Covid-19: For engineering students, it’s life, interrupted

COVID-19 cancelled sign with young people walking
From the disappearance of internships to the challenges of entering into a job market that has been decimated, students are navigating a world no one anticipated.

Mayank Kishore a Georgia Tech student was excited to start his co-op job with the embedded engineering team at Wisk / Kitty Hawk this summer, working on the future of autonomous air taxis.

Now, he’s scrambling to find a position that can replace the work he would have been doing. Since his internship was cancelled in early April, he’s concerned that he won’t be getting the experience he needs to land his dream job when he graduates with a BS/MS in computer science in 2021.

“Last summer I learned an incredible amount while interning with Uber ATG’s autonomous vehicle division. I was deeply involved in the software engineering stack, and my manager did a fantastic job helping me understand how to code and implement an entirely new system from scratch,” said Kishore.

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Potentially not getting an internship this summer, he noted, would mean an endless number of things that he would miss out on learning. “Working directly with autonomous air taxis at Wisk would have exposed me to a whole host of new challenges, which would have been incredibly exciting,” he said.

Plans upended by a pandemic

Aside from the weirdness of attending classes via Zoom or BlueJeans, engineering students everywhere are seeing their plans upended by the pandemic. From the scarcity of internships and cancellation of job fairs and job offers to the challenges of entering into a job market that has been decimated, they are navigating a world no one anticipated.

Pratik Saha is graduating this month with a civil engineering degree from Ryerson University in Toronto, specializing in Transportation Engineering. Since his second year in college, he has been following a carefully laid-out path to a career in engineering.

“I secured my first co-op position entirely on my own. I then built up the necessary skills on my resume early on in order to land a successful 16-month internship after my junior year,” Saha explained. “The last stage of my plan was to start applying for full time positions in January and have an offer in place by May.”

One wrinkle in that plan was that his university cancelled many of the career events in the spring that would have exposed him to potential opportunities. And since mid-March, many of the responses (when he gets them at all) to applications he’s sent out are only to advise him that the position is closed due to COVID-19.

“It is depressing to see so many jobs just disappear,” said Saha. “But on the other hand, the government of Canada has been amazing in its support of all citizens during this crisis. I’m very thankful to live in such a great country.”

Back in job search mode

Jackson Bartlett, a senior in electrical engineering at Purdue University will graduate in December 2020. After getting an offer back in November 2019, he was set to start an internship this summer with a company he had previously worked for. When the offer was recently withdrawn, he unexpectedly found himself back in job search mode.

“It’s been really challenging to start from scratch at this point, as existing coop positions have either been filled months ago or companies have suspended their programs,” said Bartlett. “I have had to resort to looking all over the country for opportunities, which would mean I might have to pack up and move at moment’s notice. Although I’m not holding my breath that anything will come through at this point.”

With prospects dwindling, Bartlett says he is looking into just getting any kind of a job for the summer, possibly at a landscaper, factory, or in construction. “Unless I find something for the summer and fall semester, my fiancé and I will have to leave our apartment and move back in with a parent until the situation gets better,” he noted.

Kishore, who secured past internship positions through a mix of online applications and job fairs, has recently begun reaching out directly to engineers on LinkedIn. But that, too, is proving a bit tough.  “I have over 30,000 views on my LinkedIn post [about the cancellation of his internship],” he said. “Although that is an impressive number, there has been a paltry turnover rate. Only a handful of people have reached out or responded to me positively after I published that post. “

With time running out to secure a summer internship, Kishore’s backup plan is to do some type of freelance development to earn money on the side. Saha is open to taking any type of job just to support himself and his family, but would like to get something as close to his area of engineering, if possible.

Remarkable resilience

Despite the current challenges, the engineering students profiled here displayed a remarkable resilience—a quality that will not only help them through this crisis, but will surely be an asset in their professional careers.

“I wanted to get on with a construction firm as a traveling job site engineer, preferably in the energy sector. But it is pretty difficult to imagine right now when that opportunity will be there,” said Bartlett. “I imagine all of this will set back my plans for a minimum of six months, probably longer. But I do not have a doubt that if I put the effort in, I will still attain my goals.”

During this unplanned downtime, Kishore plans on building up his skills and knowledge, starting with a course on artificial intelligence for robotics. He also plans to focus on hobbies, like weightlifting and reading, and connecting with family.

As for Saha, he says he is continuing to submit job applications and honing his engineering skills, by working with tools such as AutoCAD in order to be even more prepared for when things get back to normal.  “It's a lot of stress right now,” he reflected. “ But in times like this, I think that being optimistic and believing in oneself are going to help people get through this.”

Article update 5/5/2020: Good news! Since we published this article, Jackson Bartlett reached out to let us know he found a job as a project manager at a local electrical contractor. We are thrilled for him.

RELATED: Upended by COVID-19, job market for tech craters

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