Volunteering helps develop the practical know-how that can shape your future professional career. Engineering student Theodore Nel, who volunteer trained at Bombardier, provides some insight into the experience that opened his eyes.
South Africa has for a number of years been suffering from a major skills shortage, particularly in technical fields such as engineering. While the demand is high, there is little in the way of ‘availability of skilled and qualified talent across industries. It was obvious to me that there would be many job openings for people with the requisite skills.
That’s why, after completing matric at Wynberg Boys High School, I decided to pursue a career in mechatronic engineering at Stellenbosch University. Mild dyslexia meant that I was not great at languages, but I had a love for mathematics and robots. I grew up in a world where artificial intelligence is becoming more mainstream, and robots are popping up all over the place. As one of those kids that loves cartoons that feature robots, androids, and crazy geniuses, I knew a career in some form of robotics would be right for me.
Engineering is important. It is also challenging and exciting. Engineers use innovative thinking to solve problems and create new designs that benefit humanity. Engineers don’t sit back and watch – they make things happen. In a constantly changing world, the ability to use innovation, creativity and a wealth of knowledge, gives engineering graduates an ability to impact society unlike any other.
Mechatronics is a fairly new area in engineering that promises to be important in the future, in South Africa and internationally. It’s an inter-disciplinary field of engineering that focuses on both electrical and mechanical systems, and also includes a combination of robotics, electronics, computer, telecommunications, systems, control, and product engineering. With automation as the current key to productivity, the need for mechatronics – which makes it possible to generate simpler, more economical, reliable and versatile systems – increases every day.
A typical mechatronic system is a close integration of mechanical components, electronic sensors, mechanical and electrical actuators and computer controllers. These hybrid systems are found in industry sectors where mechanical and electronic engineering interface with computer systems, such as aerospace, automotive, chemical processing, computers, communications, electronics, healthcare, manufacturing and mining.
In 2017, during my second year at Stellenbosch, I came across plane and rail manufacturing company, Bombardier Transportation South Africa. I was looking for an opportunity to gain work experience and an internship and Bombardier sounded perfect, a large industrial and engineering company with local roots in South Africa. I was offered an internship as part of the company’s student engineering programme. Over a three-year period, I volunteered four times over the December-January holidays, starting at Swartkop, a train depot in Port Elizabeth.
The programme offered by Bombardier has been aligned with Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Engineering Module framework for vacation training. I am now in my final year of study and the experience has been extremely rewarding.
Shadowing Bombardier experts with years of practical experience and working under their guidance gives students an opportunity to put their theoretical knowledge into practice. At first, it was very cool – and utterly daunting. Twelve months later, I had learned so much about how trains and planes work and what goes into manufacturing these transport modes is truly complex. Moreover, I came to understand how global organisations work, what health and safety looks like in practice, how supply chain management fits into organisational structures, as well as many other non-engineering related matters. This experience resulted in new opinions and insights, as well as a view into how different types of engineers interact with others. It prepares you for the world of work in a way that nothing else can.
Developing leadership skills through volunteerism
Volunteering offers you the chance to network with people in the industry, demonstrate your skills, and learn the ins and outs of an organisation. Bombardier, which started out in Montreal as a maker of snowmobiles is now one of the world’s largest manufacturers of planes and trains. Getting to understand how a global company operates, and how it runs a sophisticated production facility with inclusive workplace and a diverse workforce, has provided me with invaluable insight that I would not have otherwise gained as a student.
Opportunities like this can not only help you determine whether you have chosen the right career, but they can also set you up perfectly for a future job offer. At Bombardier, they always say that your future is for you to define and employees are not just someone who work here but are the ones who drives their success. Volunteering is a valuable way to get hands-on experience or to try out a job or an industry that you are interested in. Importantly, the experience can help to build leadership skills and provide a marketability edge for those seeking employment once they have graduated.
There are many opportunities out there, and organisations like Bombardier are always looking for enthusiastic people willing to put in the effort. All you have to do is start looking.