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Friday, September 24, 2021

How to get ahead in industry: Co-operative education

NICKI PADAR / AGGIE

Students take advantage of unique career opportunities, programs

The Associated Students, University of California, Davis (ASUCD) currently employs around 1,500 students who work at various units on campus. However, a handful of UC Davis students choose to pursue a less conventional career path during their undergraduate years, prioritizing both academics and real-world industry experience.

“It’s an interesting trade off because you’re up late nights studying in school and that’s your world for those ten weeks of the quarter, but when you’re in the industry, you’re working with products that affect people’s lives,” said Justin Hardin, a third-year biomedical engineering major. “You’re not only held accountable to yourself but you’re also a cog in the wheel that is turning, and if you stop or if you’re late on something you affect the team.”

Hardin is participating in a co-operative education program with Johnson & Johnson. Co-ops enable college students to receive career training with pay as they work with professionals in their major fields of study.

“Internships through Johnson & Johnson are only three months, but co-ops are a full-time, six month assignment, so the timeline of commitment is what distinguishes the two,” Hardin said. “Co-ops give you more time to take away from the experience and work on a project that will leave a lasting impact on the company.”

Waking up at 6 a.m. every weekday, Hardin commutes to the Vacaville plant where he conducts his business excellence co-op — facilitating and supporting the members of the business excellence team. Each day comes with exciting new twists, but Hardin always looks forward to analyzing the plant’s machines and processes in order to decide how to better allocate resources and time in manufacturing Johnson & Johnson products.

“I will eventually create my own project by finding a certain part in the plant to improve, and going through steps and thought processes to implement [that improvement],” Hardin said. “When you go to a co-op or internship, you [could] sit by and get through it by doing the bare minimum, but if you don’t take away any project or implementation that you can really showcase about yourself, then you wasted that opportunity.”

Hardin knows that being able to adjust to such a fast-paced and demanding industrial environment is no easy task prior to obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

“My experiences with student organizations and my major courses at UC Davis provided me with a certain structure and I feel like that’s what Johnson & Johnson really appreciated,” Hardin said. “Putting your knowledge into action is really attractive, and that gives me an attractive piece that I can take to more companies in the future.”

In addition to learning how to apply his diverse skillset to a multi-million dollar company, Hardin is learning valuable tactics applicable to companies across the industry, such as lean manufacturing, a universal method that focuses on how to make processing more efficient by reducing waste and idle time.

The acquisition of invaluable industry experience, however, comes with a price. In order to commit to this caliber of work experience, Hardin put his academic studies on hold until Fall Quarter 2017, setting him back an entire year for graduation. According to Josh McMillin, a second-year chemical engineering major, this scenario is not uncommon for co-op participants. McMillin is also doing a co-op for Johnson & Johnson and had to forgo taking courses until his position ends in the fall.

“I work in the environmental health and safety department where I’m in charge of industrial hygiene, making sure the workers don’t suffer any illnesses because of bad factory conditions,” McMillin said. “I never thought a chemical engineer would do this but [the company prefers] chemical and environmental engineers, because they have an understanding of different toxins and how chemicals work and can help make the process more efficient and safe.”

After working for less than a quarter, McMillin already enjoys worklife better than school life for its absence of midterms and assignments. He admitted that the adjustment period was odd at first, but he later became accustomed to higher-pressure situations and bigger stakes working for a well-established company.

“This is a challenging job because it’s not just filling out papers and doing menial tasks because we actually have projects that we’re required to complete for the company,” McMillin said. “Even though I am being thrown into this intimidating project, I never feel like I’m alone and I always know I have people who have my back. It’s a great learning environment, which I appreciate. […] They let me make mistakes and fix them and I learn way more than just reading something in class.”

As a sophomore in college barely finished with his lower division major requirements, McMillin knows how fortunate he is to have achieved such a prestigious position in the industry. He was inspired by a professor to attend Johnson & Johnson’s co-op information session to get to know the recruiting team who will most likely interview the applicants.

“Taking this quarter off means that I can’t take certain prerequisites for a class only offered next fall, which is a prerequisite for my entire junior year of chemical engineering,” McMillin said. “[The co-op] delayed me a year, but now that I have this experience, this gives me the foot in the door for a lot of other opportunities that are really hard to get. In my eyes, it’s worth the extra year of school.”

Jenna Giafaglione, a fourth-year genetics major, worked for the pharmaceutical manufacturing company Genentech as a paid summer intern, which continued into a part-time position throughout Fall Quarter in which she worked in the purification lab and identified sources of problems in drugs they manufactured. Giafaglione, now a campus ambassador for Genentech, recruits UC Davis students to pursue part-time internships or one of the company’s two-year co-op positions.

“That Fall Quarter I was enrolled in 15 units and working about 18 hours a week, commuting back and forth from Davis to Vacaville,” Giafaglione said. “I worked Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 7:30 a.m. to about 1:30 p.m. I would have to be really strategic with my time and make sure if I had any gaps throughout the day I would study so that at night I didn’t always have to study and I could do things with friends.”

To students who are concerned about part-time industry experience while taking classes, Giafaglione suggests that they analyze their discipline and work ethic before proceeding, because it is extremely important to keep one’s GPA up and not get too overwhelmed. If a student decides that a co-op is the right choice for them, Giafaglione commends the opportunity for giving students something that classes cannot.

“What I’ve gathered from my managers is that experiences are everything because they will diversify you and build skills outside of the classroom,” Hardin said. “For people looking to go into the industry right after school, it’s a great asset to have [a co-op] experience showing they’ve already gotten their feet wet.”
Written by: Gillian Allen — features@theaggie.org

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