Our interns innovate. Executives listen.

Our interns innovate. Executives listen.

When University of Rhode Island engineering interns head to the office, they do not fetch coffee for the boss. In today’s market, interns serve an invaluable role keeping companies innovative and competitive while preparing themselves for rewarding careers.

More than 80 percent of URI engineering students complete internships before they graduate. They work for global corporations, privately owned companies and government agencies. They hail from every engineering discipline and they tackle real-world engineering challenges of every shape and size.

Their solutions often maximize efficiency, reduce costs, manage risk and help speed products to market. In short, their hosts say URI engineering interns keep their companies – and the economy – strong.

Identifying the future workforce

On Semiconductor designs and builds computer chips found in virtually every modern car, in thousands of manufacturing plants and in countless military applications. For the company’s chips to work flawlessly, On Semiconductor requires a small army of innovative engineers. Its East Greenwich, R.I., development center alone employs some 50 engineers at work designing the next-generation power supplies and smart-driver electronics.

Those engineers are hired by Paul Ferrara (’94), the center’s director of new product development engineering. To identify potential new hires, Ferrara employs a handful of engineering interns every year from the University of Rhode Island.

“Our philosophy is that hiring interns is the best way to get a long-term look at a potential employee,” Ferrara says. “If you hire just based on an on-campus interview there’s a lot of risk involved because you don’t know how that person works on a long-term basis.”

The system has worked: At least two previous URI interns now work at the East Greenwich facility.

Ferrara is not alone in searching for future engineers. A Georgetown University study found nearly 5 million baby boomers hold jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. That fact has sent companies scrambling to identify young engineers with executives reporting thousands of job openings in engineering but a dearth of qualified candidates.

One executive bracing for retirements is Dan Kimber, the plant manager at Modine Manufacturing Corp. The plant manufactures commercial heating and ventilation equipment and relies on a small team of engineers to keep it competitive in the global marketplace.

“One of the things we struggle with is keeping that job pipeline open,” Kimber says.

Every year, Kimber recruits interns from the University, just three miles from the West Kingston, R.I. plant. He partners them with his engineers and ensures they learn every detail about the plant, which employs some 100 people and turns out thousands of ventilation units every year.

When they graduate, the interns often find a job waiting because they bring what few other candidates can deliver: experience at Modine.

“When you’re a former intern and you’re hired, you hit the ground running,” Kimber says.

Training the future workforce

An insurance company’s underwriting department is perhaps the last place one expects to find an engineer. However, at insurer FM Global, it’s a matter of policy. The Johnston, R.I., company specializes in helping clients prevent disaster. To do that, it employs teams of engineers to assess risk and develop ways to minimize it.

“Usually when you think underwriters you don’t think engineers, but they understand so much about building structures, electronics and hydraulics they can come in and quickly interpret what the data are telling us,” says FM Global’s University Relations Manager Leah Atkins.

And conversely, FM Global can tell interns about its unique systems, clients and job opportunities. Underwriting interns go through a training process similar to the one provided to new full-time employees in the department. They learn to navigate the insurer’s massive claims database, sift through data from its engineering labs and connect the dots between data and disaster prevention.

Plus, Atkins says the interns arrive with “fresh minds” that identify solutions longtime employees might not have considered.

The fresh perspective

FM Global executives are not the only ones who lean on interns for a fresh perspective. At Toray Plastics (America), executives at the plant in North Kingstown, R.I. recruit interns specifically to help improve efficiency.

The plant, part of a global manufacturing operation, makes innovative plastic film used for everything from magnetic tape to food packaging to capacitors. To stay competitive, President Richard Schloesser is on a constant mission to trim costs while improving efficiency and safety. His interns play a major role.

“Our interns come in with bright eyes, bright ideas and fresh creativity,” Schloesser says. “They can look at a problem, study it and come up with some great ideas.”

Over the years, managers have implemented dozens of recommendations from interns at the plant employing about 600 people. Concepts implemented range from the simple: moving a control box from the bottom of a machine to the front to eliminate workers crawling to reach it, to the complex: redesigning a flange to eliminate bolts and reduce the time it takes to remove and replace the part.

And it’s not just on manufacturing floors where URI engineering interns deliver innovation. At the R.I. Department of Transportation, each year about 60 engineering interns, most of them from URI, help the agency save taxpayer money by identifying cost-efficient methods.

Interns at the agency recently found a way to dramatically reduce the costly and time-consuming trips to measure the dimensions of intersections before repaving or striping. Rather than drive, the interns proposed using a combination of Google Maps and databases to collect the measurements. Robert Rocchio (’92), managing engineer of the traffic management and highway safety division, readily implemented the idea.

“They bring energy as they are just starting out and ask questions. It makes us think about how we do things,” Rocchio says. “Especially in the area of technology they bring some great ideas.”

Rocchio himself was a URI engineering intern at the Rhode Island DOT. Many of his colleagues were too. In fact, about 25 percent of the agency’s engineers graduated from the University of Rhode Island, many coming through the internship program.

As interns, Rocchio says, the URI students proved themselves.

“I am personally impressed with the caliber of interns coming out of the University,” he says. “They are very prepared to enter the workforce.”