Student internships are a great way mechanical contractors can identify the industry’s next generation of talent.

Student intern Joe Murray gets some advice from AMS President John F. Berzanskis Jr.

One sentence in a session handout at last year’s Mechanical Contractors Association of America’s annual convention stuck with us: “While student interns are temporary employees, they are also professionals in training.”

With all the talk we’ve heard about our industry’s labor shortage, we wanted to meet one of these professionals in training.

So with the help of MCAA, we tracked one down last July. Meet Joe Murray, 21, a professional in training last summer at AMS Mechanical Systems, Burr Ridge, Ill. When we met, Murray was between his junior and senior years at Illinois State University, working toward a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology within the program’s construction management sequence.

Murray admits to feeling overwhelmed when he recalled his first day. “A lot of the things I know now were from the first day,” he told us. “I know how much I didn’t know and still how much there is to learn.”

Murray grew up in suburban Chicago and doesn’t come from a mechanical or construction family, but gained construction experience helping build homes for Habitat for Humanity while in high school.

As he entered college, he figured he’d go into residential construction, but got more interested in the mechanical side as his studies progressed.

“It’s a specific and huge part of the job that you don’t see at first,” Murray explains. “What you see from the outside is a lot of little stuff, but what makes a building successful is the mechanical systems hidden inside.”

Along with Murray, we met Albert D. Youna, vice president of AMS’ commercial group, who hired Murray for the summer.

AMS started in 1963 by the father of the current president, John F. Berzanskis Jr. While the company’s origins are in commercial refrigeration, Berzanskis has since diversified into HVAC and industrial piping. Most recently, the company expanded into mechanical services for light industrial and manufacturing facilities. The company operates out of a 60,000-square-foot office/warehouse in Burr Ridge, Ill., and opened a second facility seven years ago in Highland, Ind. The company employs more than 500 people.

Youna experienced his own mentoring in his native England before joining AMS in 1991. “The combination of the practical and the theoretical is hard to beat,” Youna explains.

Under Youna’s tutelage, Murray had spent the previous weeks before we met on estimating and takeoffs. When we sat down to interview both, Murray was also calling reps and subs to help organize quotes.

For Youna, that last job is a good example of the mentoring process. “You have no idea how uncomfortable it can be, at first, to make those calls.”

Youna also had taken Murray out in the field, an all-important part of the internship. “It helps to really see what it takes to pick up a 4-inch pipe,” Youna says. “It only looks small on a drawing.”

Over the summer, Murray gained a “big-picture perspective” of the kind of work he hopes to make into a career when he graduates later this spring.

“In the school world, I don’t think you realize all that happens along the way to take a job from paper to getting a job done,” Murray says. “You don’t see how much one little item can make a big difference. I’ve talked with estimators, our own engineers and building engineers on the job to see what might be different. You’re not playing a video game.”

Big Picture

Getting that big picture is the key to making an internship work, according to ProfessorTimothy Wentzof the University of Nebraska. Murray falls into a demographic called “Generation Y.”

“Generation Y abhors busy work,” Wentz explains. “They love to multitask and know how all the different tasks associated with a job fit into the final, finished project.”

He says this trait has forced him to change his own teaching habits. Whereas he may have started talking about pumps, piping and other components of an engineered system, he now begins with a description of the finished system and how it should operate, before lecturing on how the individual components play their parts.

Wentz gave us this feature’s headline when he described the internship as an opportunity for both the student and the hiring firm to go into much greater detail than a superficial job interview. Thanks to the internship’s roughly 90-day life, firms can really get to work with a bona fide potential addition to their staff. Wentz says firms also benefit from the youthful student’s fresh perspective on emerging technology and the growing use of the Internet for research.

“In other words, it’s really a win-win for everyone involved,” he notes.

We caught up with Murray again during Christmas break of his senior year. Along with his studies, Murray also was serving as president of the university’s Mechanical/Electrical Student Association, and, in fact, was hoping to hear soon whether his chapter would be one of the four student chapters that would have the chance to make presentations during the MCAA’s convention held this month in Palm Springs.

