Every engineering job is different, but much of the onboarding experience is universal. To see how the big firms handle your first week as an engineer, we spoke to Nupur Dokras and Justin Swadling at Ford, who mentor new engineers in the Ford College Graduate Program (FCG). “It can be very overwhelming at first,” says Dokras. “You can expect to feel nervous, but don’t worry. People will help you if you need it.”
Your First Week Means Paperwork
Your first few days will likely be tedious administration and training courses. You’ll have to fill in HR forms and wade through reams of policy handbooks.
In these first couple of days, it’s important to familiarize yourself with all the company policies, everything from dress codes to timekeeping, sick days and vacations, break times, smoking areas, and social media policies.
You may have a lot of documentation to read, so make time to do that in the evenings. You don’t want to find yourself reprimanded or even fired for violating some stupid policy were unaware of. “We have manuals for everything,” says Dokras. “Every situation, there’s a policy for it.”
Perhaps most importantly for any engineer, start getting to know all the health and safety policies and protocols. Engineering is dangerous, making inexperience a risk to yourself and others. Safety policies may seem pointless bureaucratic CYA, but they’re there for a reason. They work. They save money and they save lives. Learn them.
Your co-workers will happier having you on the team if they know you’re not likely to kill them.
Start Networking Immediately
The secret to settling into a new role is building relationships within the company.
“We give everyone a buddy when they start,” explains Swadling. “Your buddy will be your go-to person for any questions. They’ve been with us for at least a year, so they know how things work, and where possible, we try to match people up with someone who came from their college, so they have an alma mater in common. Your buddy will take you to lunch, introduce you to people, and help you feel in place. We encourage you to ask your buddy literally anything, that there are no stupid questions. We all felt like that at one time. Most of them like to communicate through instant messaging, so they can just pop questions when they occur. Overtime, pay, where to find places to eat, whatever you’re worried about. And we’ll check in on you to make sure everything is going well.”
“One thing most people need to learn fast is how to communicate,” emphasizes Dokras. “So talk to people as much as you can. Find out about their jobs, what they do, and how they fit into the wider picture. That way, you get a sense of where you fit into everything, and what your role is.”
“Absolutely,” agrees Swadling. “You need to learn to function as part of a team. In college, it was all about you, your skills, your ability to solve problems and turn in assignments. Here at Ford, as with most engineering companies, you need to realize that your ability to do calculus has no bearing on your ability to work in a group and navigate your way through a global company. That can be a hard lesson for some engineers, particularly the most skilled ones.”
Everyone Does a Month on the Line …
In your first weeks as an engineer, concentrate on the transition from academia to production. Practical, professional engineering is a world away from what you’ve learned in college.
“Everyone at Ford does four weeks working on the line at the Dearborn truck plant,” says Swadling. “It’s a jarring, humbling, experience, and it’s hard work. I tell all our new hires that nobody likes it, but they all love what they learn from it. You’re not learning about the theory of how things should be designed, you’re learning hard practical lessons about why things are done that way. When you spend several days having to attach two fasteners every three seconds, you develop a deep understanding of how a truck gets built and how the manufacturing process works.”
“My first day at Dearborn was on the trim line, adding the weather strips on the doors of F-150s,” says Dokras. “Later, I transitioned into the engine line. It’s nerve-wracking, because you don’t want to hold the line up, but there’s a lot of pressure to do it right and do it fast. You’ve got to get torque settings right, and you’ve got people watching you all the time. But you end up appreciating all the work that goes into making every Ford vehicle.”
… Before They’re Ready for Engineering
After on-the-job training at Dearborn, FCGs then transition back to the office for more training. “This is when you start to use your engineering skills,” says Swadling. “But it’s nothing like college. You’re learning about specific processes, and how we do things. You have to memorize a lot of acronyms. You focus on a very small area. It can be tough, because you feel like you want to contribute, to use your knowledge, but you quickly become aware that you really don’t know how. What’s more, you need to be very driven, very motivated. It’s not like you’re just going to get given assignments and graded on them: you have to seek out the work, and push for opportunities to do your best. We already know you’re smart – all our FCGs are smart – but now you need to show us what you’re capable of.”
“It’s a whole different kind of thinking,” adds Dokras. “In college, you know what you’re studying and what the assignments are testing, and what equations you need to apply. When you get here, you have to figure all that out for yourself. Maybe it’s a heat transference issue, but maybe there’s also something else going on that you have to consider. You’re solving real problems, not proving that you can answer an artificial question where the answer is already known.”