Process and Data Automation Offers On-the-Job Training to College Students

When Process and Data Automation (PDA) is on the hunt for controls engi­neers, it searches for those with classroom and laboratory experience, with that lab experience also coming from outside classroom walls. In an effort to find those well-rounded employees, PDA established its own internship program to help train the next generation of engineers.

“Our staff growth includes recent college graduates and it’s critical that we employ highly educated, capable and prepared engineers,” explained Mike Benedict, PDA vice president. “We felt the best way to ensure college students received real-world experience was to create our own program.”

Through an ongoing relationship with Penn State Erie, the Behrend Col­lege’s School of Engineering, the company approached the school asking if it would support a PDA-sponsored internship program. In addition to preparing students, Benedict felt it would provide students with a true industry perspective. Many years later, dozens of college students have augmented their college studies by working at PDA, earning both credits and an income.

 Students in the school’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Technology (ECET) and Electrical Engineering (EE) programs are eligible and begin their paid internship at PDA after their fourth semester, working about 15 hours per week through graduation. In addition to Penn State students, PDA accepts similarly prepared students from other colleges. “The interns’ exposure to the fundamentals helps build the foundation necessary to gain immediate and meaningful work experience with us,” Benedict said.

But don’t just take it from Benedict. Graduates who worked for PDA say their time with the Erie, Pa.-based controls and integration company was a critical component of their education. “Working at PDA absolutely complemented my studies at Penn State,” said Alan Owens. “PDA was like an advanced PLC programming class with more professors than students.”

Owens, who works for Joy Mining Machinery in Franklin, Pa., as a process engineer, said his experience at PDA felt like a true engineering position. “I wasn’t just making copies or PowerPoint slides,” he said. “I was working with the team and making real contributions.” The PDA internship program also helps give students an edge in the classroom. “Having worked at PDA prior to taking an intermediate PLC course at Penn State, I was already introduced to many – if not all – of the concepts covered in the class and definitely had an upper hand,” said Rob Leck, who works for Norfolk & Southern in Pittsburgh as a management trainee who will, within a year, become a track supervisor.

Although working for a paycheck is appealing to the interns, so too is real-world learning and making true contributions to the company. “At PDA, you are guaranteed work that is relevant to your engineering studies,” explained Eric Williams. “I wanted to make money in a related field and PDA offered opportunities such as onsite work for start-ups and service contracts, frequently available training classes and flexible hours to work around my classes.”

The PDA training ground also serves as a pipeline for the company, which hires from the program almost exclusively. In fact, Williams earned his Penn State degree and immediately went from PDA intern to PDA employee. “The internship helped develop the skills needed for full-time employ­ment,” Williams said. “As my understanding of the systems grew, so did my involvement with projects. It started with the understanding and design of system schematics, then HMI development and finally some PLC integration.” It is that type of experience and involvement that Leck said is so valuable to students. “You will have the opportunity to work with customers and side by side with engineers on multiple projects. There are opportunities to travel with an engineer and get fieldwork experience as well,” he said. “I will be the first person to recommend a PDA internship.”