Engineers at SFU are required to complete a minimum of three semesters of Co-op work experience before they finish their degree. This is sometimes looked at as an annoying requirement when all most of us want to do is get out of school and into the workforce with a full-time job. I think if you asked any engineer who was close to graduating, like me, you would not get even the slightest hint of animosity towards Co-op. I have had the opportunity to do five Co-op work terms with four vastly different companies. I am going to share some of my thoughts about why everyone should take advantage of Co-op and use these terms to try new things and diversify your experience without the commitment of a full-time job.
When I started my degree right out of high school I chose to do Civil engineering as that was what my uncle did and when you’re that young you really don’t know what you want. I had known for a long time that I wanted to be an Engineer but when you are starting out it is a bit of a mystery what all the different disciplines actually do. My first Co-op experience was with the District of North Vancouver in the Engineering Construction department. I had walked in there around January and dropped off my resume to the different department heads and chatted with a few about what they did and job possibilities. I didn’t hear anything for a few months, but then my phone rang and I was offered a job as a Work Inspector. The job required me to manage several different contractors that the District had hired to do things like pave roads, build sidewalks, construct culverts and other projects. Some of the key things I learned over that summer were confidence, project management skills, and most importantly, that I didn’t really like Civil engineering. After that summer I made a pretty significant decision to leave cement and asphalt behind and moved to silicon, namely Electronic Systems Engineering. Although switching universities was a big deal for me, if I hadn’t done Co-op work in the Civil field I may have graduated and not been happy with the degree and job that I had.
After spending two years doing courses at SFU I decided I better get another Co-op, as I needed to do three semesters total before I graduated. I applied for over 30 jobs at the beginning of the semester and finally got an interview with a company called Ballard Power Systems in their R&D department. I had heard about this company before when doing a project in my first year and knew they were one of the world leaders in hydrogen fuel cells. Fuel cells are like a battery but run on hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity, with the only waste product being water. Interestingly this job had nothing to do with electronics and was focused more on chemical and physics engineering. Ballard was a great place to work and introduced me to the Green engineering sector in a field I was not studying in. I asked a lot of questions, read a lot of literature and quickly became very knowledgeable about the stuff I was working on. I had the opportunity to work on several projects with other companies like Mercedes Benz and Ford. After eight months of work, I was back in school looking ahead at my next two years of classes.
I quickly realized that having transferred from another university put me in a unique position where I had some semesters with no classes available. So instead of just taking the time off I jumped at the opportunity to do another Co-op. I had just taken a robotics class and got to know the professor fairly well. Upon talking to him I asked if he had any opening in his lab. He got back to me with some projects he could afford to pay me to work on and for that summer I worked at RAMP (Robotics Algorithms and Motion Planning) labs. RAMP focused on autonomous robotics, the fields where robots see, think, and move by themselves. I was working under a PhD student to investigate using a robotic arm with sensors mounted on it to identify and grab different objects and then eventually hand them off to a human. It’s not until you start to work on this problem that you realize how hard it is. On top of this I had to learn new software programs and how to work very independently. This job gave me some really good insight into one of the fields that I was considering getting into, as well as a look at what doing graduate studies, would be like.
Up to this point, I had done four Co-op terms but none of them really involved much work with electronic hardware. I had another semester with no classes so I applied for some more Co-op jobs to fill the time and get more experience, hopefully in electronics (not to mention some much-needed money). Honeywell, a multi-billion dollar conglomerate company, has an office near my house. I had always thought about what it would be like to work there considering it was such a huge engineering company and so close to where I live. I applied to several postings they had and was asked for an interview. Three jobs were posted, one for laser sensors, one for low voltage electronics and one for high power electronics. SFU does not teach high power electronics and I had almost no knowledge of the field apart from the small portion that crosses over to my studies. When they asked what position I would take if I was given a choice I said that the first two were jobs I was comfortable doing with the knowledge I had, but that power electronics was a job I would like to have because I didn’t know anything about it, and really wanted to learn. I think that making it known right away that you don’t want to just come in and do a job is important. Going above and beyond the job they are asking for sets you apart and lets them know how much I wanted to learn ended up landing me that job.
After almost two combined years of full-time paid Co-op work experience in four very different fields, I feel like I am starting to get the hang of what I want for the future. When I go to job interviews I can show the interviewer that I have done a wide range of different things and gained many skills from each one. Having to learn four different types of engineering has made me excellent at learning new things quickly, something employers value. I have had the chance to learn what I like about companies as well as what I don’t like. It’s important to be able to match yourself with the right company for the future, something I wouldn’t have had without diversifying my Co-op experience. I highly recommend taking full advantage of the Co-op program, as well as not sticking to a single type of work. You don’t know what you like until you try it and Co-op gives you the opportunity to try new things without committing to a company full-time.
Beyond the Blog
Learn more about the Engineering Co-op program.