Photo:Parsons Corp.
Jessica Wright and Mike Kelly are recent interns now working at Parsons.

With big demand for engineering and construction talent, the internship is morphing from a way for students to get their feet wet into an inside track to nail post-graduation employment. To attract the best and brightest, employers are offering internships to sophomores—and freshmen—to
test their abilities and build relationships. Students get a chance to sample the workplace and their career choices before signing on the dotted line. Often, it is a match made in heaven.

“Companies coming in to look at our seniors are finding that 80 to 85% of them have already committed to an employer just from their summer job or internship experience,” says Matthew Eicher, industry relations manager at Arizona State University, Tempe. “Companies with defined internship programs are sneaking up and taking the top students.”

That scenario has also played out at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, where up to 54% of students go to work at the place where they interned. “This is the first semester we are seeing companies extending job offers to May grads in September,” says Jeni Moore, placement coordinator for the school’s Dept. of Construction Management. “They are also interactively interviewing for interns [now] instead of waiting until spring.”


Gone are the days when students littered career fairs with resumes and jumped at the first offer. Today, they have multiple offers and consider opportunities carefully. Many go where they have already begun to fit into the workplace culture. They also ask tougher questions, even when accepting internships.
“Students ask about the size of projects, our layoff history and our 401(k). That’s pretty good for people not even graduated yet,” says Eric Noel, a senior geotechnical engineer for Kleinfelder Inc. in Diamond Bar, Calif. He started as a summer intern in 1991. Kleinfelder rotates interns into different company arenas to heighten the experience.

>Rosemary Hill, engineering career services director at Ohio State University, Columbus, says that with most graduates having multiple offers last year, 17% “simply accepted an offer from their co-op or intern employer with no more interviewing.”

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  • Industry demand for interns has spurred curriculum changes. ASU construction management students now must complete internships as sophomores and juniors. Students also are exposed earlier to concepts such as estimating and surveying, with possible new courses on workplace behavior and protocols added to prepare 19 and 20-year-olds for the corporate world.

    Based on industry feedback, Colorado State is revising its pre-internship course, which students take prior to their experience. “This year, we changed the class and brought in more material about project administration,” says Moore.

    While student interns can see if they are a good fit with a company, employers have a chance to evaluate students’ field skills and work ethic beyond a brief interview. The retention rate of new hires with previous internship experience is extremely high. The John R. McAdams Co. Inc., a Durham, N.C., design firm, hired three interns and co-op students in the last two years. “It’s worked out very well for us,” says Cathy Hall, human resources director. “It’s a win-win situation for everybody because the students are getting an opportunity to assess us as a company and we are getting to assess their skills, work ethic and see if they are a good fit for the company.”

    A decade ago, contractor PCL, Edmonton, Alberta, began analyzing retention of new hires by comparing those who had interned for one or two years with those hired through career fairs or on-campus interviews. “We were shocked,” say Denny Dahl, director of human resources for U.S. operations in Denver. “The retention rate for previous interns who were later hired was 68%.... Since then, we have shifted our recruiting focus more toward internships.” PCL saw a 30% increase in interns between 2005 and 2006. Today, its retention rate of internship alumni stands at more than 90%, while that for new employees without an internship hovers at 30%.

    Merrick & Co., an Aurora, Colo., engineer, launched its internship program in 2000 and has since “hired a lot of the interns we recruit,” says CEO Ralph Christie. He says his participation as an undergrad in the University of Cincinnati engineering co-op, now a top-ranked program by U.S. News & World Report, was a big motivator.

    Photo:Parsons Corp.
    Student James Perry with Parsons engineering manager David Young in the firm's Boston office.

    Better Bonding

    Gregs Thomopoulos, CEO of Stanley Consultants, Muscatine, Iowa, says internships benefit new hires and employers with “added bonding, so students can be excited about the type of company we are.” The firm now offers scholarships to juniors that also gives them “first crack” at internships at its 14 offices nationwide.

    Parsons Corp. also has been proactive in creating structured programs for interns and co-op students. “It’s no secret we are trying to get a leg up on the best and brightest,” says Andrew Berger, vice president and director of human resources in its Charlotte, N.C., office.

    Yaye-Mah Boye’s four-year internship with DMJM-Harris led to full-time work after graduation from Polytechnic University.

    Yaye-Mah Boye, a 2005 civil engineering graduate of Polytechnic University, Brooklyn, N.Y., took a job in Manhattan with DMJM Harris, a unit of AECOM, but was hardly a new employee. She had interned there since 2001 while in school. “During those years, I obtained valuable CM experience and understanding of project execution and client constraints. You get to understand theory you learn at school,” Boye says. “When I started, I did not know how to write a professional letter or read plans. But when I graduated, I had enough experience to bypass the entry-level engineering position.” She now works on several complex area highway projects.

