Resources for The Engineer


Landing Your First Engineering Job —
And Loving It

by Joel Erway
Posted 07/15/2015


You’ve done it.

A few short years ago you chose to become an engineer and selected your specific engineering major in college.

You passed the tests, completed the lab reports, received your diploma, and are ready for the real world… right?

Obtaining that all-important piece of paper is only the first step. Unfortunately, many new engineers (and new graduates in general) have a tough time breaking into their first real-world job. Many times, when they do succeed in finding that first job, they may realize it’s not exactly what they were expecting.

So, how do you set yourself apart from the thousands of other engineers looking for jobs and find the job that is right for you?

Here are 3 steps that will give you a leg-up on your competition when looking for your first engineering job.

1. Become an Engineer-in-Training and Pass the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE Exam)

If you haven’t thought about eventually becoming a licensed Professional Engineer take a look at some of the benefits mentioned in this article about turning pro.

Extra credentials in addition to your degree and GPA will certainly bolster your resume. Setting yourself up on a path to becoming a licensed Professional Engineer will open more opportunities throughout your career.

Depending on your degree and program accreditation, many states allow students who are in their final year of a bachelor’s program to sit for the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam. You can check the requirements for your state here, or find answers to frequently asked questions about the FE exam here.

2. It’s Not What You Know But Who You Know

Dr. Geraldine Garner, author of Great Jobs For Engineering Majors, suggests that, “only 15 to 20 percent of all jobs are formally advertised, which means that 80 to 85 percent of available jobs do not appear in published channels.” (p. 72, Great Jobs For Engineering Majors, 2nd Edition).

Accordingly, the sooner you begin networking within your sphere of influence, the better. Regardless of your comfort level with networking, there are plenty of ways to begin your networking outreach.

Here are a few outlets to consider:

  • College alumni network—what better way to establish a connection with a potential employer than through someone who shares your undergraduate experience. Many colleges have well-established alumni networks in place and offer networking events. Speaking with fellow alumni in your field will also provide you with additional insight into specific engineering fields of interest. Don’t know where to connect? Try checking LinkedIn or Facebook groups for alumni networks and start there. Nowadays alumni networks are utilizing social media to stay in touch with former graduates. If you don’t find a group there, try connecting with your college’s alumni coordinator and ask about upcoming events or programs they may be hosting.
  • Employers—no matter what type of job you are looking for, tell everyone in your network that you are pursuing career opportunities and ask if they know anyone in that particular field. This doesn’t have to be an awkward conversation. The reality is that most people genuinely want to help others, including former employer or past internship experiences (both paid and unpaid).
  • Professional and industry associations—The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) offers a list of NSPE State Societies across the country. Once you find your local representation, attend meetings and reach out to the head of that particular society. Many associations are looking for young engineers and are willing to help those who ask for it. The American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE) offers a young member program that connects engineers in local regions.
  • Join a mentoring program or engineering career forum—a mentor may be one of the most under-utilized opportunities. Mentors provide both formal and informal ways of growing one’s professional network quickly. NSPE offers a mentorship program that is worth checking out.
  • Browse all social media outlets to immerse yourself in your target industry. LinkedIn and Facebook are two great places to start, but also begin browsing message boards like Reddit. Reddit has an entire message board for engineers to ask questions called AskEngineers, and even dedicates every Wednesday to engineering career paths and professional development. Search for it on Reddit under “Career Wednesday.” Be sure to continuously follow-up with your connections. Without communication, there is no network. It is your responsibility as the job seeker to provide that constant flow of communication. This can definitely be done in a professional manner without coming across as annoying.

What’s the key to not sounding annoying? First, let them know that you understand they are busy (it’s true… we all are). And secondly, learn how they prefer to communicate. Is it phone, e-mail, or social networking? Following up with someone shows initiative and persistence—two key qualities many employers look for. But, also be keen on when enough is enough and move on.

After you have made a request from a network connection, try a soft, non-intrusive follow-up question with your contact after an appropriate amount of time. Keep your message short, clear, and polite.

3. Do the Right Research Before Your Interview

Engineering is a very broad industry. In fact, even when you start to drill down within each specific field, you will find that those fields in-turn offer many different types of positions.

