Successful Placements

Article by George Watson and Chemeng team leaders at TÜV Rheinland Industrial Services

Industrial placements offer huge opportunities for both students and employers. Student George Watson and the chemeng team leaders at TÜV Rheinland Industrial Services share their tips on how to get the most out of the experience

MANY students struggle to find an industrial placement, and while many large employers of engineers offer placements, we know that smaller firms are less likely to do so. TÜV Rheinland (formerly ABB Consulting) work with students on either six-month or 12-month placements. Here they provide practical advice on how their placement scheme is set up for success and provide guidance for companies thinking about setting up their own schemes.

Tips for companies setting up a placement scheme

  • Contact universities early (September) and keep links with one or two universities
  • Get the basics in place for when your placement student arrives – IT equipment, PPE, desk, etc
  • Tell your staff the student has arrived, how long they’re with you and introduce them early on
  • Don’t underestimate your placement student. Give them challenging opportunities:
    - put them in front of clients, whether it be on site collecting data or in HAZOP meetings
    - throw the technical questions at them – they probably studied it more recently than you did
    - ask them to present to the team/business/leadership team – it’s important not just to challenge them technically but also test their people skills
    - give them ownership of projects – it’s their responsibility to drive progress
    - pair them with more experienced team members who can supervise them from a technical perspective and benefit from having an extra (cost-effective) resource available. An example is the paper presented at Hazards 33 that was jointly developed by TÜV principal consultant Mike McKay and placement student George Watson


What are the benefits of having a placement student?

Johanna Smith, who is the safety lifecycle services solution group manager at TÜV Rheinland, points to the different dynamic that placements bring to her team: “Definitely the students’ enthusiasm and the knowledge they have on areas I don’t, such as artificial intelligence,” she says. “They keep the office young, have a different perspective, are creative and can think outside the box.”

Steve King, process engineering team leader and a former placement student himself, says the benefits are a two-way street: “Students can also work on areas which staff don’t have time for, and we can benefit from overseeing their project and the knowledge gained and captured in the dissertation which the students write. We can help develop people as chemical engineers, and the reputation of the company is enhanced as one which takes on placement students.”

Process safety team leader Rob McGregor is also a former placement student. “Working with a student over a long period is the best job interview you can have, both for the student and the company,” he says. “It makes it easier when recruiting graduates, as many of our placement students join the company after graduation. It is beneficial for a company to be able to recruit students and graduates with industrial experience.”

Are there any disadvantages?

All three agreed there aren’t any real or insurmountable disadvantages of having a placement student, with Smith saying much of the groundwork is done before a student starts at the company. “It takes time for me to plan a placement to ensure it benefits the student as well as the company,” she says. “Students on a placement usually have to write a dissertation or report for university. We need to ensure their experience gives them suitable material for this, but it’s good if they have their own ideas and agenda.

“Hybrid working, where staff sometimes work from home, needs to be managed to ensure staff are in the office when the student is there to ensure they have support when needed.”

Did the reality of placements differ from your expectations?

“I have been pleasantly surprised and impressed by the abilities of the many placement students we’ve had over the years,” says Smith. “They learn and develop quickly, absorbing information just through being in the office with more experienced people. The students develop their soft skills as well as their technical abilities and get a better idea of how to read a P&ID!”

What has worked well with the placements?

“Our placement students have been enthusiastic to come into the office and have been able to work with different members of staff on a variety of projects,” says McGregor. “The students are a valuable asset, technically sharp with calculations and software, an additional resource, and we miss them when they return to university.

“We treat students on a one-year placement quite similarly to a recent graduate with respect to the type of work we give them and their opportunity to deal with our customers, ensuring we also support the students.” Or, as King tells students, “Enough rope for freedom, but not enough to hang yourself”.

Many of TUV’s one-year placement students also get the opportunity to travel for work outside the UK, with six-month placements given similar opportunities, dissertation writing time permitting. King says maintaining a good relationship with universities is not just about ensuring dissertations are handed in on time, however. “Offering placements means we develop links with universities, and can find out about research they are pursuing, which can benefit the company. This happened when I worked for a previous company.”

How could placements be improved?

Smith and McGregor suggest “putting more time into supporting the student initially with IT onboarding, and with developing their project or dissertation”. However, they agree students must also be given an opportunity to stand on their own two feet, “in a safe and supportive environment”.

Smith goes on to say: “Try and give the student opportunities to present their findings to management and to clients (to help them develop their soft skills as well as their technical skills).”

King, meanwhile, believes the relationship between company and student should be one that is not just restricted to the term of the placement. “If you can, keep contact with the student after they’ve left, letting them know about job opportunities or asking whether they need help.”

