Interview: Student internships and the power of knowledge exchange

19 December 2015

“Whether internships are required or not, the important message for me is that it is a two-way street. It’s essential for the student but it is also a great resource for the company.”

– Chris Russell, Australian Harvestore

The SMaRT Centre’s internship program is providing students with in-the-field experience and mentorship, and for Master of Engineering student Sharron Liu it has taken her to the beautiful wilds of Tasmania. We spoke with Australian Harvestore Technical CEO, Chris Russell, about the program and how it is having a positive impact inside his organisation too.

Could you tell us about Australian Harvestore?

I am an agricultural scientist by training and formed a business with my father in 1983 based around intensive feeding systems for primarily beef and dairy cattle. We ran that business for 10 years but every time there was a drought and a hardship the business would struggle and we needed to drought-proof the business. So we expanded into an industrial business for water handling and engineering of water storage systems. Hence aapplying a lot of the technology we were already using. Now water is 90% of the business. Within that business we have engineers, estimators and project managers as well as a sales and administrative team.

Can you describe some of the projects you undertake?

At the moment we are in Tasmania working for local water authority Tas Water installing treatment plants for towns where there was no water processing. We are also involved over in Western Australia with the mining industry and we were also involved in all the desalination plants in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth, and many water storage projects through Australia and the Pacific.

How large is the company?

We have 15 in the company who work in our office and there are various construction teams in the field so at any one time there would be 25 people floating around doing different things, so it’s not a big company at all.

How did you get involved in the internship program?

Last year we took on a supplier from the People’s Republic of China, their technology and quality control has really improved our offering dramatically. So, when this project started I really needed a smart engineer who was also a mandarin speaker to communicate effectively and save a lot of translation time. So I approached Veena Sahajwalla at the SMaRT Centre.

Veena and I first met on the ABC’s The New Inventors program, we were judges together for 7 years. I have been an admirer of Veena for a long time. She is a role model for young women everywhere and one of the finest exemplars in Australia of a successful career woman and engineer. I rang Veena and I said I need someone to do this work and she recommended Sharron Liu.

Can you describe how the internship program is working in practice in your office?

Sharron Liu joined us in 2015 and is working as both a translator and a liaison on technical matters between our Chinese supplier and our building crew. Now for her that was a new experience. She had all the theory and all the academic qualifications but what she never had was the practical application with people who are not academics. The people she is working with on those construction sites are great people but they are not academics. Yet her ability to fit in with them has been outstanding. She proudly told me she had her first beer and felt she had 'graduated' in the minds of the construction crew. She has really been able to adapt to an onsite environment tremendously well and has become very popular with the team.

I believe it is Sharron Liu’s first job, is there also an element of mentorship involved?

Yes. I have appointed our office administrator as her female contact in the business so she knows if she ever has any worries or uncertainties she has someone to go to and I’m very confident she will be well looked after. It is very important that you don’t just expect interns to turn up like an employee and just do it. I think you have to make allowances for the fact that they will be nervous and will need to be helped and mentored at the same time both personally and professionally by our engineering team.

What kind of impact is the internship having on your team, have there been any surprises?

Whether internships are required or not, the important message for me is that it is a two-way street. It’s essential for the student but it is also a great resource for the company and critical for the future of the engineering profession. It is the first time we have done it and it has been a great experience for me because I feel like our company is contributing to the future of engineering and at the same time we are receiving tremendous value. She is so enthusiastic about what she is doing. I think Sharron is a great example of what the University of New South Wales is turning out. So we are actually going to carry on with her internaship as a graduate engineer next year. Her next project is on Flinders Island in Bass Strait and then she will come back to Sydney to work in our estimations department analysing drawings, working with our engineers, helping them project manage while she continues her studies. She proudly tells me that her father is very proud of her. He is an engineer as well and he can see the importance of getting that practical experience in the field.

What have you learnt both personally and from a business perspective?

It has reaffirmed my confidence and excitement about the next generation moving in to take over the leadership of our industry and society. What it has taught me as a company is the value of the passion and the enthusiasm to our group of established employees. It has reinvigorated the whole engineering section of our business. That has been great for our business from a psychological point of view, technically she has contributed, that goes without saying, but the impact on our team is probably what I had not imagined. I have always thought cadetships and internships were the province of BHP and big companies who could afford to have those people riding along without worrying too much about what they cost. What this has taught me is that the value of interns is tremendous and has great merit for small companies too.