Hidden Champions in Engineering Teams – Working Students
For about 20 years in maintenance and engineering, I am convinced, working students are a secret for team success – and often very underestimated teammates.
Of course, it has been a learning process
for me, too. Hence, I like to share my very own rules for everyone thinking
about placing a position for a working student. Let this inspire more engineering
leaders and seniors to offer working student positions !
No matter whether I recruit a working student
the very first time into a team or its already a routine – I always commit
newly to the young engineer coming, knowing it will take my time, my skills and
sometimes my patience to grow a young student temporarily into my team.
I commit to mentor and when times get rough
– they will…nature of engineering projects – I come back to this commitment,
knowing the working student is part of the future of engineering and deserves my
time and skills and patience. If I am not ready for this commitment at a
certain stage – I do not open a position. This might not be the right time
Value their freshness
With every working student joining, I am
upfront convinced of the value, he or she will bring to the table. In my
experience, students are eager to contribute and eager to learn – no matter the
topic. While the role is helpful for setting their own career and contributes
to their living (see 6) – it will be equally advantageous for the team.
Students come with fresh thoughts,
non-blinded. They ask questions, differently from those the team raises. This
is to embrace. And while the students are supporting the team with legwork or running
smaller sub-projects – they also help your engineers to grow their skills of
delegation and feedback.
Before getting a position out, I project this freshness into the current team setup and situation. This may not be obvious to the team right now – but from now on am I highly advocating for opening a role.
3. Advocate for the role - Include your team
Why advocating when I am in the position to
just open the role and go for it? Because its never just about me. We have duties,
projects, timelines as a team – and without the buy-in of the team – minimum the
directly effected engineers who will work closely with the student – this won’t
With giving my own commitment and being aware of the value, I talk to the team and interface contacts being open about my reasoning. Sometimes the buy-in is there right away, sometimes there are doubts but a gentle “lets try” – good enough to continue. I won’t go for the position without any team buy-in, not even when the position is solely meant to support mainly myself. It is a team, if I can not get any buy-in I better listen to the teams reasoning first and re-think the value.
4. Recruit as if for a permanent role
Usually, I offer a position with a 6 – 8 months
timeframe. This enables a good onboarding with sufficient time for the student
to “get into it and perform” – and it gives some safety for the student
himself/herself to not worry for the coming semester. Younger students who face
longer times until graduation is given the opportunity to prolong (see also 8)
And above all, when everything runs well, that very student may even have the chance to continue in a junior role post graduation - in a permanent role.
On my end the process starts with a proper job
description. List the main areas of working and whether this is a project-related
or general support role (or a combination). Be clear about the soft skills required
to excel in this position – it all sets the tone for the following recruitment
There maybe short-cuts from the HR department for recruiting working students (which is fine) – but as soon as I personally head into an interview, I set myself in the “permanent role mood”. It is about to find top-class people, matching the team and the tasks – these counts for a student role as much as for a permanent hire when I want to keep the performance of my team top class.
Depending on the role description, I ask a team member –
usually the engineer(s) meant to work closely with the student, too – to support
the interview process. I always had best matching hires for working students,
when the engineer(s) had the opportunity to have their say. And as a
side-effect, they grow their own interview skills and take responsibility for
I heavily distinct between (paid) internships
and a working student role. While internships, especially mandatory
internships, come with the intent for the student to learn and the obligation
of the company to teach, the working student role for me is about: working.
It is meant to support the team with the
tasks and inputs made out in step 2. There is a job to do and expectations behind.
There might be limits – especially with respect to the tasks or time.
Maybe this role requires some hard legwork or
some self-education – no matter what – communicate it to the candidate honestly
and openly in the recruiting interview. While I always (honestly, always!)
spice a working student role with uplifting challenges from the beginning –
there is a certain likeliness for groundwork to do being less sexy. And that’s fine.
It is a working student role, paid to support the team. I make that very clear
to the candidates.
Same counts for time boundaries. If this
role is from the beginning set to part-time with little chance to raise hours
during semester break – tell it upfront. If this role is certainly going to end
post the initial contract time for whatever reason – tell it upfront. I do not
want to raise expectations or hopes when there is little to no room. That’s unfair.
If that’s what the student is looking for, its not the right match.
And I talk about the process
to get there which is also depending on the performance of the student and the
Having those boundaries and opportunities
laid out clearly, gives me the best impression of whether a candidate does not
only match with hard skills but can also buy-in the situation. And its set the
tone for step 8 – feedback!
6. Pay them well
I keep this section very short as it talks
for itself. Pay them well. A working student role is meant for working. Work
gets paid. And payment should be in line with your company’s payment structure.
Minimum wage is minimum wage – well paid considers the job to be done. Pay for
Although working students usually work
part-time and for a limited time-period – I make sure they are integrated into
the team as very best as possible. Team communication, retros, Slack-Channels –
I treat working student equally to all team members.
I encourage them to speak their mind, give
their inputs. Planning meetings will see them equally contributing, delegating
tasks, raising blockers – I make that feel natural among the team members,
include them in retro session.
Although a working student often brings
very little working experience and may need some coaching and explanation (see
1 – commitment) – I integrate them as if they are on a permanent role. This may
be challenging at the beginning but pays off after the first days. My goal is
to reach a state, where there is no question about who could support whom by
role but only skills and talent is seen and offered. And this works surprisingly
well and fast when there is no doubt about the integration.
8. Feedback Feedback Feedback
The student who might be in their first
paid role has a right to understand what went well, what can be improved. Only
this fosters growth. And the student should be heard vice versa – what went
well, what can be improved, where is hassles to overcome. I take this time
equally to the permanent team members.
And there is always topics very special to the working student role: working hours extension in semester break, chance to get a thesis topic, prolongation of the contract, transfer into a permanent role.
I am candid and honest with answering and addressing those. Sometimes there may
not be a clear yes or no – then this is what I tell. Encouraging to keep other
paths open. And if there is a “no” for whatever reason, I tell exactly that –
the reason. And again, encourage to go after alternatives. Never ever play time.
Going through steps 1-8, a working student
can become a supportive backbone of your team, a hidden champion who is acknowledges
as a full team member and able to take responsibilities way further than
originally anticipated. And when there is one thing your hidden champion needs now
for his or her future career – then that is exposure of his/her skills and
talent to land the first permanent job. So, get them out of the “hidden” and praise
them internally and externally.
One line about Bachelor- or Master thesis students:
Combining Bachelor- or Master thesis with a working student job can
become a slippery slope – be very clear where the line is, especially when the
thesis is not done fulltime. Support the student in finding the balance – they likely won’t
know themselves yet.
Last but not least I like to thank all my
working students (and interns) for their own patience with me on my journey. I
am sure I did not follow my own rules all the time, especially in my early days
as team lead. I grew with you!