Engineering Students, Alumni Mentors Know the Difference Internships and Co-Ops Make in Academic and Professional Careers

Growing up in Saco, Maine, Francie Foehrenbach was determined to figure out how things worked.

“I loved to build stuff and there was no toy that I hadn’t ripped apart,” says Foehrenbach, now a senior mechanical engineering major at the University of Maine.

She’s resolutely pursued her interests and strengths. Foehrenbach learned AutoCAD (software application for computer-aided design and drafting) at vocational school and, prior to her senior year at Thornton Academy, she attended Consider Engineering — UMaine’s Pulp & Paper Foundation’s free four-day summer program on campus.

Foehrenbach earned a scholarship to UMaine and is now gaining hands-on training at Woodard & Curran, a 700-employee engineering, science and operations company that specializes in projects for municipalities, industries, colleges, real estate companies, and food and beverage manufacturers.

“It is the best experience you can have and the knowledge gained far surpasses any theoretical knowledge taught in a lecture,” she says of the internship, which has led to a full-time engineering job at Woodard & Curran after graduation.

Dana Humphrey, dean of the College of Engineering, says a key priority of the College of Engineering is to connect students with meaningful internships.

“This allows students to apply their engineering skills in the real world and to ‘test drive’ a company to see if they would like to make their career there,” Humphrey says. “Moreover, the companies get to ‘test drive’ our students.

“Given how many companies come back year after year for more interns, they clearly like UMaine graduates,” Humphrey says. “Companies report that they have 80 percent long-term retention of UMaine engineers who started as interns. This is clearly a win-win for our students and employers.”

And a lot of UMaine students are getting in on the action. In the UMaine College of Engineering, upward of 80 percent of undergraduates are involved in internships and co-ops as part of their academic experience.

UMaine senior Christopher Cronin is part of that 80 percent. He works a few cubicles away from Foehrenbach in Woodard & Curran’s fifth-floor office overlooking downtown Bangor.

“Meeting other engineers, whether they have one year of experience or 30, is extremely helpful because I am able to learn something new every time,” says Cronin, a civil engineering major and construction management minor.

The Canton, Maine, native has participated in a number of projects at Woodard & Curran, including sizing storm water pipes, working on erosion control plans, contacting state agencies and assisting with the renovation of a building.

Sarah Lingley, a 2010 UMaine graduate who mentored Cronin last summer at Woodard & Curran, agrees with Humphrey that internships are beneficial for all involved. She interned two summers at Woodard & Curran before joining the firm full time after she graduated. “The best way to get a job is for someone to remember your face (and) name,” she says.

Internships give students “a chance to explore different areas of civil engineering to see if they have a preference that they would like to specialize in,” says Lingley, who designs, does cost estimates, develops bid documents and oversees construction. “And maybe most important, it provides them with an invaluable networking opportunity.”

Mentors benefit, says the Machias native, because in addition to getting help with their workload, they share knowledge they’ve amassed with interns who are eager to learn.

“It really makes the mentors reflect on how much they have learned since school,” says Lingley. “Also, in my experience, interns have open minds as they have not necessarily been taught how to do everything yet, and when allowed the opportunity, can find better ways to execute tasks than the sometimes old-fashioned way things are typically done.”

And, Lingley says, internships are a marketing tool for companies seeking to hire the best and brightest prospects. “If the students have a great internship, they talk about it at school, and nothing is better than word-of-mouth marketing,” she says. “It takes time and effort to make an internship valuable, but it is worth it for both parties in the end. The intern I mentored worked out so well that he came back again this year.”

Nathan McLaughlin, Cronin’s mentor this summer, is glad Cronin returned. “Chris is a good example of the quality product UMaine produces,” says McLaughlin, a 1998 UMaine graduate from Old Town. “We’re lucky to have him. He’s going to be a great engineer.”

Internships give companies the chance to “test drive potential new hires,” says Cindy Daigle, a 1997 UMaine grad and process engineer at Texas Instruments in South Portland. “The program also builds bridges between schools and industry, allowing two-way continuous improvement of curriculums,” says Daigle, who majored in chemical engineering.

Students, she says, see how textbook learning applies in the real world and can be motivated to take specialty classes when they return to school. “It’s also a chance to start building a professional network,” says the Madawaska native.

Lacie Kennedy interned at National Semiconductor (now Texas Instruments) when she was majoring in chemical engineering at UMaine. Since graduating in 2002, Kennedy has worked as a plasma etch process engineer at Texas Instruments, a global semiconductor design and manufacturing company.

“Having internships during college helped confirm that I had made the right choice in my major, and also really improved my confidence level for entering the workforce after graduation,” she says. “I knew that I’d be able to get to work right away and make a contribution to the company because I already had a lot of training behind me.”

And, she says, nothing tops being around other engineers. The College of Engineering felt like one big family,” says the graduate of Deering High School. “It was helpful living on an engineering floor in my dorm the first two years because I was around people who understood my workload, and it was easy to work on projects together and form study groups. Eleven years later, most of my closest friends are people I met at UMaine in engineering classes.”

Kennedy says a similar sense of cooperation exists with her co-workers. “You might not think of engineering as being a very social job, but at a 24-7 manufacturing facility, it is. We constantly have to work with other engineers, manufacturing technicians and equipment technicians in order to solve problems,” she says.

“My group, in particular, has a wonderful camaraderie and we help each other out every single day. TI really promotes teamwork across sites, so I’ve had the chance to work with groups from Texas, Japan and Europe.”

Each year, UMaine’s Engineering Job Fair affords students an ideal opportunity to make connections with firms seeking interns and employees. In 2012, more than 900 UMaine students and nearly 80 companies attended the event. The fair’s popularity has increased exponentially since the inaugural fair in 2000 when 83 students and 13 employers participated.

“Many of the employers who participate in the Engineering Job Fair are alumni of the University of Maine and they enjoy returning to Orono to recruit new talent for their organizations,” says Patty Counihan, director of the UMaine Career Center.

“In fact, we now have participating employers who lined up their first jobs with their companies as a result of attending the Engineering Job Fair when they were UMaine students. Their participation has gone full circle, from being a job-seeking student to being a hiring manager or recruiter for their company.”

David Hart, a 2013 UMaine graduate and a full-time test engineer at Texas Instruments, says attending the Engineering Job Fair was instrumental for him to secure an internship, then a dream job.

“Fall semester junior year, I was taking Electronics I, which was my first in-depth course in semiconductor fundamentals,” says Hart. “I enjoyed the material, which began to interest me in the semiconductor industry.”

At the Engineering Job Fair, the Portland, Maine, resident met Kim Millick, a former Texas Instruments human resources manager. Hart handed her his resume, an interview followed during a school break and he was hired for an internship that summer.

“An internship is a great opportunity for you to get your foot in the door with a company. It may also help you figure out what you do and don’t like, as well as where you may want to work in the future,” says Hart.

“Interning was a great opportunity for me to become familiar with technical things and people I am now working with in my full-time job. It also helped me understand how a large company works, which made the transition into my full-time job that much easier.”

The 2013 Engineering Job Fair is in October at the New Balance Student Recreation Center.