After graduating with a Bachelor of Engineering Technology in 2017, Alex van der Sande began his role as an Electrical Control Engineer at Beca. Currently seconded to New Zealand Steel, he’s putting his knowledge into practice onsite.
17 July 2019
Theory vs hands-on learning
After leaving high school, Alex wasn’t sure which area of engineering he was interested in, so began an engineering degree at The University of Auckland. It was there he discovered his passion for electrical engineering, but says the university’s teaching style wasn’t right for him.
“I decided I needed a more ‘hands-on’ learning environment, so I transferred to Unitec and joined the first intake of the Bachelor of Engineering Technology in 2015. Unitec’s practical, real life approach really helped solidify my learnings – I don’t think my degree would’ve clicked with me if I’d done it on a whiteboard instead of working with real electric motors and control circuits.”
Alex also found Unitec’s smaller class sizes beneficial.
“At university you can feel like just another face in a huge lecture theatre, but at Unitec the lecturers knew our names and really cared about us. It also meant we built some really tight relationships with the people in our class.”
In Alex’s final year, his friends encouraged him to apply for the graduate programme at engineering and management consultancy company, Beca. The application process required Alex to submit his CV along with a 60-second video, and after making it through to the next stage, he found himself being interviewed by the Wellington Power and Auckland Building Services divisions of Beca.
“The interview went well, but by the end of it we’d all reached the conclusion that neither building nor power were a good fit for me! What I’d really fallen in love with at Unitec was the controls side of electrical engineering. Luckily the interviewers shoulder tapped the manager of Electrical and Controls at Beca and suggested he meet with me.”
This second interview went far better than the first and Alex was offered a graduate role as an Electrical and Controls Engineer, starting immediately after graduation.
“I remember the day I got the call from my now-manager to say I’d been accepted. I just couldn’t get the smile off my face! I started my current role in 2017 and I haven’t looked back.”
Connecting the pieces together
As an Electrical and Control Engineer, Alex designs and oversees commissioning of electrical control systems for a variety of industrial equipment. He says that while his team is smaller than many other areas at Beca, they work across many disciplines to ensure the pieces fit together and the processes work.
“Basically, while the power side of electrical engineering looks after the generation and transmission of power across the country, our team works on the systems and gear where that electricity actually gets used.”
Beca’s graduate programme has been a great way for Alex to integrate into the workplace – something he says is essential when you first start working.
“The grad programme allows you to insert yourself into the company. I think it’s important to take every opportunity to put yourself out there and make connections with people in the business. Moving into the workplace can seem a bit daunting as a student, but there are tons of graduation programmes out there if you look for them. You may find the right place for you in the strangest of places!”
One of Alex’s performance development goals at Beca was to do a secondment and gain some onsite technical experience. So, when an opportunity arose for a one-year secondment with New Zealand Steel, Alex’s manager put his name forward and he was successful in getting the role.
Motivated by change
“I’m currently working out in Glenbrook as part of the Engineering Services team within the Electrical Department, still doing electrical and controls. Being onsite is very different to being in an office. It’s a lot easier to get things done because the gear you’re working with is all there, ready to go, and if you need something sorted you just have to find the right person.
This is where the hands-on learning we experienced at Unitec is so invaluable. When you’re onsite as a consultant you run the risk of being the ‘white collar worker’ who hasn’t got mud on his boots and doesn’t know how a site works. Being able to walk up to a panel and say ‘I’ve worked with these before, I get this’ – it’s quite cool. I’m getting the opportunity to run my own mini-projects onsite, so it’s a great chance for me to keep learning and developing my skills.”
For Alex, this continual learning is essential – particularly in an area like electrical engineering where everything is constantly changing.
“One thing I’ve found since I’ve been at Beca is that there’s so much more to learn! You finish your degree but you’re not done – you’ve got a whole lifetime of learning ahead. You need to keep challenging yourself to stay ahead of the pace.
For me, success is finding the career rewards that aren’t obvious – those that are above and beyond the standard things like remuneration. I feel successful when I get a taste of leadership – pulling a team together and seeing everyone in the team take something away from a project. But what I love most about my role is that I can see the world changing and I feel like I’m part of that change. I want to see civilisation progress for the better, so having an effect on that progression is what really motivates me.”