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Eric Nzuki: Four Lessons I Learned as an Engineering Co-op

Eric Nzuki recounts four important lessons he learned while serving as a two-term engineering co-op at Plant T1.

Eric Nzuki

Former Co-Op
For nearly all of 2017, I had the privilege of working at Shaw Industries as a co-op for two terms, Spring and Fall. This meant pushing the tentative graduation date an entire year, but it proved to be one of the best decisions I've made.

The lessons learned were many. In this article, I recount four of the most important ones.

1. Everyone Has Something to Teach You, Learn.
The manufacturing world is filled with many experienced personnel, from top engineers to production floor associates, and it takes humility to acknowledge and leverage these experiences. The production floor worker with many years of experience has valuable opinions on how to improve a process or product because it's what he or she does on a daily basis. Likewise, the maintenance technician possess hands-on experience on solving problems in a manufacturing setting, and has sharpened his or her skills without formal university training, thus the approach they bring to problem solving is both unique and profoundly practical.

2. Identify your Learning zone and Avoid your Comfort Zone.
Noel Tichy identified three zones of workplace activities: the learning zone, the comfort zone, and the panic zone. As a co-op, there are tasks that felt easier than others, and some that felt really overwhelming. But there is great joy in finding the sweet spot where you are challenged to a level that stretches and motivates you. These zones were changing constantly and it was important identify stay in the learning zone, which meant a continuous self-critique of finished projects and action items. In a perfect world, everything would be in the learning zone, however the real world isn't perfect. I I felt I would prefer to be more of the panic than comfort zone, as it may very well be a good test of my skills. In other words, make sure you are constantly challenging yourself.

3. Create Effective Working Relationships.
Building effective working relationships is by far the most important lesson I have learned because of the secondary benefits that come from these relationships. I had to win others' trust by assisting them with their own personal projects and demonstrate that I value their time and energy. In turn, I was able to get help to move my projects further and faster, especially when it came to involving key personnel such as technicians and electricians. Building professional relationships required me to adjust my communication skills to better suit a coworker’s personality or schedule. Through more interaction and asking questions, I gathered a rich repertoire of sound advice that helped me become better and better. One memorable piece of advice came from a plant engineer who had many direct reports. He would win others’ confidence by letting them try their ideas first. When successful, it immediately boosted morale. If the idea didn’t work, he was able to leverage the trust of the individual through an after-action review that highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of the failed idea. So either way, he made the experience a win for the team.

4. Find Interesting Ways to Spend Time Outside of Work.
It has been a good pay-off to find and do fun activities outside of work that add a sense of balance and fulfillment. Being located in North Georgia and relatively close to the Tennessee valley, there are numerous trails that were perfect for running, mountain biking and other adventures. In these moments, I found time to think about work things more thoroughly - without distractions - and sometimes I even came up with new ideas! Some of the places I frequently visited were Stringer's Ridge, Raccoon Mountain and the Chattanooga Riverwalk.

With confidence, I can say that Shaw's co-op experience has enabled growth both personally and professionally. It has been a truly incredible experience in all respects.