Questions With a 20-Year Co-op Manager: Bill Waldron Jr.

This is one of a regular series profiling the Drexel Co-op program, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019-2020.

There are several big numbers one can attribute to Bill Waldron Jr.’s career at AT&T Mobility.

Waldron (BS electrical and computer engineering ’90), who is now the company’s radio network design manager, has been with the company for 30 years since the summer he graduated from Drexel University. He has spent 25 of those years as a direct manager of Drexel engineering co-op students, working with anywhere from one to eight students per six-month cycle. 

Oh, and he has been with the company through four name changes, from Metrophone to Cellular One to Cingular to AT&T Mobility.

What’s even more is Waldron didn’t plan to build such an extensive career in communications — he just saw an opening upon graduation, and the rest is history. Now, he helps current Drexel students approach career opportunities and the workplace with the same open-mindedness and fervor that he has approached his own career with.

In a Q&A with DrexelNow, Waldron explains the keys to success for a stable career and a rewarding co-op experience. 

Q: Tell me about your time as an undergrad at Drexel, the co-ops you had and how they ultimately defined your career path.

A: I had three co-ops and none of them had anything to do with communications. I worked for the Community College of Philadelphia in the electronics lab. Then I worked for a small engineering firm that did signal systems for SEPTA train lines. And then I worked for Scott Paper doing power projects at their paper mill in Chester. All local, small company and big company experiences, so it was good.

The last one at Scott Paper definitely taught me how to work in a business environment. I was dealing with other engineers and the workers who were actually working in the mill, so it was good practice working with various teams. 

They all certainly helped build a résumé for me. And I’ve been doing this since I graduated, working in cellular. It was something I just happened to see in a newspaper. It sounded like something interesting, and it’s been a great industry for me.

Q: What would you say has kept you working and happy working in this industry, and for the same company, for so long.

A: [The technology] went from something that was really expensive, that only a few people had, to now everybody has it and people don’t know how to live without it. There’s always new technology coming out, and we’re on the forefront of that. It’s rewarding for me to be able to bring coverage to people when they don’t have it. A lot of what we do is keeping up with the capacity and demand. One of the big projects I worked on probably 20 years ago at this point was we didn’t have coverage in the subways. Our office is in King of Prussia. Our staff was primarily suburban people who weren’t familiar with the city, but from my time at Drexel I knew how many people were using [the subway]. It took a while to convince people that we needed to spend money to cover our customers in the subways. I finally convinced the president of our company at the time — he was a big sports fan and I was able to tell him that there’s three Eagles games worth of traffic down there every day, and that got it done.

Q: How long have you been managing Drexel co-op students? What made you want to start doing this?

A: Our first Drexel co-op was hired in 1996, so I’ve been managing them since that time. When I started my career, I was surprised that our company didn’t have any co-ops. When I was first promoted to a supervisory role in 1995, I made it my goal to start a co-op program at our company, because I knew what a difference it made for me as a student and I wanted to provide that opportunity in our industry. Wireless was quickly expanding and I knew it would be easier to grow our own talent through co-op then to try to find it elsewhere.

Q: What are the keys to success for a Drexel co-op, both at AT&T or in any job?

A: The co-ops who have the biggest success are the ones who ask questions, [versus] students who just sit there and wait for work to be brought to them.

We typically have just a single co-op and they support three different groups, so there’s a lot of work for them to be doing. They attend all the different staff meetings and the ones who have the best experience are the ones who make the relationships and seek out work. We’ll make sure they’re busy, obviously, but the ones who hear something in the staff meetings and say, “That sounds interesting, can I help out with that?” are the ones who have the best experiences. The co-op is what you make it. 

Q: Tell me about some of the most successful and unsuccessful co-op students you’ve had.

A: We’ve had over 130 Drexel co-ops since 1995. Only two we’ve had to let go, mainly over attendance. One big thing is be reliable and consistent. That’s huge. If you’re a person who can show you’re reliable, then engineers will work with you more. You’ll have more work to do and you’ll get better experience from it.

