Summer internships pay off
for Norwich engineering grad © Jan. 15, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

Larry Jeffords, owner of Jeffords Steel and member of the Class of 1969, stands with recent Norwich graduate Ryan Schmitt at the Plattsburg, N.Y. plant.

photo by Jay EricsonLarry Jeffords, owner of Jeffords Steel and member of the Class of 1969, stands with 2009 Norwich graduate Ryan Schmitt at the Plattsburg, N.Y., steel fabrication plant.

From now on, Larry Jeffords will only hire engineers who have worked for him during the summer.

Jeffords, a member of Norwich University’s Class of 1969 and owner of Jeffords Steel and Engineering in Plattsburg, N.Y., is convinced that students who acquire work experience prior to graduation are better prepared for the workplace, and provide a tangible value to employers.

This was proven by Ryan Schmitt, a 2009 civil engineering graduate from Upstate New York who started his association with Jeffords Steel before entering Norwich as a freshman.

“Ryan approached me while he was still in high school and expressed his interest in becoming an engineer and working for my firm. I told him to head to Norwich and come back the next summer and we’d talk,” said Jeffords.

Ryan was making money for the firm the day after he graduated.

~ Larry Jeffords ’69,
Jeffords Steel owner

Schmitt first experienced the country’s oldest private military college during a 2003 event held for high-school students by Norwich’s David Crawford School of Engineering, where he won an engineering challenge/scholarship competition.

That summer after freshman year, Schmitt learned the ropes at Jeffords Steel by painting, sheering metal and developing a feel for how things worked, said Jeffords. “The next summer, Ryan came back as a CAD draftsman in the design/build department, making a contribution on real-world projects. And by the third summer, he was working in the engineering department assisting professional engineers with projects where he could apply the knowledge he’d collected at Norwich. It only made sense to hire Ryan after graduation; he’d already had the best training in the industry.”

Schmitt believes internships benefit students in two ways.

“During the summer, I was learning the real-world applications of my academic work and getting my hands dirty; there’s no substitute for that,” he said. “During the school year, my real-world experience helped make my time in class seem even more relevant and the material easier to apply. My coursework suddenly made more sense to me in the context of what I’d done in the shop.”

A steel-design course during senior year really brought this home.

“For our final project, we had to design an entire building to the specifications set forth by the instructor, exactly like we do for clients at Jeffords Steel,” he said. “During the detailing phase of the project, I found myself assisting others in the class with how to present a structural framing plan on paper, cut sections and label details. All of these tasks were things I learned working as a detailer during my internship.”

Equally valuable was the time he spent in an office environment. Both Jeffords and Schmitt commented on the importance of developing communication skills—particularly across disciplines. “I felt like even the best education can’t prepare you for everything, and my internship helped me differentiate myself and increase my value in the market,” said Schmitt.

And the impact on Jeffords Steel?

“Ryan was making money for the firm the day after he graduated,” said Jeffords. “With his real-world experience and knowledge of our operations, he was working on his own designs almost immediately. You just don’t see this in new graduates.” He added that, more than ever, firms need employees who can hit the floor running.

Jeffords has kept in contact with Norwich by providing materials and knowhow for an engineering bridge-building competition, but Schmitt was the first alum he’s hired. “He had a great work ethic, and that’s likely the most important thing in any employer’s eyes. Norwich grads show a degree of maturity and respect that sets them apart.”

Schmitt said many of his fellow engineers found interesting, practical internships.

“We definitely were encouraged to find some work within our fields,” he said. “It definitely gives you an edge.”

Schmitt recommended that students turn to alumni to find opportunities. “Make the effort to talk to alumni in your field of study or in your home town. They are a great resource not only for employment opportunities but also for offering guidance on where you might focus your activities.”

Career Development Center Director Kathryn Provost described a well-developed communications network that brings students and alumni together. In addition to a searchable online database of student and alumni resumes and internship postings, they employ social networking sites, face-to-face networking events during Spring Break, and proactive efforts through the Career Center. If a student doesn’t see a business or alumnus who fits their interest, the center will find someone.

Alumni are usually eager, she added. “Almost everyone will say, ‘Oh, sure. I didn’t even know there was someone who needed help.’”

Internships are an amazing way for both job seekers and employers to find what they’re looking for, particularly at a place like Norwich, said Provost. Full-time job offers usually result if the fit is right.

“Norwich alumni understand what we mint. ... They’ve been through it.”

Charlie O’Neil is a member of Norwich’s Class of 1994.