There is always that one person in the back of the room who doesn’t participate in meetings. The one that skeptically looks at the new crop of hires and snarkily tells them to save themselves before they commit to a company that will not appreciate them. There are millions of unhappy people in the workforce today because they didn’t know what they were in for and sadly they will attempt to rub their unhappiness on you.
What does this have to do with engineering? As a growing field, technology and it’s many sisters, math, science and engineering, have taken center stage in the discussions of the future. There is fear of a shortage of engineers and scientific professionals by the late 2020s and some of the mayor players in the business are scrambling to fund STEM projects in schools, as early as grade school. The problem is a lot of people will get sucked into the hype and will later find out that at least for engineering, being good at math and science isn’t enough. You need to also be very analytical and thorough, patient and observant. A true engineer will see solutions to problems everywhere and will do their best to make sure each problem is solved.
It takes vocation to be an engineer.
If you are seriously considering engineering as your bread and butter, here are the ten things you need to know to make your career very long and prosperous:
1. Pay attention to your surroundings.
The best engineering breakthroughs come from finding simple solutions to any problem. The cheaper the better without sacrificing quality, of course! If you can’t see the problems nor the solutions around you, find people that can point them out. Only when you have hands on experience examining situations and applying scientific principles to solve them can you truly know if you have what it takes to be an engineer.
2. Entry level jobs at big companies will seldom result in hands on engineering.
A very few percentage of my friends got jobs actually building robots or touching machinery right out of college when they went to work for huge corporations. They pay is excellent and so are the benefits but chances are you won’t touch a single drawing until you have proven your chops. If you are interested in a job that’s hand on, check out if companies have rotation programs, apprenticeship requirements or if their union allows for you to easily become a part of the manufacturing line. Smaller companies offer more engineering responsibility and control to their designers; once you have enough experience in the field you can always apply to a bigger corporation and make bank.
3. Decide if you are willing to become a project manager or engineer rather than a “CAD jockey”.
Because a lot of the manufacturing and assembly is outsourced, companies are in need of product integrators and managers. These types of engineers are responsible for putting together the requirements, specifications and certification requirements and in many cases will not do the engineering themselves. These positions can cover finance, supplier management, program management and quality and testing. In some cases you are considered a consultant, and companies like Accenture will pay you to travel and manage projects all over the world! I’ve found that this is the best way to travel and experience many countries but it comes with a major setback: you will work long hours away from home. Make sure you take the PM certificate or pass certification tests to add PMP to your signature.
4. An engineering degree from Harvard or MIT sometimes is worth the same as one from Public U.
Many companies use market salary references to determine, based on your experience and relevant job history, the compensation package for an employee. Seldom in engineering does your degree yield a higher salary. I’ve sat next to many engineers who were drowning in student loan debt while their counterparts had absolutely no worries because they went to public universities and in some cases started off in a community college! Unless a particular company has a consortium with your alma mater, chances are that you will be competing against students who have laboratory experience, papers, design experience and multiple internships. Focus on earning those too even if you are in a high ranking school or you will be boxed out by the competition.
5. Internship, special projects and laboratory work experience are the key to securing employment.
Internships are highly competitive these days because students have a lot of special projects and lab work under their belts by their second year in college. Year after year recruiters have had a harder time deciding who to give an interview because a stellar GPA is not good enough anymore. Being an engineer requires people skills, patience pair and lots of commitmemt. If you already have all these requirements or are willing to do what it takes to secure them, pairing what you already have with some community service will make it easier to differentiate yourself from the competition. Also, a great resume helps; don’t assume companies want elaborate profiles. Old paper and ink summaries are usually what gets you noticed. List awards and honors too.
6. Engineering is a highly competitive field.
In no other calling will you meet so many scientists and technical fellows. The engineering community not only creates technology but touches over 80% of the nation’s professions. You are tasked with making lives easier by solving problems in a safe and cost effective way. Juggling quality, research and development budgets, requirements and performance can be very demanding, especially when trying to beat competitor products before they enter the market. It takes a lot of planning and trial and error to become an engineer. The levels of stress due to failure is very high. If you do not have a resilient and perseverance nature, engineering will be the bane of your existence.
7. Not all engineers are nerds and women are still a minority in the field.
Do not get discouraged by this last statement as the intention of the STEM leaders is to promote recruiting women into colleges and universities to later hire them and help them become leaders in their respective fields. Minorities are struggling too, but the demographics in the workforce have been changing and now engineers are viewed as a diverse crowd. You do not have to be a nerd to become an engineer. As long as you can learn math, scientific and engineering principles, and apply them you can become the best of the best even if you weren’t a 4.0 student. Some of the brightest minds in engineering had very hard lives and academic challenges and disadvantages. Only those brave enough to learn from their mistakes and never lose hope, while retaining objectivity, will become engineers.
8. Engineers change the world one innovation at a time.
Engineering is an ever changing field where old notions get replaced by new processes and tools daily. They create solutions to everyday problems and sometimes anticipate future issues. They are credited with many patents and products that are never tied back to them; you will be an anonymous contributor most of the time. If you go into this field you won’t necessarily get rich or gain an entourage of followers and fans but you will always live with the satisfaction that you built something bigger, that your legacy will continue on beyond your own lifetime. You don’t need to be an artist to create beautiful solutions for humanity, and creativity will become second nature as you mature in your career. It is a very exciting ride and it can take decades to create a breakthrough.
9. There are many engineering disciplines and carrer paths but they are all rewarding.
Petrochemical Engineers, Environmental Engineers, Chemical, Electrical, Mechanical, Computer; so many specialties to choose from, all very rewarding. If you can’t decide, choose one of the basic disciplines and apply for a masters or doctoral program after working for a few years. Most companies have tuition assistance and will either provide you or enlist you in particular programs. It is a very smart move to let your employer pay for higher education and unless you are 100% sure of the route you want to take, I wouldn’t recommend getting a masters or PhD without completing internships or fellowships. Unless you are specialized in a discipline that is on demand, a graduate degree will not help you much in securing a higher salary or higher responsibility job. Until you have proven you can pass muster, you will not be financially compensated. If you are considering becoming a professor or staying in academia check if your university of choice has work and study programs. Usually these can pre-qualify you for a spot and tenure, if you meet their requirements. The Armed Forces pay for tuition and come with steady job offers upon graduation. These groups do a lot of good for the world as they are not only defense contractors or research facilities.
Keep your mind open and you are sure to find a major to suit your personality. Much success future Enginerds! 🙂