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Partnership at Work

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EXPERIENCE REQUIRED

UWM Students Go Beyond the Classroom to Get Sought After Experience

“Co-op is an extension of classroom learning. Gaining real work experience offers students the opportunity to learn skills that can’t be emulated in a laboratory or classroom,” says Juli Pickering, Director of CEAS Career Services. The CEAS co-op program offers an opportunity for students to gain professional, full time experience before graduation. Pickering acts as a direct link between CEAS students and employers, assisting with co-op, internship and full-time job placement. She also teaches a required Professional Seminar course, in which students learn skills such as writing resumes and cover letters, networking and interviewing, liability and professional ethics. At the conclusion of the Professional Seminar, students are prepared to search effectively for employment. 

United Water (UW) is one of the companies that maintains a relationship with CEAS, hiring co-op students on a continuous basis. UW is a water and waste water company that owns and operates water utilities all over the country. Mike Link, Director of Technical Services at UW, one of the supervisors of co-op students, is a huge supporter of the program. Mike participated in the co-op program himself, working with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District (MMSD). (UW holds a contract with MMSD to run and operate the area’s waste water plants.) Link realized the impact of his participation in the co-op program when graduating from CEAS during a recession in 1983: “The only students being hired for full-time employment prior to graduation were those who had co-op experience.”

Bridging Classroom Learning With the Real World

Jeremy Mosley, a junior mechanical engineering student, recently completed his first co-op semester with UW. At UW, Mosley learned how to repair an air conditioning unit for a 10-story building. “The thermodynamics course at school can only cover so much. At UW I had the opportunity to gain experience that’s applicable. I now know how any a/c unit works – big or small,” says Mosley. Now that he is back in classes, Mosley realizes how his work at UW is affecting his learning. He can visualize what his teachers are talking about.

Jeremy Triebenbach, a senior civil engineering student and former UW co-op participant, added that prior to co-op he would sometimes sit in a class and wonder why he had to learn a particular topic. After co-op, he began to understand why it was important to have this background information.

Connie Ridgway, a senior civil engineering student, concurs: “Through my first co-op term I was able to experience a different aspect of engineering that I would never have been able to learn in a classroom at school.” One of Ridgway’s first projects with UW was to test the ammonia level in water samples, which relates closely to laboratory work she would do at school – “without the lab report,” she adds.

The Road to Full-Time Employment

Many students who co-op with a particular company then interview for full-time positions with that company when they approach graduation. Link notes that these students are already trained, they have close to 2 years of experience, and they are emotionally and professionally invested in the company. “They stand head and shoulders above other candidates,” says Link. Triebenbach,   due to graduate in December ’06, is currently in the middle of his post-graduation job search. While he is keeping his options open, he will be interviewing with UW and adds that staying there is a real possibility.

Triebenbach spent 3 semesters at UW, working in capital repair and maintenance. By the end of his co-op employment, Triebenbach was managing the entire bidding process: evaluating the equipment’s damage, preparing the specifications, releasing the requirements, evaluating the bids and managing the contract. He has identified his preference to work in the business and project management side of engineering, rather than focusing on designing: “I couldn’t have made that decision without co-op,” says Triebenbach.

Not Just Technical  

Pickering points out that co-op goes beyond technical training. She says, “Students gain business, communications, presentation and writing skills.” Link adds that UW puts co-op students on a double track: technical and business. Students learn everything from reading and making drawings, to dealing with operators and record keeping. In the students’ last co-op semester they are given a full-blown project to lead, including design, procurement and production. 

During the students’ first co-op semester with UW, they are responsible for giving middle and high school students tours of the facilities. Mosley talks about his experience giving tours: “I’m naturally shy, but UW forced me to present by leading the tours. I wouldn’t have gained this experience through my classes alone.” Ridgway explains that giving the tours helps her to understand the plant process better. If she was asked a question that she didn’t know, she would find the answer, and then e-mail the response to the person who asked. “We need to be prepared. People will bring up issues from the news as they relate to the work that’s being done in the plant. So, we really have to know what we’re talking about,” says Ridgway.

Pickering mentions that many companies require co-op students to make formal presentations at the end of their term. She recalls one student who amazed her with the development of his speaking ability, his knowledge of the product topic, and confidence in his work. “If he were trying to sell me a lock and key system for my car, I’d buy it,” she jokes. 

Support

Students do not walk blindly into a co-op position. In addition to Professional Seminar, Pickering also prepares students by meeting with them prior to their work. She talks to them about issues such as ethics, maintaining professional behavior, and following company rules. Link compliments the structure of the program (evaluations are completed by the student and the employer at the end of each co-op term). He has been impressed with Pickering’s diligence in routinely following up on the co-op students to find out how they’re doing.

UW also offers a very supportive environment for the co-op students to learn and work. Mosley refers to Link as an understanding, flexible supervisor: “He knows what it feels like to walk into a situation knowing absolutely nothing. He provides the groundwork so that we can get something out of it.” Triebenbach adds that everyone is extremely helpful. “They allow you to work independently, while also checking in on you.” “[Link] makes you feel comfortable asking any questions, no matter what they are,” says Ridgway.  

Success

Pickering emphasizes the amount of responsibility that companies trust their co-op students with; giving them assignments that affect the business. She continuously receives extremely positive reviews from the employers. “Our students understand what hard work is. Many of them have practical backgrounds and have valuable hands-on skills from experiences such as farm work, car maintenance, or computer repairs. They aren’t afraid to get dirty, and employers value that,” says Pickering.

Through co-op, students are able to lead a project from start to finish. When they see the results they feel extremely confident and proud of the work they have done, explains Link. He encourages other companies to participate in the co-op program: “I am a big supporter of the program; it is a great way to help students complete their education.”

“At United Water they treat you like you’re already an engineer, so I’m able to gain real experience. My work is different every day, so it’s never boring. I love it.”
-Connie Ridgway, Senior Civil Engineering Major and Co-op Student, College of Engineering and Applied Science