Interview with Todd Reeves, Director, Office of Engineering Professional Practice at The University of Tennessee


GradLeaders recently interviewed Todd Reeves, the Director of the Engineering Professional Practice Office at The University of Tennessee. We wanted to check in with one of our partner schools to better understand their management of internships and co-ops, career development, and to hear about the changes they’re making this year. Todd Reeves graciously shared his educational and professional background, gave his advice to job seekers, and provided updates on the University of Tennessee.

Emily: So how long have you worked with the University of Tennessee? 

ToddI’ve been at UT for just over 10 years I guess technically I’m in my 11th year. I started January 2010 so 2020 was ten years for me.  

EmilyWow okay, that’s awesome. So, what is your position at UT can you describe a little bit about your role? 

ToddSure, so I direct the office of engineering professional practice. We have three other full-time staff in our office, and we’ll have 25 to 30 student volunteers that work with our office as well. Our office in the college of engineering oversees the cooperative education and internship education program for the college of engineering. We focus on co-op and internship. We’ll help some companies and some students with the full-time job searches as well but the focus is the co-op and internship piece.  

Emily: That’s awesome. So, what is it that you love most about your job? 

Todd: I really like the aspect of working with the students. That’s a big piece and maybe a stereotypical answer but the other thing that I really like about this job is that my background in mechanical engineering and in business, is actually combined fairly nicely, not that I’m doing any hard core engineering but I’m working in the college of engineering working with engineering students and the business of what we’re doing is interacting with employers and with students, there’s obviously promotion in messaging and part of the marketing elements that deal with that. Theres getting students together with employers. It just all kind of comes together. It’s a job that draws on both parts of the background and the fact that I was working in engineering, for just over 20 years, it’s like being an MBA coach or an NFL coach having been a player in the NFL right. So, you’ve got that experience and then you’re doing the coaching. So, working with the students, being able to talk about what it’s like in engineering from an engineering perspective rather than just someone who’s read what engineers do. So, it’s kind of the way it all swirls together. So that parts cool and then obviously working with the students and companies and employers and building relationships is really nice 

Emily: Yeah that’s awesome I’m sure you’re definitely able to better help students when you’re teaching them something that you’re passionate about. So that’s good. Can you explain a little bit more about your educational background and your previous work experiences and how that led you to where you are now? 

Todd: That’s a great question so, I’ve got a bachelors and master’s in mechanical engineering. My first job was with a large defense contractor, General Dynamics. I actually worked in Connecticut on the acoustic design of nuclear submarines. So, I did that for about 3 years and then moved back to Knoxville for a company that was in the same line of work around vibration analysis, machine condition monitoring, and that sort of thing. So, my mechanical engineering background migrated towards acoustics and vibration and that sort of thing so that brought us back to Knoxville. I worked there for I guess nearly 17 years maybe. I was in a variety of roles and then transitioned into that marketing new product development role which is a very technical role even though it lived on the marketing side. And then along the way I began thinking about what I might want to do further into the future. The thought was, in the world of vibration and analysis there’s kind of a handful of companies that do that apart from going to work for an end user. And I thought I might need an MBA to be a little more mobile in the Knoxville economy. So, I decided to pursue that and I ended up feeling like that was fruitful. And again, with the marketing and then getting over to UT, I think having the engineering and the business helped me. From a hiring standpoint I think that was attractive. And it’s helpful having both those backgrounds. So that’s a little bit of the background; engineering, new product development, and business.  

EmilyThat’s super interesting that’s a good mix too. So, looking back at your college self, knowing what you know now, is there any advice that you’d give about college or your early career? 

