Getting a taste of the real world

by Daniel McCabe

It started off casually enough. Former McGill engineering professor Jim Provan (now dean at the University of Victoria) fielded a phone call from IBM back in 1990. The company was looking for engineering students who wanted to take time off to do an internship. So Provan went to the classes he taught and asked if any of his students were interested. Four took up the offer.

That phone call from IBM proved to be fateful--it led Provan and other professors in the faculty to set up a regular program to promote internship opportunities. Today the Internship Year Program for Engineering and Science (IYES) deals with hundreds of applications from students seeking an internship with the dozens of companies that now participate in the program.

After several years as a pilot project, IYES was recently given permanent status. The program is offering many students in engineering and other disciplines a taste of the careers that await them after graduation.

"When you go to school, you don't really get a sense of whether you're cut out for what you want to do after you graduate. You don't even know if you'll like it. This sort of internship helps you to answer those questions," says Eric Lanoix, a mechanical engineering student currently working at the Canadian Space Agency.

"We feel that industrial experience is extremely beneficial for our students," says Dean of Engineering John Dealy. "They get to see what life is really like in a working environment. When they come back here, they see how their learning fits into that."

Before IYES was instituted, McGill was often criticized by its students for not having the sort of co-op program in place that is popular at universities such as Waterloo. Dealy says that IYES has several advantages over co-op programs.

"With a co-op, students generally do a term at school, then a term at work," says Dealy. "Since a big chunk of your student body is away at any given time, you end up having to teach many courses twice a year. That gets to be expensive."

The IYES program is easier on course schedules since the students who participate in it are gone from campus for eight to 16 months--either an entire school year or a school year and two summers. When IYES students return to McGill in the fall, they have at least two semesters to take any course they missed during their internship.

"Also, employers have the students for longer periods of time and not just for a term. The students have the opportunity to undertake a significant project and bring it to completion," says Dealy.

In addition, the internship is offered to students who have usually completed two years of studies, whereas co-ops often involve first-year students. "The first-year students don't tend to be as valuable to the companies and they often end up doing menial things," points out Dealy.

A drawback is that not every engineering student is guaranteed an internship--Dealy says schools like Waterloo and Sherbrooke often have 10 to 15 people organizing co-ops, whereas McGill has one sessional employee devoted to IYES--program coordinator Catherine Gerols.

The students taking part in IYES prefer the program over co-ops as well. Says Josh Neufeld, a microbiology student working at Environment Canada, "I'm just starting to feel comfortable here after a few months. With a co-op, by the time you get used to the place where you're working, the co-op period is over and you have to go back to school."

Dealy gives Gerols much of the credit for the growing popularity of IYES. "She takes great delight in finding the right student for the right job."

Gerols says she detects a change in the students she works with once they return from an internship. "When they come back, there is a new maturity about them. They know exactly what they need from school and where they want to go. I swear even their voices change."

Gerols sees the IYES program as a win-win proposition for students and employers. "When the students graduate after participating in IYES , they leave McGill in a higher salary bracket, because they already have professional job experience." As for the companies that supply internships, they get to "test-drive" promising students, to see if they might want to hire them after they graduate.

Students and companies taking part in IYES are each asked to make a $500 contribution to the program. Since students usually earn at least $15,000 from an internship, the fee isn't a hardship. In fact, most students have internships that last 16 months and usually earn considerably more.

Companies participating in IYES include General Electric Canada, the Royal Bank and Rolls Royce Inc. The Faculty of Engineering runs the program, but students from Macdonald Campus and the Faculty of Science have also received internships.

Most of the internships available are geared towards computer science and electrical engineering students, says Gerols. "One of the things I have to work on is getting internships for other disciplines."

Dealy says that once the Wong building is completed, the IYES program will be located there as part of a new engineering student employment office also involving the Office of Liason with Industry, the student-run McGill Engineering Summer Employment Program and the University's Career Placement Service.

At Environment Canada, Neufeld is part of an environmental stewardship group. "We make sure that Environment Canada's own activities are environmentally viable." His team has instituted recycling and composting programs that have significantly reduced the flow of garbage from the government department.

"After I graduate I want to teach and do research," says Neufeld. "But this has taught me how to make an official project proposal and how to implement a program. Those are good skills to have."

Working at the Canadian Space Agency has been a dream come true for Lanoix who's wanted to pursue research connected with the astronaut program "for as long as I can remember."

Lanoix is participating in experiments related to space vision--the technology that enables spacecraft to "see" each other and allows space shuttles to dock at the Russian space station Mir. "I'm not just seeing what's it's like to work in this field, I'm actually doing it," says Lanoix.