Young Engineers

5 Steps to Winning Your First Engineering Job

January 5, 2015

Featured in 2015 Guide to Getting an Engineering JobCongratulations, graduate! You’re a qualified engineer! Now get a job and start paying back those student loans.

5 Steps to Winning Your First Engineering Job businessswoman stretching at laptop Annie Sullivan

Credit: Annie Sullivan

If you’ve followed our advice, you spent your time in college doing internships, taking volunteer work and summer jobs, networking furiously, and bulking up your resume with projects and competitions.

But what if you fell victim to GPA tunnel vision? You’ve got great grades, but you don’t have the contacts or experience. Now what?

First of all, don’t panic.

Yes, you should have done all those things while you had the chance, but it’s too late to worry about that now. It’s going to be tough getting hired, but if you approach it in a smart, disciplined way, you’ll get there in the end.

Your First Engineering Job is Different

Applying for your first job is unlike any other. When you start out, you’re not judged on experience. You’re judged on potential and personality.

In the last 25 years, I’ve hired hundreds of people, many of them straight out of college. When I hired new graduates, I wasn’t expecting people who could jump right into a role. I knew they’d need on-the-job training. I knew most of them would only stay for a short time and then move on. I was looking for cheap junior staff who knew enough about the job to get started, who were ready to learn, willing to work hard, and who would fit in with the rest of the company.

That’s the person you need to be.

Step One: Work on Your Resume

When you’ve just graduated, your resume is going to look a little thin. You need to do everything you can to make yourself look good. If you don’t have work experience, make sure you show off everything you can do.

  • Do your homework on the employer and position.
  • Detail the hardware and software tools you’re proficient with.
  • Mention relevant personal qualities.
  • Highlight personal projects testifying to motivation and practical skill.
  • Use clean resume layout and presentation to demonstrate professionalism.

Get someone else to look over your resume and give honest feedback. I rejected many applications from candidates claiming “exellent langage skills”.

Once you’re done, your resume should carry a simple, clear message. “I haven’t got much work experience, but there’s a lot I can do, and I can do it well.”

Step Two: Polish Your Online Image

It should be obvious by now, but clean up your social media presence. Those Instagram photos of you in a bar in Cancun, or your snarky tweets full of f-bombs? Get rid of them, or at least make them private.

Switch your profile pic to something that looks smart – you don’t need a suit, but at least look presentable. Use a sensible email addresses and other IDs too – don’t be deathmaster45.  Employers will look at your online profiles. Don’t give them reason to reject you because of the way you conduct your private life.

Many opt to maintain distinct personal and professional profiles, but the time investment – and possibility of cross-contamination – argues for keeping a single, clean public profile.

It is worth the time to make yourself a LinkedIn profile, preferably with some great endorsements from teachers or others who know you. As Karen Kehr of Ameriprise Financial said recently at the Social Business Innovation Summit in San Francisco last month, “If you don’t have a presence, you don’t count.”

Step Three: Write Your Cover Letter

The single most important part of the application process is your cover letter.

I’ll be honest: when I review applications, I usually make up my mind about the candidate by the time I finish their cover letter. If I like them, I’ll read their resume, and often I’ll set up a phone interview the same day. If the cover letter doesn’t inspire me, I probably won’t even bother reading the resume.

Perfect Cover Letter

I may have missed some great candidates, but I’m no different to many of the other managers you’ll have to deal with.

There are two opposing schools of thought when it comes to cover letters. The usual approach is to present yourself as being passionate about the role that’s offered. If you’re going for a job as a sanitation engineer, write about your lifelong interest in sewerage and your fascination with purification plants and your vision for helping humanity through waste reprocessing. Make the recruiter believe that this is your dream job, and you’ll do anything to achieve it.

The problem is, those letters often reek of BS. If it’s not your passion, I’ll know.

The alternate approach, which I personally prefer, is to be upfront about the fact that, honestly, you just want a chance to build your experience and are willing to work your butt off. Tell them why you think you could do the job, and admit where you think you’ll need training.

It’s a risky approach, but when I’m reading my way through hundreds of applications, that’s the one that will stand out.

Honestly – which of these seems more believable and interesting? Which of these candidates would you rather talk to?

“I feel that industrial HVAC systems offer many exciting job opportunities and I would be well suited to a maintenance role with your company.”

“Some day, I’d like to work on environmental systems for space stations, but I need to acquire a solid grounding in air filtration systems before I can even think of applying to NASA’s Marshall Center in Alabama. I’d really appreciate the opportunity to learn from you and start building the experience I’m going to need.”

Whichever approach you decide to take, do your homework. Research the company thoroughly, and find out exactly what they do and what the job entails. Tailor your cover letter to that specific job, emphasizing relevant qualities and skills.

Most importantly, allow your character to come through. Hiring managers will spot a form letter instantly, and they’ll know you don’t really care about the job.

Step Four: Ace the Interview

When you finally get a chance to talk to someone, either in person or via a phone, what you need to do is sell your personality. You’re not going to get hired for your skills and experience. You’re going to get that job because they want to work with you.

  • You’ll often be told to “be yourself,” but that’s not necessarily a good idea. They probably don’t want to hire an anti-GM activist with an abiding passion for vegan cupcakes and Die Antwoord. They want a trainee engineer.
  • Ask plenty of questions that make it clear you know you’re new to the job but you’re willing to learn. Ask them what training you would need. Ask them which of your skills they think would be relevant and if there’s anything you need to work on.
  • Relax! Be a little informal and friendly if you think you can get away with it.
  • Be ready with an answer when they say “tell me a little about yourself.” Don’t oversell yourself, but give your interviewer something to latch onto.

When the interview ends, you want the interviewer to be thinking, “Nice kid. Still got a lot to learn, but I like her. She’d fit in and I’m sure she’d get up to speed in a few months. Why don’t we give her a shot?”

Step Five: Follow Up Effectively

Resume and Interview Tips From the Experts Engineer JobsWell-constructed follow-up letters can absolutely make the difference.

The main thing employers are looking for when hiring first-timers is enthusiasm and perseverance. So show them how much you want that job and how serious you are. Keeping up regular contact will at least keep you in their mind, and demonstrate your commitment.

The day of the interview, send an email thanking them for the opportunity, and asking what the next steps are. Don’t wait till the next day. If they asked you questions you couldn’t answer, now’s the time to follow up. Show that you’re responsive and that you’re the kind of person who will be great at handling customers.

If you haven’t heard anything after a few days, follow up with a second polite email. Ask if there’s anything else you can do to be of assistance, or if there’s any update on the timeline.