Once I was comfortable in my new role, my internship didn’t seem as scary. If I had a question on a project, I knew someone would be there to help me find an answer. Some parts of my internship were enhanced by the skills I had gained through my schooling. My education gave me the skills I needed to build stronger relationships with my coworkers and engage quickly with difficult projects. While my education provided me a glimpse into the corporate world, there was still a disconnect between the tasks I had at work and the education I received.
What Did School Bring to the Table?
Here are three main ideas I gained from my education that helped me with my internship:
How to communicate effectively
It is vital that students become involved in campus activities beyond the classroom before entering the workforce. Leadership and volunteer experience are not the only things employers search for, but they give students the ability to work effectively with others. I was involved in several activities on campus before I started my internship. These activities helped me grow into a stronger leader and taught me how to communicate effectively with others. Because I had worked to enhance these skills, it was easier for me to build a stronger relationship with my mentor and manager during my internship. These stronger relationships allowed me the chance to conduct several informational interviews with employees throughout the company. While there, I was able to learn about the different careers in Caterpillar and build my network.
How to think
Throughout engineering school, we are required to take several difficult courses within the STEM field. These courses encouraged me to find the most efficient way to solve problems. At times I hated this and would spend countless hours pulling my hair out, but I believe it showed me the true value of hard work. By having the ability to solve problems, I accomplished many of my given projects with ease.
How to write technical documents
Electrical engineers at Valpo University are expected to take a technical writing course. This course helps students become more aware of writing technical documents and emails. During my internship, I was tasked with revising an electrical connector publication. I had to put the document in language that our dealers would understand. My technical writing course helped me with this task as we had prepared several papers addressing a range of audience members. This was to prepare us to write in terms of individuals who may not be familiar with engineering jargon.
Where’s the Disconnect?
In my first team meeting, I learned more about real world application in electronics than I learned during my three years at college. Most of the projects were unlike anything I saw at school, and within three months I felt like I had learned a whole new language. That was when I realized most of the topics I learned in my classes were too broad and theoretical to apply to my specific job role. It was discouraging to discover that I could not apply much of what I learned in school to my internship. Although this was the case, it’s also important to understand that the electronics industry is so diverse. Most colleges encourage engineers to graduate within four years, which is a tight timeline to educate students on every aspect of every industry.
How Can Schools Bridge the Disconnect?
Schools can encourage students to engage in professional organizations such as IEEE, the IPC Student Chapters, and SMTA. By engaging in these organizations, students can learn more about careers within the electronics industry and the processes they work with in their future careers. They also gain hands-on experience even before they reach the workforce. Schools should also build their students’ professional skill sets. Students should be encouraged to participate in career fairs, which allow the development of their networking and communication skills. My college mandates all engineering students to participate in a career development program where we are taught how to build a resumé, interview with employers, and thrive at a career fair. This program helped me land my first internship and gave me the skills necessary to create deeper connections with my coworkers.
Overall, colleges should provide more insight into engineering careers, but students should also take the initiative to participate in career development programs within their school. Students should be networking, practicing their interview skills, and engaging in professional activities. Through leading professional organizations, participating in career fairs, and practicing my interview skills, I was able to get the most out of my own internship experience.
What the Industry Can Do to Help
As the electronics industry grows, we need your help to inspire students. Although STEM careers are being pursued by more students every day, this isn’t enough for the rapid growth we are experiencing within this industry. Some students aren’t even aware of different career paths (such as PCB design) because schools have a set curriculum they can teach. By attending career fairs, promoting educational webinars, and engaging in youth mentorship, we can reach our youth and jumpstart a passion for their career.
This column originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of PCB007 Magazine.