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Building a Successful Co-Op Program: It's More Than Just Finding Talent - It's Nurturing It!

Jun 08, 2023

Everyone knows that hiring is difficult in these times, in a job market where candidates are scarce and competition for them is fierce.  Some would argue that finding “good” talent has always been hard.  But what if we’ve been going about it all wrong?  What if forming teams that thrive is actually a process, not an event?

At PSA, we’re proud of our long-standing Engineering Co-op Program: a 2-year rotational program designed to expose two mechanical and two electrical engineering students to the practicalities of a career as an engineer.  The program is founded on mentorship, with a purposeful growth plan, supported by meaningful work.

Surprisingly, the ideal Co-op candidate is not necessarily or automatically the student with the 4.0 GPA.  When evaluating potential candidates for the program, we look for students who communicate well, who have a diverse background, and who are intrigued by the work we do.  When we give them their first tour of our facilities, we consider how interested they are, the types of questions they ask, and how curious they seem.  We want a Co-op with a desire to work with everyone, in a team environment, and across multiple departments.

Communication is an especially important – and often overlooked – aspect of engineering excellence.  At PSA, our engineers play a critical role in turning what begins with a simple evaluation of our customers’ products into sophisticated and innovative equipment solutions, custom built to serve the unique requirements of their applications.  Getting that right requires not only careful analysis of the project’s goals, but thoughtful listening, coupled with insightful questions, as the customer and the PSA team discuss key elements of the build.

The diversity of PSA’s business is as much a benefit for Co-ops as it is for our customers.  Because PSA’s business encompasses wet and dry filling, capping, can seaming, and labeling, our engineers develop expertise not just in a single type of machine, but in many of the most critical components that make up the heart of the overall production line.  The opportunity to work on many types of packaging equipment is an essential element in the overall Co-op experience.   

“We treat our co-ops like members of our engineering team, giving them responsible freedom,” explained Dave Christman, Innovation Leader for Industrial Automation at PSA.  “As they go through the program, they get progressively more complex tasks. They will be doing true engineering work by the time they graduate.  And they work on a diversity of tasks, doing parts of different jobs.  They grow their skill sets and we get a feel for their potential for long-term success on our team.”

Co-ops’ work on projects is closely guided by members of PSA’s engineering team.  These mentors do more than monitor work product for accuracy and evaluate a Co-op’s progress.  They model the focus, attention to detail, and positive, open-minded approach to solutions that PSA is well known for, which drives success in innovation and builds enduring customer relationships. Augmenting our team with Co-op students means that while they learn, projects are also carried out more quickly, and lead engineers have additional capacity to handle even more complex tasks.  The result is a robust team of engineers, experienced in working collaboratively to solve complex problems.

In addition to building versatile engineers, PSA’s Co-op program builds engineering leaders.  Those team members who serve as mentors and provide guidance for our Co-ops simultaneously develop the leadership skills needed to bring complex customer projects to successful conclusions.  And, since more than 50% of PSA’s engineers went through the company’s Co-op program themselves, they take pride in sharing their experience to grow the next generation of leaders in our organization.

This last point is especially important in these times when so many companies struggle to attract and hire qualified candidates, especially those with the specialized knowledge and skill of an engineer.  The Co-op program is a valuable source of experienced, enthusiastic employees, who are ready to roll up their sleeves and jump in as productive and fully contributing members of the team upon graduation, with no need to acclimate to the company culture or figure out how they fit.  They already know they enjoy being an engineer, are confident in their abilities, and are proud to join an industry leader.

When asked what he thinks makes the program a success, Christman’s reply is both personal and practical.  “The Co-op program helps us work with students, to see them grow. It’s a great source of talent, and it also helps the students to decide if engineering is truly a career they want to pursue.”

Christman goes on to say, “From the company’s perspective, it’s an opportunity to assess an engineer’s probability of success in our organization and their fit with our culture, which is very important to PSA.  We don’t hire every individual who goes through our program.  But when we do, we have a high degree of confidence in the contributions they will bring to our team.  These students bring fresh ideas, a good attitude, and they help us complete the work.  The classroom provides the foundation for problem solving, and how to think, but being a Co-op provides true practical experience and there’s just no substitute for that.”

Having a Co-op program is just one component that has enabled Pneumatic Scale Angelus to excel and thrive, even in challenging times.  If you would like to learn more about our program or about creating a Co-op program at your company, please contact a member of our team at sales@psangelus.com

Dave Christman is Pneumatic Scale Angelus’ Innovation Leader - Industrial Automation.  Dave helped to create the company’s Co-op program in the late 1990’s, leveraging his experience as a Co-op in the 1980’s with Diebold (now Diebold Nixdorf).  Having had that experience helped him to translate the theory behind what he learned in the classroom into real, practical experience and a deeper understanding of what it means to be an engineer.  Dave expanded on that knowledge to craft the program that has been a successful pipeline for talented and versatile engineers for more than 20 years. 

Mike Mihalik recently retired from 27 years of service with Pneumatic Scale Angelus.  During his tenure, he served in many critical roles, including Vice President of Engineering and Vice President of Global Technology.  Driven by his passion for engineering and innovation, Mike was instrumental in launching PSA’s Engineering Co-op Program and ensuring its continued success.