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Working to be discovered: Co-ops help company find 'rock stars'

At his first College of Engineering career fair in 2008, Scott Walhovd (CBE ’11) encountered an unusual sight: a corporate booth with no waiting line of hopeful students. The sophomore engineer made a beeline to the open booth and laid the groundwork for his first big work experience, an eight-month co-op.

The company happened to be Bemis Company of Neenah, a name that Walhovd didn’t recognize then. His timing was fortuitous: Walhovd happened upon not only a co-op, but a long-term professional home with a Fortune 500 company. “The co-op experience was phenomenal,” says Walhovd, who has worked full-time with Bemis since August 2011. “Bemis supplies you with great mentors. They give you as much direction as you need, but they really let you run free.”

Assigned to the packaging company’s specialty films facility, Walhovd would soon be working directly with an outside vendor to improve Bemis’ label printing presses. He played a lead role in acquiring the equipment and implementing it in the production line. “Working on the floor, I found a lot of job satisfaction,” he says. “Our job as process engineers is to make the operators’ lives easier by making their machines run better. When they come up and thank you for it, it’s a reward unto itself.”

In the typical arc of an engineering career, one would expect a big leap between “first job” and “ideal job.” But co-ops take some of the guesswork out of the employment matchmaking by giving students in-depth, full-time experience, while offering companies an extended look at the talent. 

For Bemis, co-ops have become a major strategic focus for hiring. The company will have as many as 30 co-op hires a year from multiple universities working across 10 U.S. facilities, and some of the best get invited for second terms. About 40 percent of Bemis’ entry-level engineering hires annually come from co-ops. “That’s one of the goals of the program, creating kind of an eight-month interview process,” says Tyler Polson, Bemis on-campus recruiter. “Our hope is not to be recruiting for full-time employees outside of the co-ops who have already worked for us. That would be the perfect scenario.”

Polson says he looks for students who can build rapport quickly, ask intelligent questions and have an affinity for hands-on work in the plants. These students often team up with operators who have decades of experience. “The ones who really thrive are the ones who have a very down-to-earth personality and have a lot of respect for the operators,” he says.

Greg Vandenlangenberg, Bemis vice president of engineering, says co-ops have become an integral part of his 45-member team, which executes the Bemis capital plan and designs and installs equipment across 16 North American plants. Most of these projects have a six-month installation phase, making it a perfect time to plug in co-ops. “At our company, we really try to push the envelope of the technology that’s out there,” he says. “They get to play with a lot of new toys.”

Vandenlangenberg says his project engineering division has become an employee feeder across the whole company. Co-ops get self-directed, problem-solving challenges in safety, maintenance, resizing and adapting machines, and major installations, giving them a lot of versatility. “We’re a materials science company and we win or lose by innovating in that area,” he says. “We want to find the rock stars who will help us succeed long-term.”

Ben Weight (ECE ’11), also a Bemis co-op veteran and current employee, says the hands-on floor work really separates the Bemis experience from other co-ops. Weight likes to take on projects that “surprise” people by coaxing machines to do things far beyond their original design. “One of the cooler parts of Bemis is we take a vendor’s machine and modify it in multiple, multiple ways to make it do what we want,” he says. “We get the most out of everything we have.”

Weight says his co-op also greatly changed his outlook on academics. “I remember learning things in school that I thought I would never use in a million years in the real world,” he says. “And it 
came up within weeks at the plant.”

Brian Mattmiller
12/11/2012