Congratulations to the many new engineering graduates entering the job force for the first time this summer. The unfamiliar territory of having to wake up before 9 a.m. on a regular basis is daunting, we know.
To make the transition a little smoother for you, we’ve asked a handful of engineers what advice they wish they had received prior to starting their careers.
- Pervaiz Lodhie, CEO of Ledtronics
- Lindsey Stigers, Core Team Leader / Process Engineer at CRB
- Brian Renzenbrink, Engineer, LocalResponse.com
- Lee Emel, Sr. Associate, Mechanical Engineer at CRB
- Toby Thielemier, PE, LEED AP BD+C Project Manager at CRB
- Kristina Pumphrey, Lead Process Engineer, Six Sigma Black Belt at CRB
We think you’ll find some insightful (and useful) nuggets of wisdom in their years of experience.
What do you wish you knew about your first job before you entered the workforce?
“That knowing HOW to find the answer was more important that already having the answer. Your GPA has little bearing on your future success. Much more critical are people skills, work ethic, attention to detail, communication skills and attitude. All other things, most employers reason, you can be taught.” (Stigers)
“In the workforce, strict standards about the quality of your own work, and your coworkers’, mean everything. In college, everything has an end date attached. Projects are turned in and never touched. The papers you write will be read once or twice and filed away. In the workforce, those little missteps that you let slide – typos, known bugs, design choices you’d change if you had the time – they always catch up to you.
You’ll often hear that you should be working longer hours when you first start your career, and it’s true. But you should spend those hours working on the quality of your work, not the quantity.” (Renzenbrink)
If you could do something differently about your early career, what would it be?
“I would have asked many, many, more questions. I was afraid of looking silly, but everyone already knew that as a college graduate, I wasn’t expected to know everything. I also would have gotten much more actively involved in professional societies. The networking relationships you form when you are young become invaluable as your career progresses.” (Stigers)
“I made what I consider a huge mistake in my early career by working for a company whose core business wasn’t my field (Software Engineering). When you’re not part of the primary competency of the business, your department becomes marginalized and treated as a line item; just another cost that has to be paid before *real* work can be done. If you want to be treated well, have the opportunity to dramatically affect the business you work for, and be put in a great position to learn, aim for a job directly in your field.” (Renzenbrink)
“Find a job that let me travel more.” (Emel)
If you didn’t get a job right out of school, how did you land one?
“I graduated in May 2001 and didn’t interview for my job until September 11, 2001. (I’ll never forget that day). I got the interview from a college classmate who was a year ahead of me in school. Since she could provide insight into who I was, it helped position my resume above other candidates. Most companies don’t necessarily hire on the same schedules as school schedules. Sometimes waiting can be beneficial.” (Stigers)
“It was a tight job market in the late ’80s. That whole summer after graduation, my mom was wondering if I was ever going to move out. I tried the traditional routes to get a job, then I got some advice from a relative that got my foot in the door at small company. It wasn’t my dream job, but it opened the door for other opportunities that shaped my career path.” (Emel)
“It took me about six months, but I didn’t accept the first few offers since they didn’t appear to be good fits. I used a combination of relying on contacts from internships and through friends in the industry, along with cold-calling from the Yellow Pages. It helped to be persistent and remain optimistic.” (Thielemier)
“As someone who hires engineers… it is important that they reach outside the classroom for their education. In school we don’t get the don’t get the practical, small hands-on experience you get in the field. Becoming a good engineer is more of a process… like an apprenticeship process, than an arrival. So be willing to do volunteer work at a company, try to find a part-time job as a helper or volunteer or whatever – it’s not relevant to making money but more towards preparing you for the actual professional job of engineering. If you have that before you get in the door you will be very valuable to your employer. And a valuable job applicant.” (Lodhie)
What is the best career advice you didn’t get in college?
- Never wear a skirt to a job site. You never know when you have to climb a ladder.
- On international assignments, assume your luggage will be delayed and pack extra work clothes in your carry-on.
- You don’t know what you don’t know. Some things only experience can solve; do everything you can to get that experience.
- Common Engineering knowledge is not common.
“Mentors are the most important people to the early stages of your career, but the dynamic changes once you leave college. No one is going out of their way to find you and coach you up into the engineer or scientist you could be. You have to find your own mentors, both inside, and particularly outside your company. Go to meetups, flatter people, find a way to buy them a beer and pick their brains for an hour or two. Go on enough of these ‘dates’ and you’ll find some people that can be great mentors for you, and are happy to do so.” (Renzenbrink)
“Take your Professional Engineer exams (total of 2 exams) as soon as possible, the longer you are out of school the harder it is to pass the exam.” (Pumphrey)
What advice would you leave new graduates entering the workforce with?
“It is important to understand the profit and loss situation on what you are developing. Regardless of whether you are a public or private company, engineers play a very key role in their businesses’ financial health. Many engineers have very little sales acumen, though. So if, say, I’m going to develop a product for $100 and the market can only sell it for $50… I’m going to be in trouble.
If a young engineer can come at a problem with the understanding that they have to be the most cost-effective, competitive, better-than-what-is-made-in-China (or some other place) on the market… that has been missing in the young engineers on the job market. That will impress your employer.” (Lodhie)
“When hired into a company, chances are your bosses or mentors are busy, but they expect you to be asking tons of questions. Be a squeaky wheel if you aren’t getting the guidance you need. Be proactive.” (Stigers)
“I want you to remember that your future coworkers, managers and senior employees, are not necessarily smarter then you. They’re more educated, and hopefully very good at their jobs, and have a ton to teach you, but they aren’t perfect. You went to your school for a reason, and you graduated because you know your stuff. If you spot mistakes or errors, speak up. Mistakes cost money, and that money more than makes up for any awkwardness created by correcting your coworkers. You were hired to help make your company better, and keeping the quality of everyone’s work up helps take you from the ‘new guy’ to ‘our guy’.” (Renzenbrink)
“Take risks, save money, get your PE, read everything, and build your personal network. Being educated, connected and mobile will help you jump at the right opportunity when it presents itself… and you never know when or how that will happen.” (Emel)
If you’re an experienced engineer, what advice do you wish you had known prior to starting your career? Drop a comment below or tweet us @EngineerJobs – we’d love to hear from you.