Taking a semester “off” of college to work was one of the best decisions I made during my undergraduate career. I participated in the Co-Op program at the University of Minnesota (UMN). UMN’s Co-Op program partners with local companies that are looking for interns. The school offers credit for the students, and in return, the companies get exposure to students that they may hire down the road.

If you are lucky, you can find a company that is willing to let you work on something fun and challenging. They’ll let you tackle a project and give you full autonomy to figure out how to solve the problem you are working on. I was lucky because the company I worked for let me work on a cool project, which I’ll elaborate more on more story later in the post.

In this post, I’ll review my work history in college, how I got involved with the Co-Op program and the benefits of participating in a Co-Op program.

My previous summer jobs

An integral part of being successful with personal finance is making money. The Co-Op position I received helped me get off on the right foot to jump-start my career.

I had two internships prior to applying for the Co-Op program. My first internship was after my freshman year of college working for an industrial manufacturing company. I was making $6/hour at my previous job and this internship paid $11/hour. I almost doubled my pay ?

Most of the work was hands-on, which I really enjoyed. I rewired a bunch of things on our manufacturing line. The work wasn’t too sophisticated, which was good because I had not taken too many engineering classes yet. But the work was interesting and I learned quite a bit.

My second internship was working on-campus for a Professor who had a new idea for cochlear implants. My job was to create a control system that took high-resolution pictures of a cochlea as a camera panned across the cochlea. Then, in software, I stitched the pictures back together.

It was an interesting job and I got to learn Labview. The job also paid a little more than my previous internship – $13/hour. However, there were no other electrical engineers for me to learn from. The job also lacked the structure that I feel young/junior engineers need.

Bottom line, after two years of college I went from making $6/hour to $13/hour.

I did take a step back during my third summer job during college. In 2008/2009, the market tanked and it was difficult to find a job. I ended up working for the University’s facilities and maintenance group mowing lawns and planting flowers. I made $11/hour. The job was actually pretty sweet. I worked outside all day and I was finished by 2:30 pm.

How I got involved with the Co-Op program

Quite a bit of luck…

It was the fall semester of my senior year. I was planning the last semester of classes that I needed to take and I knew I needed more experience to help land a full-time job. The previous summer I worked for the University’s utility and facilities maintenance group mowing lawns because the job market was soft. The market didn’t appear to be getting any better so I was looking for ways to find jobs.

I went to the career center at the University of Minnesota. That is where I discovered the Co-Op program. The lady I was talking to went into detail about the program and I was interested.

The program attempts to match companies with students that would have interest in what that company does. For me, I wanted experience designing circuit boards and some exposure to programming microcontrollers. Once you submit your interests, you match with companies that are also interested in you – this is based on your GPA and the resume you submit.

I only matched with one company.

The next step is on-site interviews. I knew I needed to nail this interview because some of the other students matched with two or three companies – so they had more options.

The interview went well and I received an offer that I accepted!

The benefits

The Co-Op program was very valuable. I gained incredible work experience, I made money, I received college credit, and I was able to build my network. Let me dive into these sub-topics in more detail.

Work Experience

I was assigned a project on day one of the job. My project was to tackle a manufacturing problem the company was trying to solve. I got to come up with a few concepts for solving the problem that I reviewed with the rest of the engineering team.

For the main part of the project, I designed a printed circuit board (PCB). The PCB I designed was the brain/control system for everything else in the system.

Specifically, I worked on the schematic capture and layout of the PCB. I was responsible for programming the microcontroller, writing hardware descriptive language (HDL) for an FPGA, a C# program for the user interface (UI), and I received a great deal of soldering experience. I was exposed to different elements of the design process – from conceptualization to prototyping and through manufacturing.

Bottom line, what I learned was invaluable and I truly enjoyed the experience.

Making money and receiving college credit

The internship paid well – $15/hour. Looking back, this low compared to other engineering internships. Some paid in the low $20/hour range. So if you are an engineering student reading this post, negotiate for a higher hourly rate!

I also received college credit. The Co-Op program is split into two classes. I worked during the summer of 2010 and took the first Co-Op class. I continued working through the fall semester and completed the second course. For each class, I wrote a paper that summarized what I worked on and the value I derived from my work experience.

Building my network

During my time at my internship, different sales folks from the local distributors and suppliers would come in from time to time. I got to know these companies and the people that worked for them quite well to build up my network. Through meetings with these salespeople, I was exposed to the current company that I work for.

Seven years later, I still stay in contact with most of the electrical engineering team from my Co-Op. I get together with a few of the guys from time to time to stay in touch and see what they are working on.

Did you participate in a Co-Op program or did you have an internship?