How to succeed as a ‘Year in Industry’ students without burning the place down

Cambridge Design Partnership regularly hosts two trainees from the Engineering Development Trust’s ‘Year in Industry’ scheme. This offers students who are between A-levels and university a year of industrial experience. As we come to the end of our year we have written about our experiences.

Being two girls, fresh out of school, the idea of starting a full time job in a male-dominated industry was nothing if not daunting. At the age of seventeen, going into your first job interview is an intimidating experience. This was made easier by the kind faces and encouraging attitudes of the interviewers at Cambridge Design Partnership, who would later become our colleagues.

Our first day on the job started early – having just come from a lazy summer holiday following a stressful exam period, getting out of bed before lunchtime was a bit of a shock to the system! We were introduced to a flurry of names and faces; the names were quickly forgotten but the faces and amiability displayed by them were not.

We had both come from all-girls’ schools, so walking around the office in a sea of facial hair took some getting used to. Even though this was not our natural environment, we found that the people behind the beards were on the same wavelength as us. We soon got to know everyone individually and conversations flowed.

Project work soon abounded and the steep learning curve began. Project leaders booked our time on new and exciting projects, doing tasks we did not think we were capable of. Respect from our colleagues was earned with time. In any new job, let alone when you are the youngest two people in the company, it takes a while for people to understand your abilities and limits.

This was reflected in our own sense of self-worth. Having not had any education beyond A-levels, it was all too easy to think of ourselves as inadequate, in a company bursting with degrees, doctorates and highly intelligent, respected members of the industry. Nevertheless, we have come to add significant value to projects, and thus to the company, through our tenacious attitude and ability to learn on the job. Whilst we do not yet have a university qualification, we will leave with something worth far more than just an academic certificate: real problem solving experience.

Product development is a whole new world after the academic rigour of school. Attending meetings, brainstorms and having free rein of the lab gave us the opportunity to learn how an innovation and engineering firm operates. Our ‘Year in Industry’ has given us an introduction to the business world. The importance of the business process and client interactions is something we were not aware of at the start of our placements, but that we have become more involved in as time has progressed.

Throughout the year there has been mixed tasks. Whilst the majority have been dedicated to valuable client projects, we have also assembled flat-pack furniture, painted bathrooms and sorted countless boxes. We like to think that this has contributed to the running of the company; all the while, we have been gaining useful life skills.

Regular social events such as curry nights, board game nights, football matches and pub trips have made working at CDP an enjoyable experience. These have become great opportunities to get to know the colleagues that we work alongside every day. The Christmas party gave us a chance to get out the 1920s fancy dress costumes and enjoy an evening of socialising and free wine! We will not comment on the end of the evening, although we have made memories we will not be forgetting any time soon.

As part of the Year in Industry scheme we have had the chance to enter two nationwide competitions for placed students. These are to do with our contribution to the business and our experiences as Year in Industry students. We have both been successful in progressing to the next rounds in both competitions, and we look forward to attending the events for these in the summer, alongside other students from around the country.

We have gained innumerable and incomparable experience whilst working at CDP, and in this time learnt three valuable lessons:

Lesson 1: No challenge is too great if you have the right mind set. It is often easy to dismiss a task as impossible when you underestimate your own capabilities. We have found, however, that with the help of colleagues and a thorough approach, anything is possible.

Lesson 2: Learn to say no. At times, we were needed on a project when we were already booked 100% elsewhere. In order to maintain sanity and not be spread too thin, it is important to be sensible in what you agree to take on.

Lesson 3: How not to burn the place down. Through trial and error, we now know the limits of the laser cutter and how far it can be pushed before materials start catching on fire.

It is sad to think that we are now coming to the end our placements here at CDP. The supportive atmosphere created by all our colleagues, especially our wonderful mentors Paul and Ben, has made our time here enjoyable and unforgettable. We are grateful to the people who have influenced us and set us on the path for a successful engineering career and time at university. We have been inspired by our ‘Year in Industry’ to understand that girls in engineering should not be underestimated.