What was his best lesson learned over the summer at AMS? “What I took most from the internship is the ability to communicate with professionals,” he told us. “You can learn the engineering and the takeoff from books, but what you can’t learn is the ability to incorporate yourself into the industry.”

He added that one of the biggest fears new graduates have is how not to sound like someone right out of college. The internship gave him the confidence to get started in the mechanical industry at a point in his “career” where everyone around him, inside and outside the firm, knew he was just at the start of a long learning process.

“When you’re hired for a full-time position,” he explains, “it is understood by all that there is a learning curve, but it isn’t necessarily understood by other professionals from other companies that you’re the new guy. The internship is a primary key to learning how things get done and how to properly present yourself to fellow professionals.”

Joe Murray visits a AMS mechanical project on the campus of the University of Illinois-Chicago.

MCAA's Student Chapters

Each year, the Mechanical Contractors Association of America’s annual convention seems to attract more and more students as attendees. Last year, for example, more than 160 students and their faculty members attended the convention. And each year, the association grants charters to new student chapters. At this month’s meeting, the total is expected to top 40 chapters from colleges and universities throughout the country.

The student chapter initiative got its formal start in 1998. However, well-known instructor John Koontz, then of Perdue University, formed the first student chapter in 1993.

To help defray costs, the MCAA started giving out $2,000 grants in 2004 to its members who hired a student intern. Last year, the association doled out 54 grants, up from 11 in the first year of the program.

But MCAA also says that plenty of other member firms hire students for the summer without financial assistance.

Green Draws Talent

A recent poll on green employment by, a job Web site geared toward entry-level hires, says 80 percent of young professionals are interested in jobs that have a positive impact on the environment and 92 percent of respondents say they’d rather work for a company that is environmentally friendly.

One way to see what this trend can mean for our industry is to look at the growth in commercial construction registered for the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating program. The organization says it took seven years to register its first one billion square feet of space, yet only took the first seven months of 2007 to register more than double that mark.

A big draw for students attending the Mechanical Contractors Association of America’s annual convention is the chance to win the student chapter competition that pits chapters in making winning proposals to construct or retrofit a project based on real-life projects done by member firms.

Last year, for example, a record total of 20 student chapters prepared proposals to retrofit a Dallas office building into a condo/retail development.

On their own accord, students started adding a green component to their presentations a few years ago - at a time when many professionals would have considered the word “LEED” to be misspelled.

This year’s competition will make green construction an official part of the winning process as chapters turn in proposals on a project based on a recent 58,000-square-foot addition to J.F. Ahern’s headquarters in Fond du Lac, Wis. The request for proposals require students to come up with a design for the facility that will earn the most LEED points.

A similar competition held at the 2007 Student Chapter Summit required students to come up with a proposal for a Department of Homeland Security office that had to achieve no less than LEED Silver status for new construction.

Mentoring High Schoolers

Promoting the design and construction industry to high school students is the main mission of the ACE Mentor Program, started in New York City in 1994 and expanded nationally in 2002.

Currently, the program has initiated mentoring programs in more than 700 high schools located in 77 cities reaching more than 5,500 students and has plans to start 51 more programs this year.

More than 14,500 students have already gone through the program in the past 10 years since the ACE - for “architecture, construction and engineering” - program began.

Essentially, each mentoring team is comprised of multiple construction and architectural firm owners, college faculty and 15-20 high school students. The teams meet about 15 times a year, visiting construction sites, prefab shops and business offices. Students also may learn how to prepare budgets or draw up construction schedules. During the second half of the school year, students work on preparing a realistic project similar to the MCAA student chapters.

The program also gives out college scholarships with almost all the participants heading to college after high school graduation.

Last year the MCA of Indiana Student Chapter at Perdue University established an ACE Mentor relationship with Northwest High School in Indianapolis. The MCAA Student Chapter at Georgia Tech also was working on a similar outreach to an Atlanta high school.