Shirt ironed, lunch packed

Darcy Small gives us a fascinating glimpse into life as a premature corporate hack and why industry placements make such good sense.

“So, whaddya reckon about the full-time gig?” my mate asks over the dinner table, pointing the remaining half of his home-made rice-paper roll at me.

I pause and glance at my two housemates. The dining room window is ajar and a spring breeze rustles the leaves of our indoor palm. Cookbooks teeter in a stack on the bookshelf and an unfinished board game clutters the coffee table. Two years ago, on a Tuesday like today, the same group of us were wolfing down a cheap pasta dinner before heading to The Regent. When did we turn into such wannabe classy adults?

I grew up in Crescent Head, a small sleepy surf town where bare feet are shoes, the local shuts before 12am on NYE and you probably live within a few houses of one of your schoolteachers. Sydney is another world. After the HSC, I was lucky enough to be awarded the UNSW Co-op Scholarship. This support, combined with UNSW’s proximity to the beach and meeting a bunch of nice people during O-week, made the transition from home easy enough.

When I’m normally asked about work, I point out that although it’s great to have weekends entirely free, it doesn’t lend itself to the weeknight parties synonymous with ‘student life’. But of course, beyond our adult dinner party chat, there’s a lot more to it. Through the Co-op program industry training placements, I have spent 2017 getting a first-hand taste of working as an engineer within the renewable energy industry; first at SMA and now at Solar Analytics. The arrangement means I effectively defer my degree after year three and resume in 2018 for honours, graduating a year later than many of my peers.

My mate finishes his mouthful and notes that a whole year of early wake-ups, bicycle commutes, mid-morning weather-related lunchroom chat and dorky casual-business wear (I’ve still got my vest on) doesn’t sound too crash hot. Remembering that UNSW has a world-class engineering faculty with SPREE famous for its pioneering work in the photovoltaic industry, you can’t blame him for sticking only to the compulsory 60 days. So, is a longer work experience worthwhile?

Yes. Absolutely.

SPREE is world-renowned for the commercialisation of its innovative research in solar energy, but even a classroom full of industry experts can’t prepare you for life in the workplace. A lecture can’t provide the sense of responsibility that a client project can. A laboratory can’t replicate the nature of on-site problem solving, and nor can a group assignment represent collaboration across departments on a single task.

 

“But,” says my mate, “those things will come when I score a graduate job.” And he’s right … if it were just practical skills to be gained. Back in Crescent Head, after missing the school bus and hitching a ride with my English teacher, I used to torment myself trying to answer her polite ‘what would you like to be’ question. At that stage I was just as likely to become a chef, but now, as an engineering student, I’m wondering whether I should pursue work in energy markets or PV manufacturing? Policy design or system design? Without a taste of these options, which thankfully I’m getting on my placement, how would I know?

Learning what you don’t enjoy is as important as discovering what you do. I would strongly recommend finding a placement that you think might interest you, and then regardless of whether it does or not, making the most of that opportunity to explore all possible avenues within the company. Engineering is hugely diverse and it’s inevitable that you won’t love all of it, but it’s nice to find out which aspects you do prior to signing a graduate contract. Ask to work across different departments. Take the initiative to engage yourself in projects that seem interesting. And, try to divert lunchroom chat from the weather – experienced colleagues are an incredible resource.

Until my first internship, it was difficult to distinguish uni from a more happening, relevant and busy continuation of high school. Context is everything. Seeing photovoltaic efficiency equations applied in a new and exciting product does wonders for your desire to understand them. Developing solutions that help the millions of Australian solar owners to understand their system performance installs faith in engineering as an empowering career choice to make a real difference. Scoping the potential for peer-to-peer energy trading to exist within the Australian energy sector confirms that innovation is not just a buzzword.

My housemate yawns, gets up and heads to the kitchen to flick the kettle on. As a medicine student with more than a year of workplace experience under her belt, this conversation seems like a no brainer. Luckily in engineering, we have the added advantage of degree flexibility, which allows you to focus on areas of interest through professional and general electives and your thesis year. This means you can reflect on what was exciting at work and use it to tailor your degree towards employment in similar areas.

I push my chair back and look towards the kitchen. “Yep,” I think. Combine early development of practical skills and discovering what you enjoy with industry exposure and real-world context and it starts to sound like a pretty good gig. Sure, there’s plenty more reasons, but it’s nearly 9pm. There are dishes to be washed, a shirt to be ironed … and I’ve got work tomorrow. 

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Photogallery

  • Darcy in action at Solar Analytics
  • Darcy in action at Solar Analytics