Alexander Kelly, undergraduate placement student at Unilever

Alexander (Sandy) Kelly

What was the name of the company you worked for and what do they do?

The company that I am currently on my Placement Year with is Unilever. Unilever are a fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company with a global outreach, producing household products in four main categories: personal care; home care; foods and refreshment. I’m based at their deodorant site in Leeds, producing roll-on and aerosol brands such as Lynx, Dove and Sure.

Central to their strategy is the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP), which aims to decouple growth from environmental ramifications whilst increasing positive social impact. Unilever’s R&D and Supply Chain are constantly innovating to reduce waste, improve efficiency and reduce their footprint.

What was your role within the company?

I work as a Continuous Improvement Engineer, responsible for driving forward manufacturing projects and creating new and more powerful ways to analyse data and streamline future project choices and efforts. I am also part of a team looking to improve the improvement work process and governance.

Can you please give me an insight into a typical day?

Normal working hours are between 08:00 and 16:00. I first catch up on any emails, and then arrange my schedule for the day.

I like to move around during the day and ensure I’m covering all bases (meetings permitting). I usually start the day developing both end-user analysis tools and ways to better work with the raw data that we receive from machines. It’s a good way to start the day and it enables me to work with numerous applications such as: Excel, VBA in Excel; Access and Power BI. For example, I’m working on a cost and benefit tool, a metric tracker for the site and a SharePoint site for logging improvement work.

After this I move on to project work. This is focused on analysing losses, attending meetings and understanding any technical information that is required to better understand the problem. It also means I frequently visit and conduct activities on the production line, which I enjoy.

At the end of the day I reflect on what I’ve done, note down any lessons learned and plan for the next day.

What did you enjoy the most and did you get involved in any interesting projects?

I thoroughly enjoy all the aspects of my placement. However, If I had to choose one, it would be the opportunity to work in such a diverse environment. We have manufacturing, research and development and marketing functions on site and the skills used in each vary wildly from 3-D designing and printing to machine maintenance. Having this variety makes my work fast-paced and exciting.

I’ve been involved in a few interesting projects, mainly around roll-ons. It’s surprising how complex the machines are! In addition, helping to develop and update site legislation has been exciting and rewarding.

Why did you want to undertake a year in industry?

For me, the most important thing was to gain an appreciation of how my engineering skills would be applicable in the working world. The lectures and practical workshops at University have been invaluable and very interesting, but there is nothing like applying the knowledge to a real-world issue – something which I am thankful to both the University and Unilever for.

Having the exposure to a company as large as Unilever has also improved my commercial awareness and understanding of how big business operates. It is interesting to learn about Unilever’s strategy and how the company operates over numerous time zones, languages, currencies and demographics.

What did you get out of this experience? 

I gained a deeper understanding of engineering and project management, developed my analytical skills and made connections with a diverse range of individuals. Ultimately, I feel I have matured both professionally and personally.

Do you have any tips and advice to current students thinking of undertaking a year in industry?

Start strong and start early. Summer is the perfect time to prepare for the hiring season ahead: developing your CV and completing aptitude tests – a large part of selection processes – will put you in a strong position to press ahead with finding your ideal placement before the University workload gets too heavy. The engineering employability team are also excellent with all steps of the placement process, and I am indebted to them for the opportunity I have now.

Placements are like an iceberg. Above the surface is an excellent opportunity to further your career and under the water lies all the hard work to get you there. Putting the time in to CV development, searching for the right placements and psychometric testing all contribute to this.

Finally, I would say to never lose hope and be selective in your application. Nobody gets the first position they apply for and the key is to adopt a growth mindset by seeking feedback from employers, taking the time to evaluate your own performance and looking for opportunities to improve. To do this effectively, choose the placements that you really feel passionate about and don’t spread yourself too thin. You make your own luck with finding a placement!