Located across the Schuylkill River from Drexel University in the 2200 block of Chestnut Street, BBA has been employing co-op students for more than 10 years. Widely implemented at Drexel, the co-operative education–“co-op” for short–experience allows undergraduate students to complete up to three six-month periods of full-time paid employment by working through either the fall/winter or spring/summer academic terms. If enrolled in Drexel’s five-year academic program, students can gain up to 18 months of real-world experience by the time they graduate by working in positions that relate to their majors, interests and abilities.
Since BBA’s three co-ops joined the firm on March 28, they have been working alongside professionals on assignments that utilize their academic backgrounds and further their professional skills.
“I’m learning a lot,” said John Dionisio, BBA’s electrical engineering co-op. “In particular, Revit and AutoCAD—the drawing tools we use as engineers. When we visit job sites, I’ve been learning what to look for and what to ask. And I’m finding out that engineers work as a team. If I don’t know something, I can go to a coworker or just ask around for help.”
John is a sophomore, and although he worked with electrical panels briefly at his last job, his co-op at BBA has served as his first exposure to building systems — the process of designing the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire protection and life safety systems that integrate into buildings. Similarly, John’s fellow co-ops, Sara Sadoff (pictured middle) and Alexandra Jones (pictured left), were unfamiliar with the field before starting their positions.
Chuck Argue is one of four principals and heads BBA’s mechanical engineering department. As the firm’s liaison for the Drexel program, he has observed that engineering co-ops often come to BBA with more broad, theoretical knowledge than practical, real-world experience.
“Co-op is a good opportunity for us to introduce systems engineering,” he explained. Designing the systems that keep buildings cool/heated and lit with the water running is what he likes to call “invisible work.”
“Most people don’t think about buildings as engineered systems… as long as the lights work and the toilets flush, no one thinks about it,” Chuck elaborated.
Back in 2005, a variety of tasks with which the firm’s managers felt students could assist coupled with a desire to scout talent for permanent employment led to BBA’s first co-op hire in the mechanical department. The following year, the firm welcomed a co-op into the electrical department and has since occasionally added project management and marketing co-ops.
For Sara Sadoff, the architectural engineering sophomore currently augmenting BBA’s mechanical department, this is her first exposure to building systems. Now, at the midpoint of her assignment, she’s worked on HVAC ductwork and piping, plumbing, fire protection system designs on a daily basis.
“Basically, everything I know about mechanical engineering I’ve learned here,” she stated, echoing the thoughts of her fellow co-op Alexandra Jones, a junior global studies major who’s been working in the marketing department. She arrived at BBA with little experience in marketing and none in writing about mechanical and electrical engineering.
“Before I came to work here, I don’t think it crossed my mind once that someone had to design systems that cooled and heated buildings. But it’s actually a very interesting industry. It’s neat to see how everyone found their way here,” she commented.
According to Chuck, not all BBA employees initially planned on working at an MEP engineering firm. This includes some that the co-ops are learning from. Although BBA’s co-ops operate as part of a team, they all work primarily under one supervisor.
Tami Knopp, BBA associate and lead electrical engineer, mentors John. She became fascinated with electrical engineering while obtaining an architectural engineering bachelor’s degree from Penn State, and after 15 years at BBA she now heads the department.
“Tami? She’s a powerhouse. She’s great. She knows everything. Whenever I have questions or need help I know I can go up to her and she’ll explain everything and make it very clear what she wants and needs,” John said enthusiastically.
Mechanical engineer Richard Hwang, Sara’s mentor, also found the industry by chance. Prior to working at BBA, he was a math teacher and, before that, a bike messenger. His background in teaching helps him communicate with his mentee Sara in the engineering field, always pointing out interesting things on site visits and explaining drawings.
Dorothy Verdon, BBA’s director of marketing and business development, serves as Alexandra’s mentor. Although she has a bachelor of fine arts degree, Dorothy’s strong organizational and social skills, passion for writing and graphic design abilities led her to a long and exciting career marketing professional services within the building and design industry. Working under Dorothy, Alexandra has invigorated BBA’s social media accounts, created project sheets and researched a variety of topics relating to the firm’s business development efforts.
Because BBA is a small business with 24 full-time employees, each co-op gets a comprehensive hands-on learning experience. Actually, it’s more of a total immersion, sink-or-swim experience. By the time they leave in mid-September, they’ll have expanded their technical and business knowledge significantly.
Of the 25 mechanical co-ops BBA has had over the last 10 years, the firm has hired four as full-time employees and of the 16 electrical co-ops BBA has hired two.
Even students that don’t necessarily come back to work for BBA afterward occasionally check in to report that their progress in the industry. Chuck says he thinks working for BBA opened their eyes to the field, which Sara corroborates, summing up her reflections on BBA thus far.
“I didn’t expect it to be as much fun,” she says, “Everyone around here really cares about what they’re doing and has a good personality. The smart and welcoming office environment makes it enjoyable to work here.”