Engineering work experience for undergraduates: what you need to know
Do you fancy a career in engineering but are not quite sure whether you're cut out for a job in this exciting sector? If this is the case, then you should undertake work experience in engineering to get an idea of what working in the industry is like. However, it's also worth remembering that employers will value any experience you've had, even if it's not specifically in engineering.
What is work experience?
Work experience for engineering can come in various different forms, varying from shorter internships to longer placement years in the industry. On one of these schemes, you'll basically have the chance to try your hand at working on real engineering projects and develop your professional skills, as well as getting some real gold to stick down on your CV. It also goes well alongside your undergraduate degree and studies, as it shows that you have practical skills backed up by theoretical knowledge.
Why should I do work experience?
Engineering work experience will help you get a feel for what the day-to-day work is like in the industry and show employers that you have the ability to be able to do the job well. In fact, even if you weren't too fussed on working in the sector after finishing your work experience, the fact that you've spent a year working in an industry and taking on professional responsibility would stand you in good stead. You also get to earn a salary on these schemes, while being treated like a professional member of the team and getting the responsibility that goes along with it.
“Each year, we recruit interns across virtually all the disciplines into which we recruit graduates – and many interns go on to get a graduate job with us. By joining, you’ll work alongside highly qualified and experienced colleagues, getting involved in live projects and operations using the latest technology.”
When can I do work experience?
Work experience engineering programmes run at various times throughout the year, depending on what it is that you want to become involved in. For example, placement years in industry can last up to 13 months (usually slotting in between your second and fourth years of a four year university degree and contributing to your final grade).
Internships can last anywhere from a month up to about half a year, while insight and work shadowing schemes can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Really it depends on how long you want to spend working on the scheme and how it fits into your university degree.
How can I find work experience?
We advertise many different engineering and industrial work experience opportunities on our website, especially during the peak student job season between September and January. You can find and apply for these engineering roles on our jobs pages. It's also a good idea to speak to your university's career service and getting some advice from them that will help you make a decision.
Top Placements, Internships & Insights in Engineering
Overview of engineering
What is engineering?
In many ways, engineering is the practical combination of mathematic and scientific principles in order to improve processes and tackle societal problems. Engineers are thinkers and doers, as they need to be able to think of solutions to problems, but also implement them efficiently. This involves devising a range of different ideas, before picking one that addresses the situation and making it a reality. Engineering is the practical application of theoretical maths and science. Engineers can be involved in all parts of the creation cycle, from initial research to design, production, testing and maintenance.
Why is engineering important?
This field is important because it literally impacts all of our lives. The buildings we work and live in were designed and built on the back of engineering principles, while the transport systems we use on a daily basis wouldn't exist without the input of engineers. Without engineers who are able to apply their learning to bring about real-world solutions, our lives would be very different.
What do engineers do?
Given the number of different fields that engineers work in, it's hard to define what a single engineer does. However, some things that all engineers do (or need to be able to do) is communicate, think of solutions, organise their own workload, take into account restraints (such as costs, time and design) and potentially manage a team.
Types of engineering disciplines
There are many different types of engineer, each with different specialisms and expertise, but at the same time there are a lot of general engineering skills that permeate throughout the industry and are necessary in all engineering careers. We've listed a number of the major engineering career paths below, but this list is by no means exclusive.
- Civil engineering
- Structural engineering
- Chemical engineering
- Computer engineering
- Electronic & electrical engineering
- Environmental engineering
- Industrial engineering
- Aerospace engineering
- Biomedical engineering
- Mechanical engineering
- Mineral engineering
- Nuclear engineering
You can find out more about the major branches of engineering further down the page.
What are the different types of engineering work experience?
The world of undergraduate work experience is dominated by four different types of scheme: placement years (or industrial placements), placements, internships and insight schemes.
The longest of these – engineering placement years and engineering industrial placements – can last, as the name suggests, for almost a year (generally ten or so months) and will often take the place of a university year (as part of a four year course).
Many major companies, like AgustaWestland, Cummins, General Electric and Jaguar Land Rover, offer these opportunities to undergraduates, allowing you to gain experience with industry leaders.
Coming hot on the heels of undergraduate placement years are shorter placement schemes, which can last for anything from five months to nine, therefore potentially running for just half of an academic year (and not adding a year to your degree!).
That’s placements covered, now onto internships. These are shorter still, lasting for between one and four months, in order to provide a snappier taste of working in a professional environment.
The good thing about these is that, because they can be shorter, it’s possible to be flexible in terms of when you do them. You can even fit one or two into the summer if you fancy it!
