It’s that time of year again. For those who are newly graduating (or recently graduated) with fresh degrees in engineering or computer science, there is good news in front of you. Despite the recent high-profile layoffs in some of the big tech companies, particularly in software, there are still plenty of jobs to go around with solid career opportunities for the foreseeable future.
As someone with decades of experience in developing technology and technology management and with a successful career as an entrepreneur, I have coached and mentored dozens of new graduates and entry-level engineers and developers, interviewed hundreds, and reviewed more than a thousand resumes. With that in mind, here are the top six career advice insights for recent graduates. Even those of you with experience may find these helpful.
1. The job market fluctuates
The job prospects for engineers might seem weak right now, but that is far from the case. Yes, there have indeed been some large layoffs and some localized supply and demand factors at work in the job market. However, overall, the engineering unemployment rate remains quite low—well below 3% overall. While some of the software engineering powerhouses may have let go of staff, demand is still very high in industries such as medical technology, defense, and any technology around the creation of EVs along with the supporting infrastructure.
It is important also to look at the current market with an eye toward the long term. For this, it is good to look at the past. The engineering unemployment rate, through the worst of the recessions over a period of decades, has always been extremely low and very much lower than the overall unemployment rate nationally. Certainly, when you are in the whirlwind of being laid off or seeking your first job, you might be inclined to panic. Take a deep breath, keep working on your job search and you will indeed find a job in fairly short order. As you get further along in your career, it may take more time to find a position that matches your interest and compensation requirements but, by that time in your career, you should be in a better position to weather the storm.
2. Power of networking
Networking, in this context, means making a conscious effort to make and sustain professional relationships. Build a contact list and make an effort, now and throughout your career, to maintain relationships with your contacts. For example, if you interviewed with a person and felt you built a good bond, keep in touch with that person even if it does not immediately result in a position. For career fairs (virtually or in-person), do what you can to attend as an opportunity to meet people (keep track of who you met via business cards or quick notes in your app of choice). Once you have a position, networking is not finished. Maintain contacts with your prior employers and co-workers. One is never finished networking.
The first thing you need to do when pursuing a new position, whether by choice or via layoff, is to reach out into your network. If the folks in your network can’t help you directly, ask if they know of other opportunities among the people they know. It is orders of magnitude easier to land a position via a relationship than it is to do via a cold application/introduction.
3. The value of experience—any experience
It would be nice to think that your first job will be your dream job. In all likelihood, even if you initially think it is, your first job will not be your last. As a recent graduate, you might not have had direct relevant work experience in your job, when you were a student. No matter. One can learn something from any job. Even if you don’t get some specific technical knowledge, you still can gain a lot of valuable experience working in a team, applying a great work ethic, the value of doing more than expected. Before interviewing for that next job, think hard about the value of your work experiences and be prepared to talk about what you learned.
4. Evolving in the latest technologies
There are certainly industries that are heading into a dead end—perhaps the industry is collapsing, or the technology is becoming obsolete. As you move through positions in your career, the easiest experience to “sell” is that in a relevant, currently important technology. Even though your current gig may not be in the hottest tech domain, you may still be able to extract valuable know-how that is transferable. As you move through your career, one of the easiest ways to find a new position is to have experience in an area that is in high demand.
5. Solid work ethic
This applies anywhere in the world of work. You want to build a reputation in your job (even if you dislike it or are thinking about leaving) as a person who gets things done, does more than expected, or takes on challenges that others walk away from. Your reputation as a dependable and innovative designer or engineer is a key factor in getting in-line promotions. Work toward a reputation as one of the smartest, hardest working people in your workplace. By the way, besides being a key to promotion within a company, the perception of being a critically valuable individual, capable of multi-tasking with strong skills for the present and future, can be a key in avoidance of getting caught in a layoff. Now, perhaps you don’t want to stay in a company where layoffs are happening with alarming frequency. This should have no effect on your work ethic. If you decide you want to leave, you want to do so when the time is of your own choosing, and not when your supervisor has to deliver the bad news.
6. Communication skills
For most engineers, especially in the early part of a career, you will serve as an individual contributor. This may require a lot of “heads down” work in a CAD system, writing reports, or performing tests. Nonetheless, it is valuable to be able to communicate with others. This may be in written communication, for things like writing test plans, status reporting, writing materials for design reviews, or reporting on analysis results. Seek out opportunities to present your written communication to your peers or superiors to look for constructive feedback, and to showcase your capabilities.
Presenting at meetings like design reviews is also important. Certainly, it may be uncomfortable the first few times but being a better communicator, written and verbal, is a skill that can be learned and improved with repeated practice. As the old saying goes, “that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Advice for Engineering Graduates and Beyond
These career advice tips are not just valuable for new graduates. These are career mantras to be practiced throughout one’s career. A career is not just the first job. It is about your job portfolio. No company, despite any hype, will own your job satisfaction, career advancement, or financial security for you. You have to own your own career. The best way to do this is to follow advice from the experienced people you admire, and take responsibility. You are the manager of your career.