    And it is not just private sector firms, with more money to offer, that attract students. Craig Young, a civil engineering grad from North Carolina State University, Raleigh, got “a paying job” with the state Dept. of Transportation in 1995 because of previous intern experience when most peers opted for graduate school in a down market. That led to his selection for the agency’s engineering training program, one of only 20 candidates from a pool of 120, he says. While Young has since left NCDOT for an engineering firm, “my early involvement with it introduced me to a field of work that I may have never considered,” he says. 

    "You get to understand the theory you learn at school. I had a terrific experience."

    — Yaye-Mah Boye, Civil Engineer, 
    DMJM Harris, New York City

    Christopher Mojica, a Polytechnic senior, weighed internship offers carefully before choosing New York state’s highway agency, where he works on intelligent transportation systems. “I wanted to be clear on what I was signing myself up for. Some companies would be very vague and only tell you the hours and pay. DOT told me about projects in progress and upcoming ones so I had a better idea of the work,” says Mojica, 21, who graduates in June with a civil engineering B.S. He started working in the field checking contractors' work and writing daily reports before heading into the office to assist project engineers. Now he spends one day a week in the field and another in the office.

    Competition for graduates is tough and growing tougher. “More and more companies are learning the value of intern programs and using that as a strategic tool when they make hiring decisions or look at students,” says Kirsten Shaw, assistant director for corporate and industry relation with Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering where internship listings have risen for the past three years. “Companies are being more flexible and taking sophomore or freshman because they understand the internships are a recruiting pipeline.”

    As employers awaken to the power of internships and coops, schools are responding by creating specialized programs to meet demand and competition for students is increasing, says Dahl, who traveled to Purdue University in October with four other PCL employees to take 13 former interns out to dinner to discuss their summer work experience. “Providing a meaningful experience for students is the best thing you can do. Those students are the best way to raise visibility of our company with students. As a result, we are capturing even more recruits at job fairs.”

    Internship demand for University of Texas-Austin engineering students is up  17%, and co-op listings are up 21%. “Across the industry, business is up so firms need help. If students have a good experience, they are the best advertising because they come back and tell classmates,” says Michael Powell, director of its engineering career assistance center.

    Larry Chiarelli, Polytechnic CM program assistant director, says the school by next fall hopes to set up a program that will create an affiliation between employers and students “the day they walk in as freshmen and continue through their years at Poly.”

    Making Choices

    Students are eager to take advantage of a chance for a career-choice litmus test. Sophomore Tom Lindwall, 19, worked for R.A. Bright Construction, Plainfield, Ill., for two summers before college and after freshman year. “The more experience you have, the better off you are,” says the civil engineering major at Bradley University, Peoria, Ill. He will intern with a design firm this summer.

    Bradley CM student Michael Zika, 20, worked for Kiewit Construction after sophomore year and will return for his third internship this summer. “I liked working for a large contractor,” he says. “I was given the same responsibilities as a new hire, and, as time progressed, I was given more.” Zika hopes to land a permanent job there after graduation.

    Once students find a company they like, many extend internships beyond summer break and develop relationships with firms to parlay good relations into a job offer. Duke University student Wendy Young is joining General Electric Aviation’s Edison Engineering Development Program after graduation this spring. “Having interned there this past summer was so valuable in that it let me see how GE fits with what my goals are for my future career,” says the 20-year-old mechanical engineering student.

    Photo:John Mcadams Co.
    John McAdams' employees (far left and right) assist interns Brent West and Aida Marino.

    “I had one of the most amazing experiences this past summer at my internship,” says Aida Marino, a Duke senior who worked for McAdams. “I did so many different things, from helping track down and fill out municipalities’ permit forms and applications, to teaching myself and learning how to use Autodesk Land Desktop, Land Enabled Map and even Storm CAD.”

    Marino had a lot to learn during her internship in the final weeks but worked side-by-side with an engineer helping design a 13-network storm system for two phases of a 300-lot subdivision. “I helped perform various calculations and compile the storm report of all the data I collected and designed.  This last project was by far the most rewarding part of my summer because I felt like I was finally doing something that mattered.”

    But students find that internships vary widely in types of tasks and responsibilities given to part-time hires. While some are stuck making copies or filing paperwork, others are out doing hard labor. Students provided with mentors, a plan for progress during the internship and a structure for responsibility say they enjoyed the experience much more than friends who were given minimal work or projects without adequate supervision. Young remembers being low man on the totem pole, having to do tasks shunned by co-workers, such as measuring elevations in active sewer lines, and enduring epithets such as “grunt” or “college boy.”

    DMJM-Harris’ Boye recalls feeling overwhelmed at times managing full-time school and a full-time job, “but it does a wonder on time management skills,” she says. Polytechnic’s Mojica says having internship experience will be invaluable when he starts his job search. “Not only will I know what type of questions to ask recruiters, but I'll be able to be more specific in terms of what I am looking for in a position and what I want to accomplish,” he says.