Last but not least are insight schemes, which can last for days or weeks and are designed to offer a quick fire taste of working in the engineering sector.
While most work experience schemes are run for the benefit of second or penultimate year undergraduates, insights can be undertaken by first years, in order to give them…well, an insight!
What are the benefits of undergraduate engineering work experience?
So, apart from the chance to wear funky overalls, safety goggles and a hard hat – if you’re into that kind of thing – what are the other reasons to do an engineering summer placement or internship in the UK? Well, here they are:
Give you a real grasp of the sector – you’ll be able to put all the things you’ve learned so far on your degree into action, providing you with a real understanding of the industry and what’s expected in a professional job.
Network with engineering professionals – you’ll be working with other graduates and senior team members, giving you a chance to learn from your peers and forge working relationships with influential figures in the business.
Give yourself a chance of landing a job – a graduate with a degree and work experience in the form of a placement, internship or insight scheme is going to have a better chance of securing a role after graduation that someone with just a degree.
Show you’re ready for the professional world – graduates feel like they can take on the world, armed with their degree and a few years of learning behind them. The uncomfortable truth of course is that recruiters and HR professionals will want people who are readymade for the world of work, no assembly required. This can only come with work experience.
Check the career is right for you – your heart may be set on a career in civil engineering, but how tragic would it be to go to all the effort of getting a job after graduation only to find you hate it. Completing a placement, internship or insight scheme during university can help you avoid this pitfall before finishing your degree course.
Learn what work’s all about – you may have an idea of what a professional engineering environment is like during university, but until such time as you actually find yourself in that environment you won’t really know. Making that transition straight away after graduation can be a steep learning curve. Giving yourself an idea beforehand with work experience in the form of a placement or internship can help reduce the incline you’re facing.
Practice applying and research engineering placement interview questions and answers – if you leave university without any experience of applying or interviewing for jobs, you’ll be at a disadvantage when it comes to competing for jobs with candidates who do have experience. Whatever the result of your job interview or application is, the experience alone will be beneficial and help you find out what you need to do better next time.
Graduate engineer salaries
According to the High Fliers 2015 report, graduates who enter the engineering and industrial sector after university can expect to earn a competitive average salary of £27,500 a year, which is an increase of 3.8% over the previous year.
High Fliers, 2015.
Top engineering professionals can go on to earn big salaries.
According to the Engineering UK 2015: The state of engineering report, "between 2010 and 2013, the mean basic annual income for Chartered Engineers increased by 10% to £68,539, for Incorporated Engineers it increased 10% to £51,227 and for Engineering Technicians average salaries rose by 32% to £52,349."
Engineering UK, 2015.
If you pursue a career in this industry, you have a good chance of earning a significant salary.
Engineering internships for students
An engineering internship offers you the chance to work for an engineering or industrial company for a set period of time, in order to gain industry experience and learn some of the skills that are required to work in the sector. On engineering internships, you will be treated like any other employee and expected to perform as such, adding value to the company and taking part in real projects that will have an impact on the business's performance.
What can you expect from an engineering work experience interview?
After getting through the initial application stages, you will more than likely be invited to take part in an interview. This process varies from company to company, but there are likely to be core aspects that are largely the same across different businesses.
For example, remember that there's likely to be a discussion around your CV, to go into more detail about what you've included, so be prepared for this. This is also why it's never worth telling any little white lies on your CV, because they might come back to bite you. You are also likely to be asked to take part in a technical exercise, in order to see what your engineering knowledge is like.
Even if you don't have all the technical expertise required to answer the questions or solve the problems, your overall attitude will also be very important, so stay calm and think your way logically around the problem.
Engineering internships UK assessment centres
Some companies offering undergraduate internships will ask you to take part in an assessment day, rather than just an interview. These can be extensive, including group exercises, presentations, various interviews with different members of staff and technical exercises relevant to the company and the specific branch of engineering.
The best way to prepare for these days is by doing plenty of research beforehand, making sure you know the company and what it does, and having a general awareness of what the assessment centre is likely to include. If you've been asked to do a presentation, ensure you've practised it.
If you know you're going to have various interviews, make sure you've researched different areas of the business. Previous engineering interns have been interviewed by HR, departmental managers and mentors, so prepared for quite a busy day.
Engineering summer internships
If you don't have time to undertake a full placement year in industry during your university degree, you might want to do a summer internship instead. These are shorter-term work experience programmes for students that take place in the summer months between your academic university years, whereby you'll spend anywhere from a few weeks to most of the summer period working as part of the company.
