One of the best parts about studying civil engineering at the University of Waterloo is the number of co-op work terms we get during our program. Now in my fourth year, I have had the opportunity to complete five work terms with PCL, switching districts and/or departments every term.
I first joined PCL as a co-op student in January 2012, working in the field on the Niagara Health System project as it neared substantial completion. My second term was again in the field with the Toronto district, but this time constructing the foundations for the Pan Am Aquatic Centre. From there I moved to PCL Regina (my hometown) doing coordination/project management work in their Special Projects Division. After Regina I travelled north to PCL Industrial to work in the field on the Kearl Oil Sands Expansion Project. Finally, I returned to the Toronto district office for my fifth and final co-op term in the estimating department.
Exploring the industry
Completing my work terms across different districts and in different sides of the company was a very deliberate decision. After enjoying my first terms with PCL, I realized I wanted to explore different areas of the company, and I saw co-op as an opportunity to do that. I looked at my co-op work terms as four-month windows to view different parts of PCL. When combined together, the shifted focus each term gives a more complete view of the construction industry.
One of the most interesting things about moving districts in PCL is that I have had an opportunity to see the operational similarities and differences between parts of the company. In every district the people I worked with were knowledgeable in their field, passionate about what they do, and were more than willing to help me learn as I asked questions throughout my terms. That phenomenal work atmosphere is what has driven me to continue returning to PCL every term.
Connecting the dots
The biggest advantage I have had from varying my co-op terms is that it has ensured I become well rounded. Each term has exposed me to a different side of the industry, and by my last term in estimating I have been able to connect the dots between the different parts of construction I was exposed to. My work terms in the field have been of great benefit to me in estimating as they have helped me visualize exactly what the drawings are showing and how each detail will be built. My time spent in the piping group at Kearl has helped me better understand mechanical drawings on unrelated buildings projects. Spending time with superintendents, project managers, and estimators each term has given me insight into the challenges they face and why each part of PCL does work in a certain way. This has the benefit of helping me better understand the industry as a whole. These are just a few of many examples that show how the different experiences have benefited me in subsequent terms. Together, these benefits have made switching departments or districts each term a valuable decision.
I have three main points of advice for my fellow co-op students:
- Ask a ton of questions. At PCL you are surrounded by highly knowledgeable industry professionals. Take advantage of it if someone is offering to help you learn.
- Get some experience in the field. There is no better substitute to understanding how something is built than to work in the field and listen to trade foremen or superintendents. Even if you end up in the office estimating, your time in the field will be of great benefit to you.
- Obtain varying experiences. As your co-op term comes to an end and you start thinking about returning to PCL next term, my best advice is to vary your experience. Go to a different department. Go to a different district. Take a leap and challenge yourself with something new. There is no downside to this. It gives you well-rounded knowledge and an idea of what parts of construction you like best.