How can students prepare for, and get the most out of their placement?

“Be open-minded, receptive, enthusiastic and prepared to ask,” agree Smith and McGregor. “Introduce yourself as soon as possible to staff in the office, asking them, especially more experienced engineers, about their work. This is even more important for a short placement. Grab any opportunities to get involved in as many different areas as you can, for example to go on site.”

King recommends a proactive approach: “Keep in contact with the industrial supervisor at your placement company before the placement starts. Find out about the company in advance and make sure you confirm the project you’ll be doing.”

He goes on: “Don’t be shy, ask a company for a placement. Send them your CV saying ‘Why you should appoint me’. I went on LinkedIn, researched a company I was interested in, emailed them directly, and got a placement. Shy bairns get nowt!” And once the placement is secured, both King and McGregor agree that making yourself visible to your colleagues and peers is vital.

“Be aware that much of what you will learn from your placement is not technical but is about learning to function as an engineer in real life. Don’t just stay in your bubble, try and understand the wider business and think where you would best fit in if you were applying to work for the company.

“Tell people at the company about areas of work in which you are interested, eg sustainability. Above all, make the most of your opportunities, try and spend time with the graduates (and other staff), both at work and outside, and enjoy the experience.”

What can other companies learn from our experience?

King recommends maintaining links with one or two universities so you know “we always have a placement student from XXX university”.

The students need to have a specified industrial supervisor at the placement company, as well as the industrial supervisor from the university who will visit the student during their placement. “You need to assign the industrial supervisor role before the student arrives and be clear with the person what their roles and responsibilities are,” says Smith.

“As with any employee, it’s good for the student to know who their line manager will be prior to starting work,” continues McGregor. “It gives them a point of contact if they have any questions prior to starting the placement and a familiar face when they do start the placement.”

Placement students can bring new ideas and new ways of thinking to your company. Most placement students and graduates have higher level IT skills that more mature staff members don’t have, for example programming skills.

Nevertheless, it is crucial you agree a project with your student early in the placement, as McGregor explains. “For a dissertation or thesis, the project title is usually agreed between the company and the student after they have started the placement. Their academic supervisor is also usually involved in the discussion.”

Recent project titles have included “Adapting Hazard Studies for Climate Change” and “Using AI in Hazard Studies”, the benefits of which are already being felt at TÜV.

“Having a student promoting the use of AI in hazard studies led to some interesting discussions in the office about the pros and cons, and how hazard study methodology may change in the future,” says Smith.

Software to incorporate use of AI in HAZOPs is already being developed by some companies. Thanks to their student placement programme, TÜV is in the best possible position to react.


Chemical engineering student George Watson (pictured below) recently completed an industrial placement at TÜV Rheinland. He explains what worked, what didn’t, and why companies who don’t offer placements may be missing out.

Needing experience to gain experience

I faced the classic student dilemma: I had little experience and I wanted more. Yet, to get my foot in the door, I needed prior experience. Where would I start?

This need for experience became apparent in my first year at university. Whenever “university” and “chemical engineering” entered the conversation with friends, family, and lecturers, words like “experience”, “practical” and “hands-on” soon followed. It became clear that to get a job in the sector, it was critical I prove that these words were applicable to me. I was also keen to discover more about the discipline I was studying and wanted the education that you can’t get in a lecture theatre.

As I entered my second year, I applied to more than ten different companies for a 12-month chemical engineering placement. By February, all my applications had been rejected. The common feedback was that I lacked the experience of a summer placement, specifically in process engineering-related fields.

I was on a four-year integrated MEng course and had to complete a placement alongside my third-year studies. Unless I found a last-minute posting before the summer, I would have to switch course. Fortunately, a late opportunity to interview for a three-month placement arose. After internal discussions with the recruitment team, this became a 12-month position at TÜV Rheinland Industrial Services.

What were the benefits?

My placement primarily concerned process safety consultancy. I became familiar with over 20 different industrial clients and their respective chemical processes. My breadth of chemical engineering knowledge improved as the work was always new, fresh, and varied.

I worked with a wide range of people from different disciplines and cultures, gaining key graduate skills including confidence, teamworking, and communication skills. The opportunity to travel provided further benefits, allowing me to submerse myself in the local culture both during and after working hours. A two-week study conducted in Belgium for a major agrochemical company was a highlight.

My day-to-day work at the consultancy included scribing for various hazard studies, conducting Occupied Building Risk Assessments (OBRAs) and working on Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) safety reports, which helped increase my knowledge of the regulations and their implementation.