While not as extensive as longer programmes, you'll still be able to gain an understanding of the key principles of working in engineering, while also gaining technical skills and real-world experience, which you simply can't get out of a textbook. Not to mention the fact that on engineering summer internships 2016 / 2017 you'll be able to build a network of industry contacts and potentially earn a fast-track place onto a company's graduate scheme.
Benefits of engineering internships 2016 / 2017
As you'll be treated like a company employee, you can expect to get the perks and benefits that come with a professional role, as well as the hard work! By this, we mean you can expect to earn a competitive salary, while also being given a certain amount of holiday time / annual leave. Other perks that vary from company to company include the likes of corporate discounts, allowances and travel expenses, flexible working time and sports / gym memberships.
Placements and year in industry programmes are the longest work experience schemes open to university students. They offer the most extensive taste of what it's like to work in the industry, as you will essentially be a full-time employee for a year.
What can undergraduates expect from an engineering placement?
As these work experience schemes exist to offer you a comprehensive idea of what it's like to work for the company and in the engineering, your employer is likely to offer you the chance to rotate across the business and work in different departments.
This is so that you can get exposure to as many of the company's projects, departments and processes as possible. This means your placement should stay interesting and enjoyable throughout the year, while also giving you plenty of experience to put down on your CV.
Engineering summer placements
Some companies run what are called 'summer placements', which like internships take place in the summer months between your academic university years.
Challenges to be prepared for
Remember, while you will be a junior member of the team (and will of course be allowed plenty of time to get up to speed with the company's projects), you will be expected to contribute to the business's success.
This means you should be ready to work hard, become involved in numerous projects, contribute ideas and also manage your time and workload effectively. Soft skills, like the ability to communicate and work under pressure, are just as important as any technical skills.
Some undergraduate engineering placement schemes may even ask you to lead your own project, so be ready for anything and everything. However, your employer is likely to also offer you plenty of support, training and probably even a mentor to guide you throughout your work experience scheme.
Where can I do an engineering placement or internship?
Unlike industries like finance, banking and consultancy, which may be largely concentrated in the UK’s major cities – mainly the behemoth that is London – engineering companies are spread around the country.
You name an area, there’s a chance you can find relevant work experience there. For example, during the peak job season it’s likely that you’ll be able to find placements, summer internships in the UK and insight schemes in the south-west, south-east, Midlands, north-west, Yorkshire and Scotland.
As engineers work on a wide range of projects around the country, you could find yourself anywhere while on placements, internships, insight schemes or work-experience days.
If you’re interested in becoming an engineer and want to find out exactly where you could be based for an engineering work experience placement, just head over to our jobs pages to see our current, available vacancies.
Of course, to see where all the students who’ve completed engineering undergraduate placements, internships and insight schemes have been based before now, you can look through our (literally) thousands of fair, unbiased reviews, written by undergraduates like you.
When do engineering work experience schemes run?
There’s no one single date for when all engineering companies stop accepting job applications from undergraduates – they vary and some businesses will close their opportunities much earlier than others.
Generally speaking many engineering and industrial companies in the UK will accept undergraduate job applications up until either December or the end of January, before arranging interviews and assessment centres for successful candidates.
So if you see a job you like or want to apply for engineering placements, internships or insight schemes, make sure you’re aware of when the deadline is and get your application in before the door slams shut. Just because you have an idea of when most close doesn’t mean the one you want is going to close then too!
As many work experience schemes close to student job applications around the end of the year or January, if you’re serious about tying one down, ensure you’ve finely tuned your CV and cover letter and tailored them for each role well in advance of the deadline.
Engineering top employers
Want to know who the top undergraduate engineering employers are? Then you should take a look at RateMyPlacement's Top Undergraduate Employers guide. Engineering and industrial companies that made it into the 2014 / 2015 guide include:
- BAE Systems
- Jaguar Land Rover
- Volkswagen Group
- General Electric
- National Grid
- PSA Peugeot Citroën
Placement Year (10 Months+)
"I think the technical knowledge that I’ve gained is far greater than I would have got from university alone."
Read case study
Engineering work experience reviews
RateMyPlacement isn't just the place to be when it comes to finding the latest and best engineering and industrial student jobs. We also have thousands upon thousands of placement, internship and work experience reviews, written by previous undergraduates who've undertake them. Check out the reviews to get an idea of what it's really like to work on a particular company's engineering scheme.
What’s it like to work for these companies?
With the huge number of companies operating in the engineering industry – and the many different branches of engineering that exist, requiring different skills – every company is going to have a unique attitude to your development and responsibility.
The companies that run the best engineering placements, internships and insight schemes will place importance on making sure you don’t just end up making up the numbers – but that you have the chance to make a real impact on the each company’s projects.
