Over the last few months, we took this question to hiring managers and recruiters throughout the engineering industry, representing fields as diverse as spacecraft design, electronic component manufacturing, software, defense, energy, and transportation. We compared results with universities and career planners.
The results are unanimous: Engineering internships can be the difference between landing your dream job and taking whatever you can get.
Many Employers Demand Internship
Without exception, everyone in our survey mentioned internships as a key factor in their decision-making. In many cases, whether the applicant had an internship on their resume was more important than their final grade or GPA. Given a stack of applications from recent graduates, they’ll usually go for someone who has a little bit of work experience over someone who hasn’t.
In some cases, however, an engineering internship isn’t just a bonus: it’s a requirement. “We rarely look at a resume without an internship,” says Emily Bernstein of Pennoni Associates. “We won’t even interview them.”
Why Do Employers Value an Engineering Internship?
Your internship is, first and foremost, a way to demonstrate that you know a little about the practical side of engineering. No matter how much you’ve learned from books, lectures, and school projects, the reality of engineering is very different. It’s rarely as clean, tidy, or straightforward as solving the theoretical problems you dealt with in college. You have to confront the physical side of manufacturing or construction, perhaps working on site, and having to be familiar with safety procedures, quality standards, and teamwork.
Nupur Dokras, at Ford’s Dearborn Truck plant in Michigan, sums up the difference between work and college. “It’s not like college where you know what equations to apply, in industry you have to figure it out for yourself, and think of the systems as a whole. There isn’t always guidance on how to solve problems. You come to realize why things are done the way they are, and you have to learn communication. It can be jarring and humbling, but it’s a valuable lesson.”
However, your internship is more than just a practical experience. The mere act of getting one shows your commitment. It’s not even necessary to find an internship that directly relates to the job you’re applying for. What matters is that you did something, and that will make you stand out. Who will an employer choose: the applicant who spent their summers playing video games and watching TV, the one who took a job flipping burgers or delivery pizza, or the one who did maintenance on HVAC systems or did quality testing at a solar panel manufacturer?
Kevin Walsh, Manager of Advanced Structures at Lockheed Skunk Works explains that it helps him determine who’s serious about wanting to excel. “I know it can be hard to find an internship. This year, we only offered eight. But the fact that someone actually went out and did it shows me that they have passion and determination. That’s a deciding factor for me.”
Internship Can Be Your Way In
If you’re really lucky, you can intern for a company you really want to work for after college. If your dream is to build high performance electric cars, then you should be fighting for one of the coveted internships at Tesla. There are only five available in the US in the next year, so if you manage to land one of those, it’ll put you head and shoulders above any other applicant when you graduate. If you want to build spaceships, try SpaceX.
Recruiters will naturally give preference to applicants whose work and attitude they are already impressed with, and who are already familiar with the company, the projects, and the key personnel. It saves them time and effort on training, and they can fit you right into a role. Liz (not her real name), who worked on classified military aircraft and weapons simulators, notes that it saves time with security clearances too. “We already know who you are, and we know that we’re not going to have a problem with you working on our projects. That’s a big plus.”
The Pay’s Better Than You Think
Most typical student jobs pay little better than minimum wage. If you’re working in retail, hospitality, or service, you can expect to make $10 per hour or less. A paid engineering internship, however, pays at least double that, according to salary database Glassdoor. $20/hour is quite normal, and some firms will pay $30/hour or even more. “An engineering intern can expect to earn around 75% of what a graduate will get,” says Kathy Prem, Associate Director of Engineering Career Services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
So while your friend tending bar is making less than $400 a week and working evenings and weekends, you could be taking home a much more attractive $1000 a week, doing a regular day shift, and having plenty of time to enjoy the money you’ve earned.
An Engineering Internship Makes You Valuable
As if that wasn’t enough of an incentive, your internship will continue to put extra money in your pocket right from day one of your new job. Career advisor Todd Rhoad of Blitz Team Consulting puts a figure on it. “Roughly, your potential salary can be increased based on the following factors: social skill achievement (10%) + technical achievement (10%) + high achiever skills (5%) + experience (5%).”
Winning competitions or awards, or getting leadership positions in extra-curricular activities are clearly the dominant factor. But that internship could boost your salary by up to 10%, if you’ve had some great work experience and can use it to show your motivation, curiosity, insight, engagement and determination.
Featured Image Credit: USACE