ToddThe interesting thing, I remember vividly walking on campus sometime junior or senior year I don’t remember exactly when it was, but I remember thinking one day it would be awesome to work at a university. I remember having that thought. The career progression I didn’t plan out in such a way to end up at the university, a lot of things opened and then I took that path. I remember when I was getting ready to graduate one of my professors from undergrad that was teaching several classes that I was in, one class I forget which one it was it might have been like a heating ventilation air conditioning class, it was just a couple of us in the class, he said for the next couple of months and weeks we could talk about pumps or we could talk about acoustics. And we all wanted to talk about acoustics so that was just kind of an inflection point that I didn’t realize that conversation would lead to the fact that then later he posted an opportunity for some graduate research assistance and for some reason I was struggling to find a job, I don’t remember. I decided to go to graduate school and was able to get one of those research assistance positions so things just kind of fell into place. The work we did there led its way to electric boats and led itself back to the position back at Knoxville and then just progressed. Several things I did in college not really thinking about it at the time, I did manage a hybrid, co-op, internship really on my own because when I was at school at Tennessee tech, their coop program was really a two year program, you went to school for a year, co-op for a year, and then school for year, co-op for a year and then school for a year. So it really was a solid five year program and I had some limitations but anyway I did get into kind of a hybrid internship program that really looks like our coop program at UT today and then when I interviewed for my position at UTthe fact that I had done that in college became very important because in leading a coop program and if I hadn’t done any kind of co-oor internship in college I would have really been a weak candidate and a weak director person or member of the office having not had that experience. Sagain, that’s just something just kind of happened, had no knowledge that this is what I would do in the future. So really the thought is take advantage of opportunities, try to make things happen, be looking for new opportunities.  

-There’s certainly a school of thought that if you have a specific plan in mind to try to try to get there. And there are books, I’ve got on my bookshelf another book that you might be interested in from a marketing standpoint. Do you know who Jim Nance is the sports broadcaster? 

Emily: No, I don’t. 

Todd: OK well he wrote a book says always by my side I’m looking at here in my bookshelf, and in his book he talks about from an early standpoint he knew he wanted to be the lead announcer on CBS college game day right. So, then he manipulated or managed his entire college and early career to put himself in position to get to that spot and he eventually got to that spot and beyondSo, some people go that route and know exactly what they want to do. I think most people just float and things happen and they just kind of take advantage of opportunities.  

EmilyYeah, I think that’s super interesting, you never know where you’re going to end up for some people and you never know where one experience can lead you to another. I always say the most valuable thing that I’ve been able to do is experience as much as I can and then evaluate, because every experience that I’m going to have is going to be valuable some way long term. Whether I hate it or love it, it’s going to teach me something.  

Todd: Right well that’s one of the advantages of the cooperative education and internship piece for engineering students is they’re learning academically about engineering and then they go out into the real world and they see engineering and then they can get a feel for what they really want to do. Do they want to do more design-oriented work, do they want to do more manufacturing support engineering type work, do they like being outside, do they like being inside, do they want to be on a construction site? It’s just what do they want to do, and so when they get ready to take their first fulltime job, they’ve got a basis of understanding of what engineering looks like at different companies and things like that.  

Emily: Without the real-world experience during college it’s very hard to go out into the real world knowing exactly what you want to do when you really haven’t had that experience to fully understandAlso, with your professor and I’ve had many professors in my life that have led me to different experiences, it’s sometimes the people that you know that can lead you to good opportunities. So how have you been successful in creating your professional network? 

Todd: I think the key is just reaching out to people and LinkedIn has been cool because you can reach out to a variety of people there and you kind of have some type of connection. So I think it’s just a matter of persistence and meeting people. The term networking is always a little off putting to people because it feels like you’re networking to do something and if you’re in the job search it does take on a little more of networking to gain something. But I think if you can network and meet people when you’re not trying to gain anything, that’s when it’s really helpful 

Emily: Yeah, networking to build a relationship rather than taking something from someone or just gaining something. So, what does this academic year look like for the University of Tennessee? Are you guys mostly online, a little bit in personAnd how does this affect your role? 

Todd: The university will have students on campus, but not all students will be on campus. The classes are really sort of a hybrid mix, they’ll be a mix of in person instruction, some remote instruction, and some classes will be completely online. The university has guided events to be as virtual as possible so for us all of our events that we’re doing with students will all be virtual. Some events will take place in Zoom or Microsoft Teams and then we’ll also be leveraging some of the newer technology coming into our GradLeaders platform for some of our events as well, particularly our engineering expo and the interviewing days being virtual. So, it’s going to look very different. Our staff has been working remotely since March and I thought about this just yesterday because I went to the office yesterday it’s like it’s one thing to wind the semester down and go through the summer remotely, it’s another thing entirely to try to start a semester with the energy of a new year and still be remote. It feels like we all should have been on campus and everything should be completely back to normal as we’re moving through the last part of the summer yet we’re still in this remote mode. There are some new things we’re learning with technology and now the question is how much of the new technologies and the new ways of doing things will persist as we move forward when it’s becomes more accommodating for things to be back in person again. One of the things we observed over the summer is we had a few Zoom sessions with students and we were able to have guest speakers from Houston Texas participate. They didn’t have to travel they just got on the Zoom and spoke to the students. So those kinds of things are likely to persist somewhat. I know one of the things the University did with the students moving into the dorms is they actually had them schedule appointments so that way everybody’s not on campus at the same time and yesterday I heard they said that’s something that will probably persist into the future even when COVID and all these things aren’t really a risk. I think they felt like it was a lot smoother, a lot easier. So that will probably continue to schedule and have students move in by appointment in the future. So, there’s things like I said that we’re learning that we’ll probably try to incorporate moving forward. 

