Paul Strickland

Paul Strickland

Eight Months with a Graduate

Last September I wrote about how I wanted to provide the best placement I could manage for a new graduate in the company. That first placement ended in January this year and since then the graduate in question has experienced a couple of other areas of the business. The question I’m hoping to answer now is how well did my placement plan work?

My plan

My plan was to provide a placement that would benefit both the graduate and our team: not only should it be educational for the graduate but ideally it should provide useful output to a project. From my last post on the topic, it should:

  • Contribute to a programme or project
  • Teach the fundamentals of our role in the business
  • Provide a mixture of independent work and good guidance, learning and support
  • Allow the graduate the opportunity to create something tangible

How did it go?

The end result of the placement was a technical report co-authored by the graduate and another engineer. In addition to seeing a report progress from beginning to its issue, our graduate also had the opportunity to see the beginning of another project, albeit briefly.

The placement achieved my objectives, but the cost of this was quite high. Future placements will need to acknowledge this, and either accept that cost or else adapt to reduce it.

What worked well

We had a loosely formed plan by the beginning of September. We would run a few workshops to cover different aspects of our role; based on those we would issue small parts of a larger task as work for the graduate to complete. In addition to those dedicated sessions, I continually urged questions to be asked as required. This was borne out of previous experience of the “silently suffering” new starter: someone who was afraid of exposing their lack of understanding for fear of appearing ignorant. It worked well — though possibly too well as I’ll discuss below.

With the workshops and regular questions, we had a good view of how our graduate was doing with their allocated work. We also took the time to include them in some of our other projects. It took very little effort to invite them to a meeting, for example, or to include them in a technical discussion that was happening in the office.

Other opportunities to learn were provided by visits to one of our facilities (an avionics rig) and to a meeting at another one of the company’s sites. I think the opportunity to do anything practical can reinforce learning by a vast amount and although the opportunities for that in our job are scarce, when they are presented they always provide a benefit, both to new and experienced staff alike.

Office life was as new to the graduate as the job itself. It’s so easy to forget how big the change is from life as a student to the beginning of your career. So with that in mind I was keen to include the graduate in the events of a typical working day, whether that was making tea and taking the opportunity to have a break, or by being subjected to the fairly robust banter of the office, whilst trying to ensure that they didn’t feel uncomfortable. Welfare, in fact, was another important and unexpected part of my developing responsibility. I felt the need to send the graduate home at the end of the day on more than one occasion after they seemed compelled to try to finish some work. Striking a balance here was very difficult. I didn’t want to instil a sense of laziness but at the same time I knew that there would be plenty of opportunity for late working in the future career of the graduate. In our office we have a fairly relaxed attitude to working hours when the work permits, but this is justified by always putting enough effort in when it is required.

What could be improved

The biggest problem I faced during this placement was the loss of time for me to work on my own projects. The combination of sharing an office with six others and being openly willing to answer questions meant that it was easy — perhaps too easy — for the graduate to simply turn around and ask a question. In fact I got the impression that a question would be asked in preference to attempting to find the answer for themselves.

Now, I am not criticising the idea of asking questions. I still think it’s vitally important to encourage a culture of asking when you’re stuck, and the old adage of “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” is still something I hold true. However, to quote Carl Sagan, “there are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions [and] questions put after inadequate self-criticism”. 1 I think it would be fair to say that I got a reasonable mixture of both; many questions were valid and I wouldn’t expect someone new to the company to be able to answer. However, there were also questions which, with a little effort, the graduate would probably have been able to answer.

Still on the subject of questions, I was surprised by the variety and breadth of them. Not only did I get asked technical questions or those specific to the way we work and the tools we use, but I was also asked many domestic questions. These were much easier to answer but constantly surprised me. It was just another part of entering a world of work I suppose, and something I would anticipate more if I received another brand new graduate in the future.

To address the problem of time there is only really one option: I would have to make myself less available. This is something that I have been encouraged to do for a while, to move into another office with a fellow senior engineer. I don’t particularly want to for a number of reasons, but during a couple of trial runs, I was so much more productive that I doubt I can avoid the move, at least on a part-time basis. Although the other office is in the same building and only a few feet away, that additional separation appears to provide enough indication that I am not as easily available. If I made the move permanent, I’d like to establish a routine where my days in the large office are those days where I spend the majority of my time helping and discussing with others. The days in the small office would be the days to focus on my own work. Time will tell if that idea works.

The future

The likelihood of another brand new graduate being delivered to us this year is not high; ours is a small technical discipline and we do not have a visible need for more capacity at the moment. However, I am quite open to the idea of existing graduates now and in the future doing short placements with us, but only if there is a suitable package of work. Already this year I have advertised such an opportunity to the graduate community, listing learning objectives and requirements for the placement. Unfortunately the first one was not taken up, but as future tasks come in I will endeavour to ask the question “could this be a good graduate placement?”

Summary

I am quite pleased overall with our first graduate placement. Feedback from the graduate has indicated that it was a worthwhile experience whilst being challenging as well. I have also gathered that other placements around the business have been less enjoyable or fulfilling. Whilst that is a shame, as graduates deserve to have a good introduction to the company, I am also quite pleased that my work has been well received. If we are able to raise the standard of placements everywhere by becoming sought-after in the graduate community, even better.

References

  1. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, quotation available at https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/538156-there-are-naive-questions-tedious-questions-ill-phrased-questions-questions-put [accessed 09 May 2015].
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