Q: How would you say Drexel co-ops are different or stand out from interns from other schools, if you’ve ever worked with them as well?

A: We have had co-ops/interns from other schools on occasion, and Drexel students are typically more prepared for the work experience. It’s not just a “summer job” for them.  The six-month cycle gives them a more valuable experience versus a summer job — the bulk of the co-ops contributions happen during their last three months.

With a consistent rotation of Drexel co-ops there’s an inherent cycle-to-cycle competition, where the new co-op always hears about all of the great things that the old one did, and that can drive them to achieve their own personal successes during their time with us, and set the bar higher for the next co-op.

Q: Are there any ways that you’d say co-op opportunities at AT&T Mobility stand out?

A: Some companies bring in a co-op and they work on a dedicated co-op project. We don’t do that. Our co-ops are doing work that the engineers would be doing. Depending on their skill set, we’ll adjust the job to what they like. If they like programming, we’ve got programming for them to do. If they don’t, then fine, we have plenty of other work for them to do. So, we do tailor the job to them, but it’s work that they’re offloading from the engineers, so it’s real engineering work they’re getting done.

And, we make sure that they’re a full part of the team. We’ll do after work things once every month or two. We have systems in all the major stadiums. So we make sure that, during their six-month period, we get them down to one of the stadiums in Philly to get them behind the scenes to show them how our system is set up. So, show them some of the ways we provide service that are interesting.

Q: Can you relay any cases where co-ops made a big impact on the business?

A: A few co-ops have created software tools for us that we still use today. I know our current co-op, he’s automated some of the tasks that we do, and the product that he’s created, we’re going to be using that for years. So, it’s been a great help.

A lot of our staff is former co-ops. Probably a third of our staff.

Q: Do you have any advice for fellow co-op managers like yourself, or advice for how students should work with their managers?

A: I would make sure to have [the students] work with more than just the manager. Have them work with other groups as well. Try to introduce them to as many people as possible, and not just a “Hi, my name is” or whatever typically happens. Actually have them work together so that they get those contacts, so that when it comes time to get a full-time job, their network is larger.

We’ve had co-ops who work for us and then, all of a sudden, they show up as full-timers in another department just because those are the people they had met, and that’s great. One of the things I tell students is, if it’s their first or second co-op and they have a future one, they’re more than welcome to come back assuming they’ve done a good job, but my recommendation is, at this point, you’re a free agent, you can do what you want. Go out and get varied experience. You know, we’re a big company. Maybe you want to see what a small company is like. 

Q: How have co-ops changed over the last 25 years you’ve been managing them?

A: I’ve noticed a lot more women [entering co-ops here over the years]. I keep a list of all the co-ops we’ve hired by year, and in the ’90s we had 20 percent women, in the 2000s it was 27 percent and in the 2010s it was 41 percent. Since 2013, it’s been over 50 percent.

We’re looking for the best candidate available. We don’t care male, female, whatever, but the women engineers have been outstanding lately. We see a lot more résumés from women than we used to … so that’s been good to see.

Q: Why do you think Drexel’s co-op program has been able to withstand the test of time over the last 100 years? What do you think will happen in the future of the co-op program?

A: I think from the student side it works. You come out of school, and you’ve got a résumé with three experiences on it. That puts you ahead of students from other universities who maybe worked a summer or two. So, I think having a year and a half of applicable experience on a résumé is huge. From the employer side, we treat it as recruiting for full-time positions. We haven’t had any openings for while, but if I had someone leave today, I know of four to five former co-ops I could call and try to get in for an interview. So, it’s a valuable pipeline of talent that we can reach out to when hiring comes around.

About the Drexel Co-op program: Nearly all eligible undergraduate students at Drexel University participate in the co-op program, balancing full-time classes and up to three different, six-month-long work experiences during their time at Drexel. Students can choose from hundreds of employers across the country and globally — plus endless possibilities through self-arranged opportunities.