With ever increasing competition, it is getting harder and harder for young professionals to get their start in the industry. Just the process of landing that first job can be a soul-destroying experience – especially if you are expecting to land that dream job straight out of university.
A great starting point, for students to get some perspective is to seek out industry leaders for a few minutes of their time. You’ll find that many of those whose careers you admire did not envision themselves ending up where they did. For most, their success has come from simply, at each stage, making the best choices they could with the opportunities available to them at the time; mixing courage with pragmatism.
You should therefore aim to keep an open mind, work hard, and look for opportunities to adapt your skillset and career in the direction of your strengths. Along the way the following pointers should serve you well:
Start out in a small engineering business
Most importantly, if you can, don’t start your career in a large firm. You will be a small cog in a big machine, responsible for a small sliver of the projects you work on, and probably having zero involvement with the customers.
When you are fresh out of university your knowledge is fresh and you are used to being pushed to the limit of your abilities (and your responsibilities at home will generally be minimal). Your focus needs to be on skill acquisition, not money, this is the time when you need to be thrown into the deep end and a keep your learning curve near vertical.
In a small business they will often be short-staffed and you will quickly have responsibility for a substantial part of the projects that you work on. You will have to learn fast how to manage a project throughout its life-cycle and how to communicate with customers. Because of the small number of staff, you will get the opportunity to do advanced tasks years before your colleagues in larger firms.
After a number years of running this gauntlet of anxiety, self-doubt, and many long hours of unpaid overtime, you will emerge with a very bankable skillset.
As an aside, don’t try to progress into management too quickly. Nail your skills first. You can’t manage what you don’t understand, and real understanding requires grinding long hours of hands-on experience.
Find opportunities to regularly apply your engineering knowledge to real world situations
Theoretical knowledge that has not been refined through repeated practical experience is unreliable, and apt to produce odd results (e.g. just because your concept design works in an FEA simulation doesn’t mean that a welder can make it).
Engaging in projects throughout your degree:
(1) Will make your knowledge more valuable to an employer,
(2) Demonstrate to an employer that you will continue to pursue mastery of your skills after they employ you (meaning reduced training costs, and rapid appreciation in the value of your skills),
(3) Indicates an ability to collaborate effectively as a team with other professionals,
(4) May provide opportunity to demonstrate entrepreneurial talents (indicating potential as a ‘rain-maker’ for the firm), and
(5) Will help you to figure out where you fit in your industry (So that you can focus your energies on where your natural talents allow you to deliver the most value).
Such opportunities can be gained with local engineering firms. Don’t hesitate to contact these firms for work experience and employment opportunities. This will give you a serous edge upon graduation and allow you to hit the ground running. Don’t wait until graduation to start engaging with industry, you can’t think your way to clarity when finding your place in the world, this can only be done by practical experience.
Treat the tradies with respect
Always be respectful to the traidies. As a young engineer many of the traidies that you work with will have been working in the industry for about 20 years, early in your career their experience is more reliable than your theoretical knowledge – listen to them.
Respect is currency:
(1) Treat them with respect and they will be a rich source of information, disrespect them and they will let you fail.
(2) Establish good relationships and they will keep you updated on the latest developments on site.
(3) Ask for their opinions on your designs and they will alert you to things that work in theory, but are not practical to fabricate.
(4) Earn their respect for your competence, and they will soon stop hazing you and go out of their way to help you in any way they can (as your competence makes their job easier).
It is faster and less expensive to learn from the mistakes and experience of others. And having many allies will speed the advancement of your career. Treat everyone with respect, regardless of perceived ‘rank’, you never know what you might learn from them or when you might need their help.
Your degree is merely your ticket to the starting line of an engineering degree
Completing an engineering degree is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. It is therefore common for engineering grads to think that after those hellish four years they have earned their stripes and their right to their dream job.
Unfortunately, the world doesn’t see it that way. The degree is only an assurance to your prospective employer that you have the potential to learn the job of being an engineer. It will take the next several years of focused grinding hard work to start to become an engineer capable of taking on leadership responsibility for projects in your own right.
Don’t make the mistake of feeling cheated when your first job is an uninspiring grind. The repetition, although mind numbing at times, will refine your skills laying the foundation for you to become a safe pair of hands for your firm.
Promotion comes from making the interests of superiors reliant on your advancement
You don’t get promoted by showing up on time, working hard, and being congenial. That is all expected of you as part of your job. People don’t promote you as a reward for good behaviour, they promote you if it furthers their interest to do so.
So, as a young engineer, work hard to make the success of your superiors reliant on your career progression:
(1) Work hard to develop rare and valuable skills, during and outside work hours (e.g. courses, reading textbooks, side projects etc).
(2) Be entrepreneurial and find ways to optimise the value generated by your business unit (you don’t need a title to show leadership). The best opportunities you will have are when your colleagues realise that the current methods or systems will not deliver success. If you can chart the course they will usually follow you.
(3) Pitch new ideas to your boss on anything that will improve the bottom line (employees who can solve problems, not just report them, are a godsend to their managers).
(4) Work hard on your ability to communicate complex ideas to non-technical audiences, showing how your proposals will address their interests and concerns. This will serve you well with customers and senior decision-makers.
(5) Develop your network at all levels of the business, and outside the business. Employees that have their ‘ear to the ground’ often become valued advisers to their managers, and these networks will help you succeed as you progress and implement changes to the systems in your area.
(6) Learn how to market and bring clients in.
Remember that leadership is about service, not status. Your job is to chart the course for the success of your team, and to remove the obstacles in their path to achieving it. Demonstrating your ability to drive project success will lead to advancement – as your managers will allocate you to increasingly high-profile tasks, the tasks on which their advancement depends.