The eight-month interview: Engineering co-ops hit the ground running

Posted on 20. Apr, 2012 by in Academic Departments, Alumni, Issues, Magazine, Mechanical Engineering, Students

For UW-Madison students who take an eight-month engineering co-op with Nelson Global Products in Stoughton, Wisconsin, their first adjustment is working without a formal job description. “We give students the job description of the person they will be working next to,” says Rob Schellin, Nelson Global Products director of engineering. “We give co-ops the same opportunities and responsibilities as the full-time engineers … and we will let them rise as high as they want in their involvement.”

This simple, unscripted philosophy is an important part of the growth strategy for Nelson Global, a custom manufacturer of tubing, acoustic, emissions and other fabricated products for multiple markets, including on- and off-highway vehicles. The company just came into existence in May 2011 after being sold by Cummins Inc., where it operated as the Cummins Exhaust Group.

In this suddenly smaller company with a new slate of market opportunities, Schellin says co-ops are a great way to find talent that fits the company problem-solving business model. “We fundamentally believe that when something breaks, it broke for a reason and we need to figure out why,” says Schellin. “We’re
looking for people who are wired to think mathematically, rather than with their gut.”

Cooperatives (known as co-ops) are growing in popularity with both students and employers as a practical training experience. Co-op students are hired for eight months as full-time employees and often receive a market-comparable salary. They remain students by enrolling in a one-credit co-op course and filing a work report upon completion.

In the college, Engineering Career Services helped fill more than 250 requests for co-ops in 2011, and staff expect those numbers to rise in coming years as the economy continues to improve, says John Archambault, College of Engineering assistant dean for student development. He estimates that about 75 percent of students completing co-ops within a year of graduation receive full-time offers.

“Co-ops are able to see larger portions of projects from concept through to completion,” Archambault says. “As students are on the site longer, supervisors develop more trust and hand off more challenging and interesting assignments.”

For the companies, it’s like having an eight-month interview process, says Susan Ullman, Nelson Global Products human resources manager. “The campus turns out wonderful engineers and knowledgeable people, and our proximity to Madison is a great benefit,” she says, noting that many students opt to keep their campus apartments during their co-op. “For Nelson, the campus will be a big part of our focus for co-ops and full-time employees going forward.”

The company currently hires four co-op students each year—two for a spring and summer stint, and two summer through fall. Past co-ops within the business have been hired full-time and some are key contributors to the new company.

Brian Fossum and Nathan Derks

Nelson Global On Highway Customer Engineering Manager Nathan Derks (right), and Brian Fossum, a fourth-year mechanical engineering undergrad enrolled in the company co-op program.

One of those is Nathan Derks, a 2008 mechanical engineering graduate who is now manager of Nelson’s On Highway Customer Engineering. His 2006 co-op was in one of the company’s other units, and he came back to work again in 2007 with its exhaust group. “What the co-op taught me was about focusing—there’s a lot more project management in a co-op than you will find in the curriculum,” Derks says.  “The ME curriculum was the toolkit; the co-op was the application.”

Schellin says Derks deserves a lot of credit for the design and product development in the company’s thermal management exhaust tubing area. Diesel engines now require after-combustion treatment with a catalytic converter or soot filter. This chemical reaction requires heat to operate, and Derks designs products that maximize heat retention from the engine, resulting in greater efficiency.

Derks’ co-op also became a case of job influencing school. Drawn to the hands-on work available at the company, Derks joined the human-powered vehicle team his senior year, which allowed him to work with steel frames and log more time in the machine shop. He also took a second, non-required statistics course after seeing its importance for design problem-solving.

Derks has now come full circle: In January, he started supervising his own UW-Madison co-op student. “I kind of threw him to the wolves, to be honest,” he says jokingly. “My attitude is, ‘Go do this and you may bring it back wrong, but I’ll correct it and you’ll learn from the experience.’”

Schellin, a 2002 mechanical engineering graduate and alumnus of the Formula SAE team, says he loves to recruit students from the vehicle teams and other competitions because they have that fundamental drive to figure out how things work. Nelson engineers also work best when they are involved in the manufacturing process. “When they work with people at the plant and use the tribal knowledge of the factory together with their mathematical skills,”
he says, “then they can do something really amazing.”Bucky Badger head

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