Professor Reginald Tomkins (right), the co-op adviser for the Otto H. York Department of Chemical, Biological and Pharmaceutical Engineering, advises an NJIT student.
Over the years, Reginald Tomkins, a professor of chemical engineering, has taught thousands of students. But he's also helped many of those students launch their professional careers.
Along with teaching, Tomkins is also the co-op adviser for the Otto H. York Department of Chemical, Biological and Pharmaceutical Engineering. It’s his job to help students find co-op jobs.
A co-op is like an internship but it’s more involved: Co-ops are structured so that the student’s work relates directly to and complements his or her academic major. A co-op is well paying -- students earn about $17 dollars an hour -- and usually last four to eight months. Students also earn three academic credits for a co-op.
In the end, the students emerge from co-ops with solid work experience. And that experience helps them find good jobs after they graduate: Employers prefer to hire students who have experience.
Consider, for example, Lisa Kardos, a 2004 NJIT grad who majored in chemical engineering. While a student, Kardos did a co-op at Firmenich, a chemical manufacturing company. The experience she gained on that co-op set her apart from her peers. As graduation approached, she received job offers from Colgate-Palmolive, ExxonMobil and Infineum.
She took a job as a process engineer with Infineum. She also continued to study part time at NJIT for a master’s degree. Her co-op experience helped her excel at her job at Infineum. The company quickly promoted her to Manufacturing Technology Specialist and later to Section Leader for the Americas Power Transmission Fluids Deployment Team. Six years later, she took a senior level management position at Chemtura Corporation, a maker of specialty chemicals.
At both of those companies, Kardos helped to recruit and train co-op students, including NJIT students. She worked closely with Professor Tomkins to ensure that the work the students were given related to their classwork.
So Kardos has seen how co-ops operate from both sides – first as a student and later as a senior corporate manager. Recently, she left the corporate world to return to NJIT, where she works as the Coordinator of the Undergraduate Program for the chemical engineering department. In that capacity she strongly encourages students to consider co-op jobs.
In this interview, Professor Tomkins and Kardos discuss the value of co-ops. They also explain how the chemical engineering department works closely with the Career Development Services office to find co-ops that help students succeed in their careers.
Why should students consider co-op jobs?
RT: Students should consider co-op jobs in that they give students experience working as chemical engineers. Students get an appreciation of the different types of jobs available to them in the chemical industry such as R&D, Process Development, Manufacturing and Marketing. They get an overview of how a corporation operates and the procedures that are essential to its success. Moreover, co-ops help students to fuse practical work experience with their classroom learning. And that motivates students to excel in their studies, since after a co-op they know how their class work connects to the corporate world and to jobs they want. I’ve also noticed that students returning to the classroom following a co-op tend to be more confident and engaged with their professors.
Are the co-ops structured so as to complement a student’s studies?
RT: The co-op experience is varied. Sometimes it involves a lot of hands-on experience in the chemical plant, while other times the experience involves modeling and simulation and the use of various new computer software programs. I always visit with the students’ industrial supervisors to ensure that the co-op has both educational and practical value.
How closely involved are you in the co-ops?
RT: My role is first to talk to our students about the benefits of a co-op. I do this when they are freshmen. When they have co-ops, I then visit all of the co-op students at their companies. I meet with both the students and their supervisors and see the work the student is doing and tour the workplace. As the co-op is listed as a course, the student must do a report on his work experience and also do a presentation, both of which are graded.
You work with the Career Center to advise students. How is that doubly beneficial to students?
RT: I’ve worked closely with Career Development Services and we’ve worked together to help students find good co-ops. Over the years, the CDS office has expanded its staff and I work closely with career counselors there on co-op opportunities for our students. CDS helps students in all aspects of their job searches, from resume writing to interviewing to finding the right company. Gregory Mass, the CDS director, has a staff that advises students on their job searches. CDS maintains an on-line database that lists job openings at 5,000 companies. And they host on-campus career fairs during which top companies recruit NJIT students. I encourage my students to attend the fairs and use CDS to the fullest.
Does working a co-op make it easier for students to find jobs after they graduate? Do they sometimes get hired by the company they worked for?
RT: There is no question that the co-op experience is very beneficial to students in securing a full-time position with the company. We have had many cases where the student has been offered a position with the company for which they have interned. Also, companies look to hire students who have work experience on their resumes. Having co-op experience fulfills that requirement and helps students to get hired.
Interview with Lisa Kardos:
You supervised the co-ops, so what skills did the students learn on the job?
LK: Students come into co-ops with the technical knowledge they have gained through coursework but they have little or no industry experience. The co-op introduces them to standard corporate procedures such as project management, working cross-functionally in teams and working with management. They need to achieve goals and meet deadlines, often advancing projects and then presenting the results to management. They learn to deal with responsibilities. At first, it can be very intimidating to the students but the more they do it the more at ease they are with corporate requirements. This type of on-the-job learning can help a student develop the skills that they may not directly learn via coursework. One of the most important aspects of on-the-job learning is to develop anticipatory thinking – the ability to anticipate, meet and exceed the expectations of management. You cannot learn that from a textbook but rather you can learn that from working a co-op – making observations and gaining experience. This is the type of skill one needs to develop in order to advance one’s career.
Does having those skills help students excel on their first full-time jobs?
LK: Yes, when you work in industry you are being evaluated from the start, and if you start off strong early in your career you’re more apt to advance into other roles and get promoted. Having the skills that a co-op gives you will really help you set up a successful trajectory for your career.
You also work with Career Development Services to help students find co-ops, right?
LK: When I was in industry I worked closely with Career Development Services. I recruited students at the NJIT Career Fairs and I came for on-campus recruiting. The career counselors were helpful and professional, ensuring that the students were well-prepared for their interviews and were a good fit for the companies where I worked. And now, as a coordinator in chemical engineering, I work with CDS and with Reginald Tomkins to encourage students to consider working co-ops. A co-op usually lasts about four to eight months and sometimes a student will graduate a semester or two later. But I can tell you from my experience in the corporate world that an employer would rather hire a student with co-op experience; it doesn’t matter that he or she took an extra semester or two to graduate. It’s the experience that counts.
By Robert Florida