Finding Meaningful Work in Engineering Internships

Finding Meaningful Work in Engineering Internships

Young engineering students work tirelessly to develop their careers. When they finally land a relevant internship, working becomes the best feeling in the world. However, after the excitement wear off, many come to the realization that they’ve been pigeon holed into brainless, menial tasks. They’ve become the “monkey”, only responsible for “grunt work”, with no decision making or creative opportunities. While employers are starting to take internships more seriously, it still happens. However with the right strategy, it’s possible to move past the monkey tasks and challenge yourself as a true engineering intern.

Understanding why interns are assigned “grunt work”

It can be frustrating when your internship or co-op placement doesn’t challenge you. Many students are disappointed to find themselves doing simple tasks that range from photocopying reports to scripting mindlessly.

I’ve come across internships where engineers would leave huge stacks of printed drawings on my desk. These drawings were marked up with red ink which indicated errors and revisions. My task was to go through their notes and make changes to the digital CAD file accordingly.

Another company also expected me to spend the whole internship coding a program that tightly followed every specification given and conceptual design planned.

There’s nothing wrong with being a CAD or code monkey. It can be great opportunity to get familiar with the industry. Mastering these fundamental skills to the point where you can run on auto-pilot mode is wonderful. However, engineering requires more decision making and critical thinking.

Some companies take interns very seriously and give them opportunities to think of creative solutions themselves. Unfortunately, many other companies don’t seem to do that. Before blaming employers, we need to understand why many interns are left with monkey work.

Gauging intern capability

Nobody is willing to hand an important task to the new hire, especially if they’re an intern. Full timers who assign important work need to trust their interns. Building that trust involves assessing the intern’s performance. Seeing how interns deal with “grunt work” involves the least risk. From there, they can judge the quality and speed of the intern’s performance and assign more appropriate work from there.

Training is time consuming

Sometimes, experienced full timers are too busy to train people. Especially since interns have a high turnover rate, training is both time consuming and repetitive. It can be annoying to teach the same thing to a different intern every few months. Because of this, many full timers give interns simple work which requires little to no training, something that a monkey could do.

Most economical option

At the end of the day, menial tasks need to be done. The most economical option is to have the “cheapest” person do it, and that’s usually the intern. It’s nothing personal. The opportunity cost of an expert is much higher than an intern’s. It’s important to remember that not all internships are charities. Being an intern isn’t just about gaining work experience for yourself, but also helping the business out.

Going from menial to meaningful work

It’s easy to blame companies for not handing over interesting work. But most of the time, they have valid reasons for doing so. Despite these unfavorable situations, you definitely have the power to control your workflow and fight for meaningful work.

Taking menial tasks seriously

Some interns make the mistake of not putting much effort into their menial tasks. As a result, their work becomes slow paced and low quality. Even if there’s no deadline or important audience to your work, your performance is still being judged. If you seem irresponsible and slow with simple tasks, how can colleagues trust you with important work?

Expressing your interests

After finishing small tasks quickly and correctly, make sure to tell your colleagues what you want to learn. Full time employees don’t always assume that you’re interested in entering their industry. It might seem obvious to you, but many student interns like to experiment and jump around. Taking initiative and directly tells your boss what you want to do can encourage them to assign better work.

Leaving a good impression

Even after showing your strong work ethics and interest, sometimes there’s really no interesting work available. Some interns become frustrated and leave their internship prematurely. This is a huge mistake, especially if you have nothing lined up afterwards. Internships and co-ops are already incredibly short-term. If you don’t have the resilience to sit through a couple months of boring work, it looks very bad on you. Professionals are very well-connected and bad reputation can spread like wildfire. It could ruin your chances of landing a better internship and set you back further.

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