Graduate programs: from the engineering classroom to a world of … – create digital

Left to right: Ford Graduate Program Supervisor Justin Capicchiano with Louise Nance, Ford graduate Sandy Mason, Nathan Medbury, David Burn and Stuart Fooks – on a development trip to the Victorian High Country.
The prolific science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said, “science can amuse and fascinate us all, but it is engineering that changes the world”.
The multiple applications of engineering in improving the world around us make it pivotal to our economy. But with pandemic border closures, engineering job vacancies in Australia increased year on year by 50 per cent in 2021.
With demand for engineers outstripping supply, graduate programs have become an important recruiting tool for companies to attract and retain talent, and to get young engineers excited about their profession.
“There’s something very romantic about designing something and then seeing it come out the other end as an actual product,” said Justin Capicchiano, Ford Performance and Special Vehicle Engineering Manager at Ford Australia, who oversees the Ford Graduate Program.
“In our program, we have graduates gaining a multitude of experiences – from launches in Thailand and South Africa to crash programs in North America, to test trips in the middle of nowhere in rural Australia.  
“If you want to be invigorated by fast-paced decisions, and touching, feeling, breaking, designing and building things — that’s the life of an engineer. And it’s difficult to put a price on that.”
So what do leading employers look for in graduates, and how can engineering students prepare for graduate programs?
Technical skills are important in a graduate along with life experience, according to Capicchiano. 
“We don’t just look for high grades or if graduates have excelled purely in academia. We want to know if they have played sports, done part-time work, or had other interests they pursued during their degree. It tells us they can manage their personal life along with work,” Capicchiano said.
Graduates should be well-prepared to answer at least a few technical questions during the interview. 
“While it’s important to show you’re good at soft skills like teamwork, dedication and focus, we also look for technical knowledge. Graduates have to be able to explain technical issues, like they would to someone without any knowledge of them. We need to feel confident that if we gave them components to go away and engineer, and if they encountered a problem, they should  be able to explain it to a chief engineer.
“And sometimes we want to see how they react when questions are thrown at them. Just like a manager would ask, ‘did you think about x?’, ‘What did you do with y?’ Get them to think on their feet and see how they respond.”
Recruiting young engineers in graduate programs has significant benefits for engineering companies. For one, graduates help diversify the workforce. The blending of different degree types, personalities and backgrounds of graduates helps enrich the organisational culture.
“Graduates provide different points of view and engage with different teams in different ways this goes a long way in changing the mindset of a company that may have really deep set ways of doing things,” explained Capicchiano.
“The other thing that graduates bring is that spark and zest for learning, which is great to have in a team. [Graduates] today are capable of hitting the ground running. We see within a couple of months they’re jumping in with both hands.”
Investing in the development of graduates through graduate programs is critical for the future of the industry, according to Samantha Zdjelar, General Manager, Student & Graduate Membership, Engineers Australia.
“Engineers are much sought after for their problem solving skills and their logical approach to decision-making. Engineering companies have to be very competitive in attracting graduates,” Zdjelar said.
“When you equip an engineering graduate with real-world skills like project management, organisational and communication skills, and stakeholder engagement, to go along with their sound technical skills, they can transition smoothly into the work environment. This is why we need well-designed graduate programs.”
To help organisations in the professional development of their graduates, Engineers Australia offers their Graduate Program which can also be delivered specific to their business objectives.
After graduating from Macquarie University with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and a Bachelor of Engineering in Mechatronics, Sandy Mason applied to various graduate programs. While Ford was not recruiting at her university, she discovered their graduate program on GradConnection, the online platform that connects graduates with industry opportunities. 
“I applied online to all of the roles that seemed interesting to me. But I received interviews from only a few companies. Though I did get a couple of other offers, I was really happy when I got through the interview process with the Ford Graduate Program,” Mason said.
While a lot of students today look for opportunities online, attending career fairs and networking events are still a great way to meet industry representatives in person. 
“You can also go through your lecturer, I know many students who have found great roles by talking to them. And even reach out to your network friends, colleagues, even family.”
Mason advises students to put themselves in the seat of the interviewer while not being afraid to let your unique personality and values shine through.
“You really need to know what you stand for and what you’re going to talk about,” Mason said. “And a lot of the interviews that you do now are virtual and some of them are timed. So, you have to really practise what you want to say and how you want to say it.”
While transitioning from university into the workforce can be challenging, for Mason, stepping into a graduate role gave her the confidence to ask questions, experiment and grow into her abilities as an engineer. 
“Coming straight out of uni into the workplace, I didn’t know what to expect. I moved to a new state as well. I was introduced to new people and got acquainted with various processes and systems.  But I do think the whole experience has  made me more confident to talk in front of engineering directors and managers. If they ask me to do an investigation on something, I can communicate and present information in a way suited to them.”
After having rotations in Chassis Engineering and the Special Vehicle Program, Mason now leads the development of off-road specific parts for a future Ford model.
Mason believes it is helpful for engineering students to diversify their experience before looking for industry opportunities.
“Before I applied to Ford, I had done a number of exchange programs at uni to various universities. I got an understanding of how to interact with different cultures, and looked at different design problems.
“To students, I’d say, do something you’re passionate about. When you’re applying for a job, apart from the salary, consider what else they can offer you for your career development.”
Capicchiano advises engineering students to involve themselves in different aspects of their degree. Graduates can make their application stand out by including any professional memberships, or club activities at university to  highlight their interests and experience. 
Reading journal articles and discussion papers can keep students informed on industry trends. 
“See what people are patenting and look at some drawings. It can show the ideas out there that haven’t been discovered yet, and how creative people can be and those things can provide great avenues of learning,” Capicchiano said.
A graduate program can introduce a young engineer to more than just a job. It can initiate them into the culture and values of an organisation, and help build experiences and connections to develop their career. To an organisation, a graduate program is their point of difference in an industry with a limited pool of talent to recruit from. 

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