Louisville District Co-op program provides win-win for students and USACE

USACE Louisville District
Published July 26, 2022
Updated: July 26, 2022
USACE, Louisville, students, engineering

Ryan Hiatt, who is working on a Master of Engineering degree with the University of Louisville, takes part in a site visit to a site visit to Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, as part of his internship with the Louisville District’s Engineering Department.

USACE, Louisville, students, engineering

Sophia Zeamer, a student University of Louisville who is majoring in Civil and Environmental Engineering, performs per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances testing on underground wells in Edwardsville, Illinois, as part of her internship with the Louisville District’s Engineering Department.

Louisville, Ky. – The Louisville District’s Engineering Division Co-operative Student Internship Program not only helps college students gain valuable experience in their careers, but also provides the division an inside track to training and retaining well-qualified staff.

The Co-op program developed more than 40 years ago from a partnership with the University of Louisville’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering to provide a way for engineering students to work in an actual engineering business that provides engineering services, according to Ray Frye, Jr., deputy chief,  Engineering Division.

“The co-op program has evolved from its initial partnership into a strategic tool to build the bench to sustain the future of the Engineering Division (ED). Currently, the co-op program is providing engineering learning opportunities for more than 50 students this year,” he said. “In the beginning, the Engineering Division Co-op program was simply working with Speed to give students engineering learning opportunities,” he said. “While employed, students are exposed to all elements of work underway in the sections. They are invited to attend meetings, participate in inspections, perform analysis and write reports.”

“Upon completion of the semester, an “end of rotation” meeting is conducted. The meeting is intended to discuss student accomplishments and performance, and to understand student career interests,” Frye explained. “We have learned that once a student works in the Louisville District for a semester, their interests for future internship rotations often change.”

In 2021, the J.B. Speed School of Engineering designated the Louisville District as an “Employer of Choice” for engineering students. The program has since expanded from just Speed school students to include others from Purdue University, Evansville University, University of Kentucky, University of Cincinnati, Western Kentucky, Rose-Hulman and Tennessee State University with hopes to expand recruiting efforts to other regional universities with engineering curriculums.

Frye said while it’s important to get diversity in education through recruiting this long and growing list of universities, one of the challenges is that the student work programs are all different. 

“Some universities have no student internship programs and students can only work internships during the summer break. Some universities offer students the opportunity to take five semesters for internships, another university allows for the student to work for a whole year. Fortunately, our program is flexible enough to accommodate whatever student work program the university offers,” he said.

The ED team also works to meet the needs of students by understanding and meeting student career interests.

“We spend time with students listening to their interests and mentoring them to the learning opportunities that USACE offers, which is vast,” Frye said. “The Louisville District is a full-service district that offers engineering learning opportunities in every discipline of civil engineering and planning, design, construction and operation opportunities for all engineering disciplines.  ED has established relationships with Construction, Operations, and VA divisions to place students in these organizations based on their interests.”

“So, at the time of hiring, we meet with the students to understand the timing of their internship assignments and their career interests. Then we match the timing and their interests to the availability we have,” he added. “We track the internships and student learning interests, as a tool that helps us plan our recruiting efforts. The tracking tool also includes a schedule for student rotation through the engineering disciplines identified during career interest discussions.”

Sophie Zeamer, a rising senior at the University of Louisville who is majoring in Civil and Environmental Engineering, said interest shown in her as a person and as a student has allowed her to benefit from her internship in multiple ways.

“After learning about the Corps and how established its co-op program was, I knew it was where I had to be. As a sophomore I had no idea what discipline within civil I wanted to go into, and the Corps has given me the opportunity to try three very different disciplines,” she explained. “I have done rotations in Geotechnical Design, Structural Design, and Environmental Compliance; all have taught me things that have increased my confidence in my engineering abilities as well as being able to work on infrastructure projects that are making housing safer, protecting our waterways, and keeping our food sources clean. I really wanted my co-op to be a learning opportunity and that is exactly what USACE has given me.”

Besides the benefits the co-op provides for the students, there is also an added benefit for the Louisville District – a pool of future employees who already understand the mission and work of the Corps of Engineers.

“It wasn’t considered a recruiting opportunity until recent years when the labor market got tight because there was a greater demand for journeyman-level engineers,” Frye explained. “Now with the onset of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), competition for skilled human resources is fierce for engineering disciplines. As a result, ED loses approximately 15% annually, mostly, to better employment opportunities within USACE. Fortunately, we lose very few to opportunities outside the federal government.”

“Because it is hard to replace our experienced staff, ED leadership had to think strategically. The decision was to “Grow Our Own” journeyman-level engineers.  To do that, we decided we would replace one-third of our attrition with the best students within our region. Therefore, it is ED’s goal to hire about 20 students from each graduating class to help offset attrition. Because most of our attrition is civil engineers, we place a recruiting focus on this discipline.”

Ryan Hiatt, who is working on a Master of Engineering degree with the University of Louisville, said the possibility of being able to stay on with USACE after the internship was one of the reasons he was interested in the program.

“Most of the other companies that I talked to when I was looking for a co-op did not necessarily commit to bringing back their co-ops after they graduate. This was a downside for me because it could mean that other companies would not want to spend a lot of time on useful training that would be necessary as a young engineer,” he shared. “The Corps offered job stability and a willingness to invest in my professional development. Additionally, the ability to rotate through different sections and having most sub-disciplines of civil engineering represented allowed me to determine what I wanted to focus on.”

In the long run, the program is a win-win for both students and the district. 

“Many interns have no idea what engineering discipline is best for them. In school, students have very limited exposure to what is out in the real world.  Coming to Louisville opens the intern’s understanding of what each engineering discipline does,” Frye explained. “Because interns engage in multidisciplined teams, they are afforded the opportunity to “see” what the other disciplines do even though they are not serving in that section. Ultimately, this exposure helps the intern determine what field of engineering is best for them, at least to start.”

Zeamer added, her time with USACE has given her insight as to what to expect in a career as an engineer.

“My co-op has shown me how all the work I've put in during school has really prepared me for the real world. I've been able to increase my understanding of the engineering process and how each discipline of civil engineering is separate but has to work together to get a job done,” she said. “I have made invaluable connections with coworkers and know that I have a group of professionals that want to see me succeed in this field and want to help me get to where I want to be.  My co-op with the Corps has been incredibly rewarding and has made me love this profession even more.”

All students are also offered a monetary recruitment incentive to work for ED as an intern.  Upon graduation, the students are offered additional incentives to become permanent full-time employees. 

“ED uses recruitment incentives to attract the best students from the schools recruited. In addition, part-time, after-school work opportunities are available for local students because of our internship program, and long before graduating, the student knows what section their permanent job will be and when they will start,” Frye said. “The benefit to USACE is easy to understand. Ideally, graduating students will have three internships (equivalent to one year of experience) upon conversion to full-time employees.  In the end, the student internship program helps ED build the bench to journeyman level engineers in a much more reliable and sustainable fashion.”