Sometimes learning on the job is the best way

October 3, 1997

Kam Patel talks to three under-graduates who sing the praises of an industrial placement

For chemical engineer Fesil Mushtaq, a year spent in industry was a success. It proved to him that he could do the job of a chemical engineer and gave him with knowledge that will be of considerable value when he begins his doctorate.

Mr Mushtaq, of Loughborough University's chemical engineering department, carried out his industrial training last year at Castleford-based Hickson and Welch, a chemicals firm that manufactures fertilisers, detergents for household soap powders and pigments for paints.

Students often have to travel for their industrial training, but Hickson is close to home for 23-year-old Mr Mushtaq. "This meant I did not really have any problems settling in. The employees made me feel very welcome."

During the period running up to his placement in the third year of the five-year course, his department provided help not just with identifying possible firms but also with interview techniques.

He did not have a particular sector of the chemicals industry or firm in mind during this period: "Since the first two years of the course covered the fundamental of chemical engineering, I did not have any real, special interests in the field and preferred to expand my general knowledge," he says. The work at the company allowed him to do this.

During his period at Hickson and Welch, the firm was spending considerable time on improving safety and preventing loss of production through plant failures. Mr Mushtaq's job was to help with this effort. In addition to this "project work" he spent some time on the day-to-day problems that arise in any manufacturing plant.

"I was pleased with the work I did and was able to use knowledge gained in one study in others. I learnt so much about so many different processing systems - it might not have been possible without the placement." Some of the results of his work were actually used to improve some of the safety systems at the plant.

Mr Mushtaq's starting salary was Pounds 8,700 -relatively low but not unusual. Loughborough's chemical engineering department does an annual salary survey of its industrial trainees. The average for 1996/97 is Pounds 10,700, with a range of Pounds 8,500 to Pounds 13,500. The average has risen steadily over the last few years, from Pounds 8,760 in 1990/91 to Pounds 10,500 in 1995/96.

The most important benefits of the placement for Mr Mushtaq were exposure to the challenges of responsibility, organisation and communication with colleagues: He graduated in June and for his PhD intends to research safety and design of new processes. "Since the work I did at Hickson involved examining not only new processes but also existing ones whose problem were known, I do not think I could have chosen a better background for my PhD."

In the recent teaching quality assessment of chemical engineering, Mr Mushtaq's department was commended for the "excellent" support and preparation of students for industrial placement. Students receive at least two visits from tutors and must keep in regular contact with the department through monthly reports.

At Warwick University, students can take advantage of a nationwide scheme that places them in small and medium firms to undertake small, low-cost projects. Called STEP, the scheme is backed by oil giant Shell and is managed by the university's science park.

Last year 1,400 students undertook placements through it and around 70 per cent of companies benefiting have reported that the students' projects had an immediate impact on their business.

Amanda Wright, a 23-year-old studying computer systems engineering at the university has just finished her STEP placement at Nuneanton-based Lanemark International, a firm specialising in design, manufacture and servicing of gas-fired heating equipment for industrial applications.

Ms Wright chose Lanemark because their project fitted in closely with her own interests. "I liked the place from the outset and fitted in very quickly. I had prepared my own plan before joining the company. They wanted me to set up a company-wide email facility and create company web pages."

Ms Wright successfully met the targets, generating an immediate benefit for the firm: "As a result of the project the firm received by email an offer from a company in China to begin negotiations on their acting as an agent for Lanemark. This was pleasing as China is a market Lanemark very much want to be involved in."

There were no disappointments for Ms Wright during her time at the firm. "My time there built up my confidence and gave me a sense of achievement."

Andrew Gibson, a 21-year-old physics undergraduate is another Warwick student who has just finished a STEP placement.

He went to Coventry-based Geotechnics Ltd, a firm specialising in geophysical surveying. Through STEP, he was given a choice of areas such as marketing and computing to choose from and offered possible companies for placement. Mr Gibson says of his choice of firm: "I deliberately chose something with a significant computing element because I wanted to build up my skills in the area."

There was a plan for his main project, which required designing a computer database of all of Geotechnics' part survey reports. "But other work came in that was not planned - it added to the development of my computing skills and provided variety."

The development of the database was successful: "It gave me a real sense of achievement," he said. "The most important benefits for me were personal development and confidence building. I picked up additional computing skills but the placement also gave me an appreciation of how many computing skills I already had."

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