The more responsibility you’re given, the more likely you are to learn valuable skills. That’s why you’re there, right? So to find out what it’s really like to work for these big engineering companies, it’s worth your while spending time going through placement and internship reviews and finding out what companies you like the sound of working for.
After all, you want to work for the engineering businesses that put an emphasis on your personal development, have a great atmosphere and will help you learn the skills that will help you not only in your studies, but in your future career.
How can I secure a place on an engineering work experience scheme?
We don’t want to mislead you by bluffing that there’s a sure fire way of guaranteeing yourself a place on a placement, engineering summer internship in the UK or insight scheme.
However, there are certain steps you can take that will give you a pretty decent chance of getting to where you want to be and landing a place on your favoured work experience scheme. They are as follows…
Start thinking about it nice and early. The earlier you start thinking about something, the more prepared you’ll be. We’re not saying you should have a placement or internship sorted out on your first day of university – we’re just saying you should look into the benefits of work experience and getting a real feel for the industry before everyone else does.
Seek out extra-curricular opportunities. If you are able to start thinking and researching about work experience early on in your university life, then you’ll find out just how important it is to do activities outside of your university studies – and by activities we don’t mean stumbling around with traffic cones. We mean activities that can help you develop key skills that will impress employers, like organisation and communication.
Network. Extra-curricular activities can include industry events with key bods from the sector, which offer a great chance to meet your peers and speak to influential figures. Not only will this give you a better idea of what it’s like to be part of the sector – it will also give you a chance to uncover opportunities that you may not hear about otherwise.
Sort out your application early. When you get into second year and can seriously start thinking about applications, it pays to get these sorted and sent as soon as possible. Make sure you’re tailoring your CV and cover letter to each role you apply for – otherwise employers will see through your generic ones and you won’t get very far. Remember to keep checking our jobs pages as vacancies pop up all the time.
Engineers in this sector are tasked with developing processes by which essential products can be created, including everything from drugs and vehicles to fuels and food. For this reason, chemical engineers are not confined to any one industry – instead, they work for a wide range of companies in different sectors, from pharmaceutical companies to utilities to energy organisations.
Given the sheer number of companies that require people with these skills, there are many opportunities to get involved in chemical engineering work experience.
Chemical engineering internships UK and chemical engineering placements
Major international companies like BP and Chevron offer work experience programmes for undergraduates, meaning you can learn about the day-to-day projects that chemical engineers work on.
The world around you has been shaped by civil engineers. These experts are responsible for designing and planning major construction projects, meaning that all facets of public infrastructure – including bridges, roads, railways, skyscrapers and more – have all been influenced in one way or another by civil engineers. Given their importance in helping to shape the world we live in, it's no surprise that these professionals need to have a command of technical skills regarding IT and maths, while also possessing fantastic communication skills and motivation.
Mechanical engineers are involved in the creation of new products and components, in order to produce everything from parts for vehicles to machinery and automated processes. As such, mechanical engineers can be involved in various parts of the production process, from research and design stages to maintenance, upkeep and improvements. Specific tasks that these professionals can get involved in include the design of new equipment, testing components, working with colleagues to overcome problems, taking into account costs and other restraints and also making future recommendations.
View mechanical engineering jobs
Aeronautical & aerospace engineering
How do you make a giant piece of metal fly? If you can answer that question, then maybe you have what it takes to become an aerospace engineer. People in this sector have to combine an understanding of maths, physics and computer science in order to conceptualise and create aircraft that push the boundaries of what's possible, but are still safe, effective and able to be rolled out in large enough numbers to the economically-viable.
View aeronautical engineering jobs
Learn more about the engineering industry on our blog
Is an engineering placement right for you?
Go on, admit it – you've got a thing for hard hats. Well then, clearly engineering is the career for you. As engineering is such an expansive industry there really is a role here for everyone. Aerospace, chemical, environmental, structural engineering and civil engineering jobs are popular, well-trodden paths, but they are far from the only options open to you.
Read the full article
Career focus: work as a chemical engineer
Can you feel the chemistry? Are you keen on experimenting? If the answer is yes, then maybe you should consider a career as a chemical engineer. These engineers use their intimate knowledge of chemical processes to help create many of the essential products we use each and every day, like pharmaceuticals, fuels, plastics and clothing.
Read the full article
Where can I find engineering student jobs?
Our jobs pages advertise many engineering roles from some of the biggest and best companies in the business that take on undergraduates, so make sure you have a good rummage through them to see if any of catch your eye.
If there aren’t any there that seem quite right for you at the moment, don’t worry – there will be.
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