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Downer Group

  • 50,000 - 100,000 employees

Karen Zhou

A graduate rotation program such as Downer’s allows you to steer your career whichever way you choose.

What's your full name and job title?

Karen Zhou – graduate engineer. 

What did you study?

I studied chemical engineering and graduated in November 2017.

Where did you grow up? What have been some important stages of your life in regards to your education, experience abroad and so forth?

I was born in Denmark and then moved around a bit before my parents settled in Saudi Arabia when I was seven years old. I essentially grew up there, graduating high school in Saudi before going to California for six months abroad. I finally moved to Australia in 2014 and completed my engineering degree at the University of Adelaide. During my studies, I spent three very hot summer months at CSIRO in Brisbane, gaining industry experience in water treatment research and development. 

How did you get to your current job position?

My current position is my first job out of university, so I’ve had it for 10 months. 

How did you choose your specialisation?

I always preferred maths and science throughout school, so engineering seemed to be a good fit. I researched the different streams of engineering and thought chemical engineering sounded the most interesting. Luckily, it all worked out. 

What was your interview process like? What kind of questions were you asked?

I applied online to a job advertisement and found the application form to be pretty standard. The next stage was a phone interview, followed by a two-day assessment centre in Melbourne. This involved some group tasks and an individual interview, then a second day of presenting to a leadership team. The interviews included the usual questions like why I applied, my previous experience and some behavioural questions. While the assessment centre was challenging, it was also really fun and a great chance for us to learn about Downer.  

What does your employer do?
Downer provides a range of integrated services through several sectors, including transport, infrastructure, mining, energy and industrial works, as well as its Spotless division specialising in services like catering and cleaning. 

What are your areas of responsibility?

I work within the Mining, Energy and Industrial division and completed my first rotation at Mineral Technologies (a subsidiary of Downer), which specialises in mineral separation solutions for its customers worldwide. I’m now in my second rotation in Downer’s construction sector, working in the bids team. 

Can you describe a typical work day? What was the last thing you worked on?

I’ve had a few ‘typical’ work days through my rotations. My first months at Mineral Technologies were spent on the floor with the laboratory technicians, learning firsthand how the mineral separations work and operating full-scale process equipment myself. I then moved to the office and worked in design, modelling the processes and developing flowsheets. 

I’m currently in my second rotation, working in the bids team for construction projects. This involves going through technical design documents and models given to us by the client and then liaising with the estimating and commercial teams to evaluate the cost, resources and time required for best value delivery of a project. This information is then packaged into a bid for that project. The last thing I worked on was a bid for expansion of a gas plant.

What are the career prospects with your job? Where could you or others in your position go from here? 

A graduate rotation program such as Downer’s allows you to steer your career whichever way you choose. Engineers can go into management roles for teams, operations or projects, or they can steer down the technical side and develop their expertise in process design. 

Could someone with a different background do your job?
It came in handy to have my background for some of the work I’ve done, although I think anyone with a STEM background would have picked it up. You will be taught most things on the job, so it’s more about your willingness to learn and how you work within a team. 

What would your career be if you weren’t doing what you’re doing now?

I would have an animal rescue sanctuary – perhaps I should still do that on the side. 

What do you love the most about your job? Which kind of task do you enjoy the most? 

The best part about my job is the variety of work I get to experience, especially rotating through a business as diverse as Downer. I don’t think I could name one task I enjoy most, probably just anything new, which is still what I do most of the time!

What’s the biggest limitation of your job? Do you have to work on weekends? Are the stress levels high?

The limitation to any rotation program is that sometimes you leave just when you get to really understand your business unit and settle into your role. The experience gained from rotating makes up for this though, so I still see it as a positive. There’s also the hassle of relocating interstate if required, but Downer helps out with this. 

In terms of workload, it really depends what division you work in. In my last rotation I worked from 7.30 am util 4.00 pm every day. Now I work slightly longer hours and may have to occasionally work on a weekend. Regarding stress and responsibility, I’ve always had a great team to work with, so even when I’m under pressure it’s never been overly stressful. 

Which three pieces of advice would you give to a current university student?

  • Don’t wait until your last year to start looking for jobs. Take the initiative as early as possible to seek out work experience and connections. 
  • If you’re still undecided on a specific career path, a job with rotations will allow you to build skills in a wide range of areas and ultimately decide what line of work best suits you. 
  • Relax, have fun and keep going. The late nights of studying will all be worth it!