Emily: Yeah, it’s definitely going to be a different experience but some of the things like you’re saying, you’ve got to find some value in it and hopefully some of these things that we’re learning and some of these skills that we’re gaining we’re going to be able to take long term and that’s what we should be doing. So, we’ll see. But switching over to your relationship with GradLeaders, have there been any industry challenges that you’ve been able to solve by using GradLeaders 

Todd: Well for us the key piece is in the co-op and internship module that’s part of GradLeaders. We had the predecessor software to GradLeaders CSO research. So, our office has been a part of that platform for I don’t know 20 years, 25 years. I don’t know exactly how far back. And then CSO when I started and then before I arrived so it’s clearly nearly 20 years we’ve evolved. During the switch to GradLeaders when we migrated last year, we had great support from the GradLeaders team moving forward. The industry problems really just being able to reach out to employers and encourage them, having a platform that we can control messaging to employers, messaging to students within the platform rather than relying on external communications from our communications office, from our deans office, has always been helpful. And really just trying to get students together with employers for the co-op and internship. So that’s the problem it helps us solve.  

Emily: Good, yeah that’s awesome. It kind of allows you to be proactive in your communication efforts so that’s good.  

Todd: Right, and it tracks things well. We’ve had GradLeaders now for a year and I still feel like I’m just scratching the surface particularly on some of the modules and the details so that’s a goal of mine to do a lot more with the software moving forward. We’ve got a lot of new technologies coming at us, the new virtual platform for the career fair within GradLeaders is going to be super helpful. We hitched our wagon to this summer without the functionality being present so I think we’re about to see the release of that so that’s been very satisfying knowing we chose well. But again, there’s a learning curve. We have to train students; we have to train employers all within the next few weeks so it’s also looking a little daunting. We migrated last year, last summer, went through the fall expo, that’s our career event, and I was in constant contact with GradLeaders, we were making changes, tweaking, doing things, our spring expo went super smooth and so I was really looking forward to the fall all just being super smooth, bigger and better, and then everything changed. And so now it’s a big huge learning curve. The GradLeaders team has been very receptive and responsive so that part is very satisfying.  

Emily: Well I’m sure you’ll have their help still going through this big change and it’ll be worth it in the endSo, can you explain the typical co-op /internship process at the University of Tennessee and how it’s changed since using GradLeaders or how GradLeaders helps this process?  

Todd: Right well our students go through the process of acquiring their co-op or internship role through the GradLeaders system; that’s where students match their profile information, their resumes, we’re able to pull groups of resumes together, packets to send to employers, we have the engineering expo which is the recruiting event that takes place in the GradLeaders platform electronically and of course that’s historically an in-person event which is where students meet, they’ll interview, we do all the interviews on GradLeaders and the interview schedules so then it helps facilitate all of that. Students report their work assignments, all of that’s tracked in GradLeaders, they go on their work assignment and do a work report and a supervisor evaluation. That’s all within GradLeaders. So GradLeaders handles not just the administrative pieces but the recruiting pieces, we can put the documents, the offer letters, resumes uploaded so it really tracks everything related to the co-op and internship experience. It facilitates everything around which our program operates 

Emily: Yeah, it’s nice that it’s a one stop shop and keeps everything organized.  