Working as part of a hazard study team constituted most of my role in the company. Several colleagues informed me they find recent graduates are not as competent as they need to be at reading piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs). Despite it being a core process engineering skill, little time is now spent honing this competency at university. After completing only two years of a four-year chemical engineering degree, I was neither competent nor confident in my ability. However, my colleagues were beyond helpful in overcoming this deficit in experience. A comprehensive training package was provided by the consulting group, and this was supplemented by hazard study leaders willingly giving up a portion of their free time to ensure the finer P&ID details were understood. Once competent, prior to a HAZOP, my role would be to take the client P&IDs, interpret them and split them into “manageable chunks”, or nodes, for the team to work with. Additionally, being part of the team studying the nodes enhanced my fluency in interpreting P&IDs. I think it is important to take initiative in obtaining this skill, as universities may be neglecting this critical competency. Books like Chemical Engineering Design by Sinnott and Towler are fantastic starting points for this.

As I was studying for my third-year exams and writing a dissertation while completing the placement, striking an effective work-life and work-study balance was essential. The team at TÜV was extremely accommodating around this topic. If I needed to take annual leave days for important exams, or even at shorter notice for revision, should I become overwhelmed, they would always oblige and assist in any way they could.

What could have BEEN done better?

I think it’s important for aspiring chemical engineers to secure both a depth and breadth of knowledge during a placement. It is very easy to secure a good breadth while working at a consultancy. I worked on a wide range of projects, with a quick turnover between each. Consequence modelling, creating audit proformas for safety regulation compliance, and validating internally developed applications each required their own expertise.

Applying this freshly learned knowledge to new tasks became second nature as I was asked to undertake similar tasks on new projects. However, this breadth came at the cost of depth. I think my experience gave me a relatively shallow level of comprehension. Inevitably, it’s a trade-off. Consultancies could balance this out by assigning placement students to a longer-term project during the year.

Conversely, those on a placement at companies that are not consultancies will likely learn a great depth of understanding for a particular process. They can work on it for up to the 12 months but this will be at the expense of gaining a larger breadth of experience. Attempts should be made by the student and the company to strike a good balance.

My final suggestion is both for companies considering implementation of a placement scheme and those with an established scheme. I can tell you from personal experience and from talking to fellow students, that application deadlines around examination periods are added pressures that students struggle to navigate. Both applications and exams are equally important to an eventual career. However, an unmanageable extra workload at this time can mean that students either sacrifice application quality or revision time. Exams usually fall in January and May/June, so applications opened either in July to be confirmed by early December or in late January to be confirmed by mid-April are potential windows to consider, and I expect companies would receive a larger pool of applicants if they did this. In addition, interviews for placements are often the first time that students go through the recruitment process. This can be stressful but could be alleviated by organising this well before exam periods. A benefit from an employer’s perspective is that companies would then be interviewing a more accurate, honest, and genuine version of the applicant without any unnecessary stresses looming over them.

My TÜV posting was officially secured in June for a July start date. However, an earlier formal confirmation would have given me more peace of mind during the exam period, to the benefit of both the recruitment process and my examinations.

“My advice to management and graduate recruitment teams not investing time into the enrolment of year-in-industry placement students is to deeply consider doing so”

George Watson presents at Hazards 33 which came about as a result of his placement at TÜV


My advice to first-year undergraduates reading this article would be to research and apply for short-term summer placements as soon as possible. The first ten companies I applied to concluded that some prior experience was needed before being considered a worthy applicant for a 12-month placement; good grades in Year 1 will not suffice.

The placement was certainly worthwhile for me personally, as I now know that this is a career I want to pursue. Even if I thought the opposite, it would have been equally as helpful.

My advice to management and graduate recruitment teams not investing time into the enrolment of year-in-industry placement students is to deeply consider doing so. My time at TÜV was a personal success, and I believe I made a significant contribution to the company during my time there. However, from my peers’ and my own experience, placements are extremely competitive. There is an exceedingly proficient cohort each year that do not get the valuable experience they need. Companies are also losing out on the opportunity to improve and advance themselves while also nurturing and improving budding process engineers. There is a mutual gain to be had and I would encourage companies to invest the time into exploring the possibilities of this exchange.

TÜV Rheinland Industrial Services combines traditional certification and inspection with innovative business solutions based on the complete project lifecycle

Article By

George Watson

George is a chemical engineering student currently studying his final year at the University of Manchester

Chemeng team leaders at TÜV Rheinland Industrial Services

Johanna Smith, safety lifecycle services solution group manager Steve King, process engineering team leader and a former placement student Rob McGregor, process safety team leader and also a former placement student.

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