Tuesday, July 22, 2008


When we hire students for summer jobs or internships, how many of us really challenge the students with work assignments? How often do we give them “safe” assignments or menial work just because it is easy and risk-free to do so.

My last summer job, before graduating with my engineering degree, was working in a process control laboratory for a large multinational. Technically, my job was to fill in for the regular chemists while they were on vacation. The plant relied on the data from the lab to control its operations, so it was an important role in keeping the plant running efficiently.

I was especially excited because my employer trained me to operate a million dollar mass spectrometer to analyze the ore samples for trace minerals/metals. It was a new technology we hadn’t really learned about in school, but the actual operation was really not that complicated, since the machine did virtually all the work.

However, one evening, when I was on night shift, the mass spec would not operate. The chemist who had been working with it during afternoon shift told me he’d been having problems with it.

The tests needed to be run somehow to keep the plant operating, and the only alternative was to use “wet” analytical chemical tests, for which we had a manual, but on which I’d had no training or experience. I called in to the main lab at headquarters and explained the situation and asked if they could send someone to check my results because I was unfamiliar with the wet tests and wanted to be sure I was providing reliable data to the plant.

About halfway through the shift, a chemist finally came over from the main lab and began to check the results of my testing by duplicating the procedure. Fortunately, his findings corroborated mine, and I felt very relieved and we worked together for the balance of my shift. Afterwards, my supervisor commended me for coping with the challenges of that evening and ensuring the plant had reliable data to operate by.

What I took away from this experience was that, by entrusting me with an important function and leaving me to operate an expensive piece of equipment, my employer was taking a big risk. I think this instilled a sense of responsibility in me that helped drive me to ensure I didn’t let them down. Something did, in fact, go wrong, but they had a backup plan and it was well enough documented that, even without training, I was able to follow it.

Dealing with a challenge such as this one built my self-confidence, and the commendation from my supervisor reinforced this.

Now fast-forward to about 30 years later, and our design department was hiring a summer intern.

Our design department manager wanted to assign the student to “assist” the other designers with some pretty safe tasks. However, during our interviews with the student, we discovered she has learned how to operate the same CAD software we used, so I told the design manager I wanted her to be able to produce workable designs on our CAD system.

As the summer progressed, she started out by doing some basic designs and we gave her opportunities to do more creative projects. Most importantly, on one project for our parent company, we used one of her designs and she got to see the project through to completion. She became very proficient with our software and was pumping out basic designs faster than the permanent staff. We were very pleased with her work.

As the summer came to a close, we took her out for an interview over lunch. During this, she mentioned enthusiastically that she felt she was the luckiest member of her class because she actually got to produce real designs. Most of her classmates were given menial tasks and never got the hands-on experience she got with us. She would have no hesitation about coming back with us for her next work term.

Internships or summer jobs are supposed to help students apply the skills they have learned in school and hopefully learn some new skills as well. These positions are an excellent way for an employer to assess a student as a potential permanent employee – but only if we take some risks and honestly give them the opportunity to apply their skills.

From the example I cited at the outset of this posting, that summer job in the lab helped me develop as a person as well as learn some very new technology. I suppose that experience influenced me, as a manager, to give our student designer a similar opportunity. That risk was rewarded with a very productive, motivated employee who exceeded our expectations.

Isn’t this what we all want?

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