Vaisala case study

Work experience details

  • Organisation: Vaisala, Birmingham
  • Contact name: Geoff Hart, UK Country Manager
  • Placement student name: Andrew Hicks, Final Year Geography
  • Placement title: Giant Leap Internship – Weather: Low visibility nowcasting
  • Dates of placement: June – August 2013

Nature of the business

Vaisala is a global leader in environmental and industrial measurement. Building on 75 years of experience, Vaisala contributes to a better quality of life by providing a comprehensive range of innovative observation and measurement products and services for chosen weather-related and industrial markets. The company serves customers in over 150 countries annually.

The Group employs nearly 1,400 professionals worldwide. The company has offices and operations in Finland (headquarters), United States, Canada, France, United Kingdom, Germany, India, China, Sweden, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Brazil and Australia. In 2012 Vaisala achieved net sales of 293 million Euros, and operations outside Finland accounted for 98% of net sales.

Brief description of internship opportunity

Low visibility weather phenomena (such as fog and haze) present potentially serious disruption to transport, and pose real threats to safety. They occur under certain weather conditions and so far, prediction has been difficult using numerical weather prediction models, because of a lack of a dense visibility observation network, and the mixture of fog and haze. The internship will look at how we can improve this, using our observation-based model. We will use our extensive data set and our existing observation model to work on this, with the aim of refining the model to improve outcomes.

Interview with intern

What made you apply for the opportunity?

The internship is focused on a project which was very relevant to both my degree and career aspirations. It utilised a number of skills that I had acquired during my modules as well as for my dissertation, including:

  • Excel skills and data analysis (acquired throughout my degree – especially in my third year statistics module)
  • Meteorology
  • Patience

The topic itself is also really interesting to me and I felt it would be considered favourably by interviewers/employers in the future.

What were your preconceptions before starting the placement?

Andy Hicks at Vaisala

I already knew a little about Vaisala, having attended a careers insight seminar in my department, in which Geoff Hart addressed students, providing them with an overview of the organisation and the nature of the work that they undertake. When I saw the internship opportunity being advertised, I arranged to meet with Careers Network’s Internship Officer for my college. He knew a lot about Vaisala and was able to provide me with some useful information. I then followed-up on this in my own time, undertaking research on the Internet, as well as liaising with previous placement students who had completed internships with the organisation. I used social media (LinkedIn) to help with my research and also found out as much as I could about the work undertaken by the person who would be supervising the project on which I hoped to work.

Having made it through the initial application process, I attended two interviews at Vaisala before being offered the internship. The first interview provided me with a general overview of the organisation and the second was a lot more technical, focused on the project on which the role is focused. The interviews provided me with a good understanding of the company’s ethos, the daily working environment and what I might expect to be doing on a daily basis.

What do you hope to develop during the placement (in terms both of any specific understanding and also any employability skills that you wish to develop)?

I’m applying my problem-solving skills to real issues, rather than just theory - something which you don’t necessarily have the option to do in a university environment. The placement is also a really good introduction to “the real world”, rather than being within the university “bubble”. – This means that I am applying skills such as personal organisation and communications and teamwork. Working a full day every day is also good – in my final year at university I only had six hours of scheduled work a week! After I complete my internship I will be moving on to a graduate role at the Met Office, where I will be working 12 hour shifts, so this really helps.

What are / were your first impressions?

During the first week I was given a range of presentations from lots of different people here which gave me a really good feel for not just my project and the office I am in, but the entire organisation. Everyone was/is very friendly and it’s a nice and relaxed environment to work in. Everyone is really approachable and I am encouraged to liaise with people throughout the office, including my supervisor, whose door is always open. I pop in to talk to him on a daily basis to update him on progress and he’s always very supportive, keen to find out how things are going and to offer constructive feedback. The company has a five-a-side football team and I have been encouraged to take part in the matches.

Please provide an outline of your duties

Andy Hicks at Vaisala

I am developing a system to predict (“nowcast”) low visibility conditions in geographical areas which are prone to the development of fog or mist. I’m doing this by testing a conceptual model which has been developed by my supervisor using met data which Vaisala records and archives. Most of my work is PC-based, using MS Excel, although I have been shown the hardware that is used to make measurements in the field, so that I understand how my work will fit into the bigger system. As I mentioned before, I meet regularly with my supervisor to discuss progress, both informally on a day-to-day basis as well as in scheduled meetings every Monday morning. Towards the end of my internship I will join-up on-line with approximately 20 other interns world-wide and we will deliver presentations about the projects on which we have been working.

Please provide an overview of your progress as you have gone through the placement (what you are up to, how the tasks are going, what support you’re getting, what the rest of the office team are like)

I’m working fairly independently on testing different modifications to the model in an attempt to increase its performance. I am working fairly closely with my supervisor and having detailed discussions with him regarding the best ways to move forward. So far the system is far from being complete, though good progress has been made. It’s great to know that the work I am undertaking will be used by specific customers for the organisation and will make a meaningful contribution to Vaisala long after I have completed my placement.

Your thoughts at the end (how it went, whether it met your expectations, were your preconceptions appropriate or naïve, how it may have influenced your outlook with a view to graduate career options and working in this sector)

I haven’t finished yet, but the internship so far has been fantastic and it has reassured me that this is the sort of area I want to be working in, in the future.

What would you encourage any of your peers seeking similar opportunities next year to consider (in terms of application and also what to do when undertaking a placement)?

Just to try and learn as much as you can about the organisation/topic in advance of any interviews as it really helped my confidence going into the process. The careers team definitely helped with this, so make the best use of their expertise that you can. The staff in Careers Network team helped me to know what to expect in the interviews (I hadn’t had a proper interview before applying for Vaisala) – and also helped to make me more self aware. The mock interview that I undertook helped me to appreciate things such as my posture and body language, not just my verbal communications.

Interview with employer

Geoff Hart from Vaisala

What was your rationale for offering a work experience placement to a University of Birmingham student?

First of all, their qualifications, experience and attitude through the selection process and at interview. Second, as a local employer, we want to play a part in our local community and supporting the University where possible is important to us.

Please describe the process you went through to advertise and select your placement student.

We placed adverts on our website and with a variety of University employability/careers services. Applications were received through our own online recruitment portal. We shortlisted from there and invited four or five students per vacancy to come and hear more about us and the project. Project supervisor and HR then interviewed them and made a selection.

What kinds of projects did your placement student work on/what duties did they perform?

A specific project investigating low visibility phenomena (most significantly fog), particularly with reference to airports.

How did it benefit your business to take on a work experience student?

We were able to utilise a motivated individual with up to date knowledge and skills for an important project, and also play a role in supporting our local community. Previous interns have subsequently joined us full time after completing their degrees, so it can also be a good way of spotting potential employees for the future.

How well did the intern fit in with established employees?

Very well, no problems. Our employees are very used to having interns around each summer, so know what to expect and how to help in making them feel at home.

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to students or employers considering work experience placements or internships?

Advice to employers would be to take the plunge and do it. The main question is whether you can afford to pay the interns or not. I would recommend that if the money can be found that you do – even if it is not very much. I think this improves the chances of attracting students and also getting the best you can. For students, I would say really look into the possibility – it is better to do something than nothing at all. Whilst temp jobs are ok and help on your CV, you need something that might stand out a little bit for potential employers in the future. This is especially true if it is work relevant to your chosen career. When applying, the usual rules go: make sure you tailor as best you can your application and make sure you have done your homework on the Company. You can bet that others will have done and this is what you are up against!

Would you recommend offering placements to University of Birmingham students to others?

Yes, absolutely.

Posted on Tuesday 19th November 2013