Tim Guite worked on a key controller for his placement company Breathing Buildings.

What to look for in a year in industry

It’s important that students thinking about their industrial year understand fully what it’s going to involve and how they can gain the most from their experience.

Having a year in industry is now a required feature of many good engineering or technology degrees, but it is important that students thinking about their industrial year understand fully what it’s going to involve and how they can gain the most from their experience.

The idea of a year in industry can be traced back to the original scheme of that name “The Year in Industry” (YINI), a name that has since been applied generically to many other similar placement year programmes. The original YINI still operates and has been run for over 25 years by my organisation, education charity EDT. It currently places around 500 students each year in 300 top UK companies including Shell, Rolls Royce, EDF, Network Rail and GKN. Students are placed either pre-university for a working gap year, or during their degrees for a year of industrial experience.

Drawing on EDT’s experience of running placement years, here are the key features students should look for if they are aiming to take a year in industry.

An interview process

Nobody finds interviews easy but if employers are interviewing for placement year students you can be sure that they are serious about the exercise. They are looking for good candidates because they have something good to offer and don’t want to waste their resources.

An interview also allows you to look at the company and to ensure that what they are proposing to offer you meets your own needs and expectations. If you are being offered a placement without a serious interview process I would suggest you need to check that you aren’t jumping on the end of a ‘conveyor belt’ placement that you won’t find rewarding.

A commitment to significant project leadership

A placement year is not a ‘tick box’ exercise. At the end of your degree potential employers will want to know what you were doing in your year and what skills you have gained. They won’t be so interested in the technical skills you have learned, they will be interested in the soft skills, such as team working, time management, presentation skills, communications skills and, significantly, project leadership.

At our year-end celebrations I am constantly impressed by the way companies trust placement students with projects which are important to the company and have a considerable impact on the bottom line.

The last academic year was no exception as I saw a Shell division entrust a complex transfer of file management systems onto Microsoft Sharepoint to placement student, Jonathan Hodges, a process which was mission critical to the business.

I saw natural ventilation company Breathing Buildings entrust a major redesign of their control technology to Tim Guite, the impact of the project being right at the point of maximum user interaction.

I saw Siemens entrust Riccardo Novaglia with a project to design software for the crucial task of testing multiple circuit boards in Siemens systems.

A good placement will give a student an unnerving level of responsibility, a responsibility that will give something of real value on the student’s CV. A placement year that sees you just doing a job is much less useful than one that sees you leading one or more major projects.

An investment in training and mentoring

When exploring a placement year it is important to find out how seriously the company is taking your training. If they are just going to put you in a box marked ‘placement student’ to do routine tasks, you will gain little from your year.

A good company placement will involve a commitment to the company providing training and mentoring. Find out whether you will have access to internal and external training provision and what level of mentor contact you can expect.

We find that many companies will use early career engineers for mentoring, often people who themselves have done a YINI and understand the importance of being well supported through it.

External training is also vital. We have found that the training courses we give access to through a partnership with EIC Training (The Energy Industries Council) are highly valued as they are designed to enhance presentation skills, technical report writing, negotiation skills and many other key areas that can be transferred across job functions. A good placement year should give a student similar opportunities.

A commitment to celebration and continuing contact

A valuable placement year will generally be celebrated because it is something worthwhile. At YINI we do this by giving students and companies the opportunity to show off what they have been doing at regional and national awards which celebrate the projects being undertaken.

We also find that companies are keen to keep in touch with the students they have invested in over a placement year. Of the gap year students that we place, we find that typically 25 per cent are offered some kind of scholarship for their degree by their companies and a large proportion will go back to the company during university holidays.

Of course, many are also employed by their placement company after their degree, so it is important to take your placement in a company you can imagine yourself working for in the future.

A sensible wage

Placement years should be paid at a sensible level but it is important to recognise that the highest salaries do not always make the best placements. Much more valuable is the company that is willing to expend resources on training and mentoring, not just on salary.

A placement year should not be seen as a job for a year but as a training and experience year, giving insights into engineering and technology projects in a real commercial environment. It is the learning that can be transferred to future employment that is of real value. Future prospective employers will not be asking you what you earned on your year in industry, but what skills and experience you gained through the training and mentoring you received.

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