Dave, Nicely stated. I agree that interest in the job position as well as telling a story about a project you've worked on are good indicators of a person's qualifications. When item I stress to my students is having a strong hands-on with electronic circuits. An engineering, in my opinion, is not only good at analytics but must possess a passion to build and test devices. I look for those quailities in candidates I'm interviewing.
@scottmorris: I agree. It's much more useful to ask questions that show how the candidate approaches problems than to simply quiz them on knowledge or vocabulary. Knowledge and vocabulary can usually be picked up relatively easily; it only takes a minute or two to explain what an "ideal voltage source" is. Problem-solving approaches, on the other hand, take much longer to learn.
I also try to gauge the candidate's general attitudes. Are they excited about the technical details of the work, or bored by them? Are they curious about the things they see around them, or indifferent? Are they genuine in their interactions with others, or are they obviously trying to ingratiate themselves? When talking about their experience, do they have interesting stories to tell, or do they just rattle off a list of accomplishments?
Ultimately, it's very difficult to know how well a person will perform in a given role based on their performance in an interview. You need to understand that you are getting a very limited view of a person, under conditions that are very different from those of everyday work.
Unfortunately, the only way to really know how a person will perform in a job is to give them the job and wait a year or so -- but obviously you can't actually do that for every candidate!
By the way, a number of people have expressed a negative view of engineering Ph.D.'s. This is a common view; I've seen more than a few job postings that specifically say, "No Ph.D.'s need apply."
It's unfortunate that so many people think this way. There seems to be a certain amount of know-nothing anti-intellectualism to this view ("we know more than those eggheads do," etc.).
On the other hand, it's also true that there is sometimes a big disconnect in engineering between academia and industry. When I read academic engineering journals, I often see articles that seem to have little or no practical value. (On the other hand, there have been many technological and scientific advances that at first appeared to have no practical value).
But the idea that you shouldn't consider a candidate simply because he or she has an advanced degree strikes me as misguided, at best. You should evaluate the individual on the basis of his or her merits.
I agree with the practical portion of interviews in looking for an engineer. It is amazing how many people that say that they are well versed in CAD can not model a cylinder. It would be understandable if someone that knows ProE would not know how to immediately model in SolidWorks, but if a resume says that there is experience in SolidWorks, you should be able to model something on your interview. We were recently looking for an engineering position that was posted as requiring hands-on basic metal working skills. The practical portion of the interview requested the interviewee to drill and tap a hole in an aluminum plate. The drill bit, drill, and tap were provided. Over half of the candidates really did not have a clue on what to do with the drill and tap. One actually just chucked up the tap in the drill and tried to drive it into the aluminum. It was actually a little scary.
I think a lot of the frustration is also due to improper expectations of what new graduates are capable of. When I hire new grads, I'm looking for someone who has 'learned how to learn quickly' and who is willing to be developed (not for someone who is an expert in my field yet). Also, I'm looking for credibility and will actually test the claims they make on their resume. If they claim they are well-versed at a particular CAD system, I have them sit down an actually model something. I've found these type of tests quickly show who the star performers are.
I agree, ttemple. I've said for years that the stronger graduates are those who've worked in part time engineering jobs and co-op programs. In the late 1950s, after our national overreaction to Sputnik, universities migrated towards more theoretically-based engineering programs. Courses emphasized theory more and practicality less. That's why co-op programs are so important: As you so accurately point out, it's up to the individual to make the most of what's being taught, and when it comes to that, there's no replacement for real-world experience.
I remember when I first interviewed with Dallas Semiconductor fresh out of school back in the day, I was told I was hired for two reasons. The first one was that I was the first person after two weeks of interviewing that answered a basic question on their technical test correctly (had to do with a circuit and all the voltage falling across an open) and that I represented myself as being able to work well with others during the interview process. What I learned upon being hired is that I had a lot to learn! I was working in product engineering on nonvolatile RAMs at the time and it was a whole new world to me. Same thing when I moved over to Optek Technology and started out on hall effects. In the semiconductor industry we typically expected a year minimum for someone new to really understand the various facets of their job and to be able to contribute independently.
I think if a person is excited about their field and demonstrates a basic competence with a willingness to learn and an ability to work with others and be a team player - hire 'em!
I've found that looking at and questioning a candidate's experience is far more important than knowledge questions. For the freshly minted engineers it falls on school projects and personal hobbies. For the more seasoned engineer it is actual work experience.
Generally, we look for people that can work in teams and can think broadly. We develop hundreds of one-off prototypes and science experiments. So thinking outside the box is important but also thinking inside the box can move you faster down the road.
When we do ask questions like the one presented above it is to get an idea of how someone might approach a problem and less about if they can pick up on key words or to test their knowledge. The problems are far more open ended and may not have any 'correct' answer. HR hates these sorts of questions as well as a manager that is just trying to weed through the candidates.
Rich, this is distressing news. I agree with ttemple. It is often necessary for companies to train people themselves. You do expect a basic level of understanding, but that can sometimes be lacking. Actually, I am suprised by your friend's findings. I just went through the process of looking at engineering schools. I also have a nephew who is in one. They all seem to have strong co-op programs where the students get great experience. Many of the students actually do know their stuff and the companies often don't really want to let them go.
Now, I remember being asked questions that were irrelevant in interviews. These were done specifically to trip people up. Just like your example. I looked at the question and thought, that seems strange. I had never been asked that before, or used it. So, being on-line, I looked it up. It still didn't make sense. If it was something that was needed for a project, I would study the situation and figure out how to solve it. Of course, it would turn out that there was no answer.
So, I don't know what the answer is. Do you decide there are no good engineers becuase they cannot answer trick questions. Many of the engineers your friend is rejecting may go on to do well at his competitors.
One other thing that does interest me today. Many years ago, I had a high school teacher who stated, from experience, that companies would not hire the bottom 10% of the class or the top 10%. The bottom is obvious, but he had a reason for the top 10%. Companies used to consider these too cerebral. They should become professors at a university. How attitudes have changed.
I would look lower in the educational food chain. I think that people coming out of 2 year programs probably have more practical knowledge than the average PhD. If you want people to talk about stuff, hire PhD's. If you want people to actually do something, hire someone that can do stuff.
I look at it this way: no matter who you hire, you are probably going to essentially train them yourself, from the ground up, to do what you need done. I would go for the best raw material, and that may not be someone with a PhD. You are just going to pay more for the raw material, and you will probably still have the same amount of training to do.
I don't blame it completely on the schools. I find that you get out of education what you put in to it. Students that are really interested in becoming engineers will apply themselves and do well. People who are in engineering studies because they think engineers make good money probably won't be very good engineers.
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