For example, mechanical engineering is a loosely defined field in a job hunt. Do you want to work as a designer, or have a more hands-on approach as a technician? Do you want to work in the aerospace industry, or is working with materials and metals better suited for you? Asking these types of questions will help define your niche.

It may be difficult to define your focus especially when you have little experience. To help narrow down your market research, consider your hobbies, interests, or classes that you enjoyed most. What stands out to you?

Did you participate in any extracurricular activities, like the ASCE Concrete Canoe competition or the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Baja competition?

All of this research will help as you begin interviewing for positions. You will need to know what you’re talking about and, better yet, know how to speak the employer’s language.

Every employer has their own standards and ways of doing things. If a potential employer asks you to come in for an interview, you can distinguish yourself by doing hard research on how they are successful in what they do and what they are looking for.

Start by doing general market research on that particular industry through trade magazines and Internet research. If the employer gives you details on specifics of what they are looking for, learn as much about the job description as possible. Be sure to fully investigate the employer’s website, and search for the latest press related to them. Setting up a Google Alert can be helpful in getting any breaking industry, competitor, and company news.

It’s also highly recommended that you talk to as many people in that industry as possible (networking and forums). Not only will you learn the lingo, but you will also get a better idea if this is something that you are really interested in pursuing.

Search job boards for other related jobs and see if there are correlating descriptions. This will give you a more defined description that can help you prepare.

Finally, once you land the interview, all of this research should inspire you to compile a list of questions to ask your potential future employer. Asking the right questions about the position should intrigue the potential employer and will let them know that you are serious about the role.

What to Expect During the Interview

Mastering the interview is a skill in itself. The key is being comfortable, honest, and inquisitive. Take the list of questions you have and narrow it down to no more than three to ask your potential employer.

Then, be ready to answer the questions they will ask you. The Penn State College of Engineering compiled a list of the ten most common interview questions. This is a great resource to start with. But remember, the key is to be honest and open. As engineers we may tend to overthink and overanalyze a situation. Before you come up with an answer, ask yourself “If I were an employer, what would my reaction be to this answer?”

Always go with an answer that feels most comfortable to you, and not necessarily what you think they want to hear.

Life Beyond the Textbooks—Expecting the Unexpected

Eventually, you are going to accept a job offer and begin a very exciting time in your life. You will quickly learn that it’s going to take much more than book smarts to succeed in the professional world. Here are some tips to think about during your first few weeks:

  • Listen and absorb as much as you can. You may be the new hot shot on campus, but the reality is there will already be lots of eyes watching you. It’s important to realize that the very early stages at a new place of employment are not for showboating—no matter how talented you are. Management already believes in your ability, which is why they hired you in the first place.
  • Become acclimated with your team and find a mentor. Regardless of how well you did in school, it is going to take time to adjust to how your company operates. This includes learning how to submit time sheets or use particular tools. While finding an actual mentor may not happen for a while, finding someone that you relate most with and asking them for help adjusting to the company’s standards is critical to being successful within the company culture.
  • Never stop learning. Every industry has opportunity to grow, and in order to grow you should be open to continuing education. That doesn’t necessarily mean a formal education degree program. Think about taking classes that will help add value in a team-building environment, such as project management, contract and negotiation skills, employee management, or business and finance classes. Adding skills to your resume will increase your value to any company.
  • Treat everyone like your customer. Customer service skills are not limited to retail and service industries. Remember that everyone you work with and for is your customer that relies on you for certain things. Key components of customer service are: professionalism, communication, and reliability. Make sure you are someone others can depend on.

It can seem daunting, but if you:

  • Set yourself apart by starting down the FE/EIT path
  • Become a relentless networker
  • Prepare diligently for interviews
  • Learn the soft-skills: connecting with other coworkers, negotiating, team building, and customer service

Your career launch will be a success!

PPI has commissioned this article through contributor, Joel Erway, best-selling author, and engineer. All opinions expressed in this article are his.

Landing Your First Engineering Job

Learn what steps you can take to distinguish yourself and set yourself up for career success.

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