Todd: Right, right, exactly. And the other thing you’ll read in the books, Al Reise and Jack Trout is that the specialists always win over the generalist. So when a company can be super focused on what they’re doing, they have the chance to be successful. So our office being focused on engineering, co-op, internship, and staying focused on that is part of what helps us be successful. And the fact that the GradLeaders software much like the CSO interface software is really centered around that student, employer experience. It’s not also trying to be completely customer relation management software, it’s not also trying to be sales software, it’s not also trying to be retail software, it’s not trying to be Amazon, or eBay, it’s exactly what it is and that helps GradLeaders and it helps us be focused on what we do. So that’s a big help. One of the reasons we wanted very much to be able to use a GradLeaders module for our career fair and our engineering expo, is we didn’t want to go out and use some third party career fair software or meeting software to try to make it fit what we needed. So again, having everything together supporting the one mission. So if another company another school is using third party career fair software us students and employers have to register in that also. They have to upload resumes, they have to register, they have their other career fair platform that they’re using so it’s multiple things they have to do. Whereas GradLeaders has allowed us to focus and have the one space for employers and students to engage.  

Emily: That’s very helpful. So, what would you say is the main difference between GradLeaders and other software companies? 

Todd: I think it’s the configurability to meet the needs of the individual company or individual university user. So, I know my GradLeaders experience can look a little different from North Westerns GradLeaders experience or another school’s experience. It’s using the same platform but it’s very customizable. I think that’s been very helpful. The fact that it really enables the co-op and internship piece, I believe it’s the only platform that really enables that and that’s a really important piece for us. Again, it just helps us meet our needs. You know, when we migrated, we were able to retain and migrate our old historical data into GradLeaders and other platforms had we moved to another platform then the old data just completely goes away, nothing migrated. So that was a consideration. The other consideration again with GradLeaders and its continuation from CSO and also considering it started back in MBA focus that it had been in this phase for a while, it was an existing company that had been around for some length of time whereas some of the other competitive solutions were new and maybe not financially stable yet. So, the question was what if they never really get financially stable would those solutions go away? It was really the longevity, looking into the future to make sure we were connected with a company that had an established history that the idea that some amount of past performance should indicate future performance unlike what they say about the stock market right, past performance does not guarantee future results. So there’s certainly that hope that past performance of a company should provide some insight into the future they hold, and if you go with a company that has no past performance then you really don’t know what the future holds, it’s really a question.  

Emily: Yeah, so would you recommend GradLeaders to other universities? 

Todd: We’ve been very happy with our GradLeaders experience, they’re very responsive. I think it’s a really good platform and certainly I think other schools should consider the GradLeaders platform. I think it enables, at least for us it enables a better relationship with our individual employers. Some of the platforms I think they could give students more jobs but those companies are not specifically recruiting from those schools and from our perspective when companies are acting with us, for the most part they’re specifically recruiting from the University of Tennessee. So it enables us to really maintain that relationship and be aware of who’s recruiting and what they need and when students are interacting with those companies, they’re generally just competing with other UT students for those positions that are posted, not competing with students all over the country for those positions. So from our perspective GradLeaders enables a more specific engagement with the university with our students and otherwise students might as well just be on or something just looking for jobs competing with everybody else.  

Emily: Yeah well good, I’m glad you guys have had a good experience. Well that’s pretty much all the questions I have for you. Is there anything else you wanted to add about GradLeaders or the University of Tennessee or anything?  

Todd: Not that I can really think of. Like I said we’ve got a big learning curve going forward as we start using some of the virtual career fair pieces. I talked with Matt Hall yesterday and got on the Beta site, reviewed with my staff this morning, we already had a couple of questions about a couple of features like it would be great if we could do this, we could do that so again just providing that feedback. Some of the things will be easy to tweak and add and some things would take the developer weeks to do that so we realize that’s what we’re in but we ran into a lot of that summer and fall as we moved into our expo there were a lot of things we needed. There have been a couple of things that have hung out that we’ve been talking about needing for a year and we still can’t quite get those to bubble up to the top of the development list. But again, the reaction to COVID and the virtual piece has superseded some of those things so we told Matt we’re certainly happy to put some of our requests on the backburner to make sure the virtual pieces are put in place because that’s become a higher priority for us too. So anyway, there are a few things we would like to see changed in the software and we’ll just keep persisting. And the other thing is I was certainly pleased that I was invited to provide some additional input into the technology leadership and see some early concepts that they were looking at, so I’m happy to help, happy to be a resource to GradLeaders moving forward. I had a chance to speak to a few other schools that were looking at GradLeaders so I’m certainly happy to be a resource and a reference.