July 21, 2011 — From astronauts to leaders of Fortune 500 companies, the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science has a record of educating technically astute and leadership-ready engineers. Soon, more of Virginia's numerous technology-driven companies will be able to find – and hire – these U.Va. engineers, thanks to new internship and career advice offered by the school's unique distance education program.
Over the past six months, PRODUCED in Virginia has been adapting to the workforce demands of these companies, as well as its students' career goals. Program leaders have been offering career advice, coordinating internships and holding career fairs.
Companies in southside and southwest Virginia are seeing the highest numbers of PRODUCED interns, but the program is expanding throughout the commonwealth, and other regions will soon be able to make similar connections.
"For students who have the dream and skills to become an engineer, we are opening the door," said James Groves, assistant dean for research and outreach at the Engineering School and director of the program. "For companies that are looking to hire talented engineers from the region, we are delivering."
PRODUCED's curriculum was created for nontraditional students who may be balancing the demands of a family and career. The program allows students in participating Virginia Community College System schools to take classes online and earn a bachelor's degree in engineering without leaving their communities.
Of the 28 students currently enrolled in the program, more than half are interns with 10 companies in Lynchburg, Danville and southwest Virginia. Most of these students have signed on for nine-month internships or cooperative employment agreements—or co-ops— between the companies and PRODUCED.
Groves anticipates that many of these positions will turn into full-time jobs.
In the meantime, students are earning money while honing their engineering skills. Depending on the company and the position, students are earning between $8 and $20 an hour, and some companies pay for students' tuition and books.
PRODUCED students are working at AREVA, Babcock Wilcox, Essel Propack Americas, Flowserve, Georgia Pacific, Harris Corporation, OptaFuel U.S., Parker Hannifin, Reline America and Swedwood.
The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville and the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon helped secure internships for PRODUCED students in those regions.
Lynchburg resident and PRODUCED student Jamie Garrison started the program at Central Virginia Community College in 2008 and is now completing online courses taught by U.Va. faculty members. The 21-year-old was bagging groceries when he started attending classes. In April, thanks to the help of PRODUCED, he began a nine-month co-op with Flowserve, an international industrial pump, seal and automation manufacturer with a plant in Lynchburg.
Garrison is assisting one of the company's mechanical engineers, testing motors, creating 3-D drawing assemblies and revising older drawings. The job allows him to apply engineering skills he has learned in PRODUCED and provides the flexibility to continue his coursework. During the day, he can quickly switch from Flowserve employee to PRODUCED student and join an online class from a computer at the facility.
"With PRODUCED, we have eliminated the need to commute to class," Groves said. "Students can simply go to an office at their company, log on to a computer and participate in the course. There is minimal downtime."
In addition to avoiding the employee downtime, Groves said, companies benefit from being able to recruit engineers from the region instead of making recruitment trips to places such as Georgia or North Carolina. Also, local engineers who first start with a company as students are more likely to stay on as full-time employees.
Greg Pence, manager of engineering applications at Flowserve, worked with PRODUCED to hire Garrison and another local PRODUCED student, Rick Bowman, for co-ops.
"When people from larger metropolitan areas or the Midwest finish up their co-op and the industry is going well, they tend to return home," Pence said. "We've had long-term success hiring local people for co-ops because they'll stay here with their families."
He noted that the PRODUCED in Virginia students have been assets because of their experience in the U.Va. Engineering School's mechatronics course, which combines knowledge from mechanical, electrical and computer engineering. It has prepared the students to work on a range of projects outside of the company's main areas of electrical and mechanical engineering.
"They are able to take on everything from updating the website to working in test labs for products," Pence said.
The recent growth in internships started when Groves asked the then-third-year class of PRODUCED students to send him their résumés so that he could match the students with companies looking to hire interns. As part of the process, Groves and the students worked with the U.Va. Center for Engineering Career Development to help the students polish their cover letters and résumés and prep for interviews. In addition to providing career mentoring, PRODUCED has held two career fairs for students and companies in Lynchburg.
This May, Jason Johnson, a PRODUCED student from Central Virginia Community College, began an internship with international paper-product manufacturer Georgia Pacific, which has a mill in Big Island, outside Lynchburg. He is working as a project engineer and using some of his PRODUCED lessons to solve high-priority problems that arise in the mill. This requires him to propose a solution, consult with subject-matter experts and then help make a decision about using contractors or in-house employees to carry out the construction. His internship ends in August, but he has opportunities to return for an internship in an upcoming semester.
"I think that the greatest benefit of the PRODUCED program is that I am able to remain at home and get a quality engineering education," Johnson said. "Developing skills such as using technology to participate in an online class through video is extremely useful. Many companies are now starting to use these technologies to conduct business, so already having these skills will help me succeed in the future."