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 !

 1.      Commit to the up-and-coming young engineers

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 then.

2.      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.

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

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 become success.

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

 Although working student positions are time-restricted by nature, I head into the recruiting process as if I would recruit 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.

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

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 process.

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 team growth.

 5.   Communicate - Expectations, Limits, Tasks, Opportunities

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.

But – I do also talk about the opportunities laid down in the role. The potential prolongation, extension of paid working hours, the possibility to take over additional responsibilities or accompany different teams – as long as those are legit. 

And I talk about the process to get there which is also depending on the performance of the student and the company/project.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

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 the job.

7.      7.   Integrate

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.      8.   Feedback Feedback Feedback

A lot is written about feedback and leading with feedback, and I won’t repeat great authors here for the details. Every leader must find their own matching way together with their team. But what I want to point out is – feedback is essential also for your working student to become a champion.

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. 

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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.

 9.      Praise

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!


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