As the end of the spring semester approaches, members of the class of 2013 are preparing to transition into the full-time workforce. Engineering graduates will apply the technical skills learned in the lectures and labs of the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering at their new jobs.
For new students, however, the adjustment to a rigorous curriculum and fast-paced academic life is just beginning. In addition to maintaining a high GPA, students should plan their career search as early as freshman year, including résumé writing, networking, and interviewing.
The engineering job market is highly competitive, yet abundant opportunities exist for well-prepared students. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Job Outlook 2013, engineering graduates continue to be highly sought-after candidates in oil and gas, manufacturing, and engineering services industries. The top targets for employers hiring engineering graduates are those earning mechanical or electrical engineering degrees. At the master’s degree level, the most in-demand fields are computer, electrical, mechanical and chemical engineering.
Engineering majors comprise seven of the top 10 highest-paid fields for this year’s bachelor’s degree graduates. The NACE April 2013 Salary Survey shows that petroleum engineering majors received starting salaries averaging $93,500, and computer engineering graduates start at $71,700.
Engineering and Soft Skills
Planning a successful career search involves strengthening the traits that employers seek. Companies want candidates not only with a high GPA, but also with skills and qualities that aren’t necessarily taught in the classroom. The NACE Job Outlook 2013 cites the top five attributes that catch the attention of potential employers:
- ability to work in a team
- analytical/quantitative problem-solving
While a degree in engineering demonstrates the potential for technical expertise, employers also look for other skills that indicate organizational fit. Soft skills, or behavioral competencies, refer to personal characteristics such as effective communication, friendliness, positive attitude and self-confidence that demonstrate employee compatibility. Companies value soft skills as a solid indicator of job performance.
Yvette Harris, Quality/Continuous Improvement Manager at DuPont, agrees that engineering students should be better prepared for soft skills such as email etiquette, teamwork, and presence. “Typically we, engineers, don't take classes in soft skills,” Harris noted. “However, these skill sets can position you to elevate quickly in the organization, if they are applied correctly.”
Tony Kim (BSEE ’09), who was involved in the Program for Master in Engineering Studies (PROMES) during his time at UH, notes that all students should develop soft skills via extracurricular activities. “Students can develop people skills and organizational skills by getting involved in different organizations on campus,” Kim said. “All of the soft skills that students develop in an organization will be directly transferable to the workplace.”
For students wanting to lead or manage within a company, Kim suggests seeking leadership opportunities, such as officer positions, in active student organizations. Students who are interested in project management should prepare by organizing and participating in large events, like the Engineering Career Fair or student conferences. “Let the organization be your sandbox, where you learn and make mistakes so that when you become employed, you can hit the ground running,” said Kim.
Effective communication is essential to convey ideas and influence others, especially when presenting highly technical information to a non-technical audience. “Learn how to connect with people and break things down to a level of understanding that is important to the people you are talking to,” Kim notes. “Complexity creates confusion, and the same goes with your communication.”
Kim suggests that the most effective way to strengthen communication skills while in college is to practice teaching course material to other students who are having difficulty. Students can learn how to tailor their communication based on the needs of their audience. “It's a great way to practice communication, and also to study, because when one person teaches, two people learn,” Kim said.
Ron Price, PE, Sr. Engineering Manager Gasification Technology, IGCC at GE, stated that professional verbal communication includes active listening, brevity, and conciseness. He advises students to become familiar with “articulating views succinctly, clearly and with confidence.” Superior writing skills are also important, with effective use of English grammar and spelling.
Behavioral interviews are based on the idea that the most accurate predictor of future performance is past performance in similar situations. During a behavioral interview, the prospective employer poses a problem or scenario, and asks the interviewee to state how they have handled such a scenario in the past.
Price stated that preparation is the key to a successful behavioral interview. He suggests that students should record mock interviews and self-assess, prior to the real interview. “Weave your demonstrated strengths into your answers,” Price said. “Be honest when you talk about areas to improve. No one is looking for a perfect graduate. If you claim you have no weaknesses then you lose credibility. What we are looking for is a person who can be honest with themselves and is committed to improve.”
At the interview, be prepared to show what you’ve learned. “Practice, practice, practice,” Harris said. “Have examples in which you’ve demonstrated competencies and are able to articulate what was the situation, the tasks and actions taken, and the result, in a logical format.”
The STAR (situation, task, action, result) technique is a structured method for responding to behavioral interview questions. Interviewees who answer questions using the STAR method give the prospective employer a strong impression of organizational fit.
- Situation: Describe the situation that you were in or the task that you needed to accomplish. Be specific and give details for the interviewer to understand.
- Task: Define the goal that you were working toward in this situation.
- Action: Describe the actions you took to address the situation. Keep the focus on your contributions.
- Result: Describe the outcome of your actions. What did you accomplish? What did you learn? Give the interviewer several positive results.
Kim notes that storytelling is central to an effective behavioral interview. “Most of the [interviewer’s] questions will ask you to explain what you did, thought, and learned in previous experiences,” he said. “What the employer is really asking is for you to tell them a great story in a way that the interviewer can ‘be there’ with you to understand your character, thought process, and decision-making. The better you become at telling stories about yourself, the better you will be at effectively answering behavioral questions at the interview.”
While searching online job boards seems easy, networking is the best way to find opportunities that aren’t widely advertised. By building relationships with industry professionals and mentors, job seekers have a great advantage over the competition.
Effective networking requires a proactive approach. It is essential for every engineering student to attend the Engineering Career Fairs each semester, as well as career workshops hosted by company representatives. Harris also recommends that students discuss research and industry opportunities with professors and faculty advisors, and to connect with potential employers at events hosted by engineering student organizations.
Beyond attending career fairs and workshops, Price emphasizes that students should:
- Seek professional registration.
- Attend local meetings of professional chapters.
- Visit web sites of companies to learn their core values and hiring opportunities. GECareers.com is one such site that offers a career guide, access to the GE Talent Community, and a career blog.
- Stay current on technological advances in the industry, and demonstrate an understanding when conversing with professionals.
Begin your engineering career search by scheduling an appointment with an engineering career counselor at 713.743.4230 and register with eConnection, a web-based system designed to increase contact between students and potential employers.