Engineering graduates face uncertain times in today’s faltering economy, particularly when job growth in so many sectors is expected to remain flat over the next few years. Also contributing to this climate of uncertainty is offshoring, the increasing reliance on international engineering talent, especially as China and India begin to flex their high-tech muscle. What’s more, the shrinking defense budget being proposed by some in Washington could also drive competition for new jobs.
If there is a hot spot in this rather chill assessment, it’s that high-tech companies must hire new engineering talent if they are to maintain their competitive edge. Shrinking staff through attrition is all too often a shortcut to stagnation.
Is there anything that newly minted graduates can do to sharpen their own competitive edge? Make certain that your skills are as cutting-edge as the companies you hope to find a berth in. Seminars, workshops, and continuing education are excellent ways to preserve or increase your market potential.
Only a slight majority (58%) of the recent graduates we surveyed said they’d landed a job, with the rest either still looking for work or finishing up an internship. Of those who were working, more than half (56%) landed their first job after obtaining their bachelor’s degree, while 33% said they’d waited until they’d achieved their master’s or doctorate before heading off to work.
For those who held off, it might have been worth the wait. Incomes for recent graduates with advanced degrees average nearly $46,800, or about 25% more than the $37,400 starting pay for those with only their bachelor’s degrees.
Nearly 43% of the recently employed grads had a job lined up before they graduated, while another 40% found their first job within six months of leaving school. About one in four (26%) learned about the job from company recruiters on campus, and another 21% found their first job online, either at an Internet job site or company Web site. But it pays to have friends. Nearly 40% learned about their first job by way of a referral from a friend, colleague, or family member.
The good news is that nine out of 10 recent grads who have landed a job were able to find work in an engineering-related field, and 60% felt confident that there was a clear path to growth at the company they’d chosen to start their careers at.
Nearly three out of four of those surveyed said they were generally satisfied with their first job. Also, many saw it as an opportunity to develop new ways of thinking, acquire new skills, learn how to work under pressure, and network with people who could be important to their careers.
“The tasks were coordinated according to my level of experience, but challenging enough that I was able to learn and grow quickly,” said a recent graduate from Lakehead University in Ontario.
Another recent grad put it this way: “At first I was not satisfied, because I felt what I was doing wasn’t engineering work. I did more actual engineering before I graduated. After about eight months, I had the opportunity to change departments. At that point, I was doing what I felt was more suited to engineering.”
But young engineering professionals are quickly learning that satisfaction with the job doesn’t always extend to satisfaction with the pay. Barely half (56%) of those surveyed felt they were being adequately compensated for the work they were doing. In fact, only about a third said their total pay was on par with what they believed other recent engineering graduates were making, while close to 40% felt their take-home pay was less competitive.
“It’s hard finding a decent engineering job nowadays,” said one recent grad of the University of Texas at Arlington. “I graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, but it was my software skills that landed me a job. The EE job market in Jacksonville (where I live) is pretty much dead, really. So even though the salary may not be the best, it’s definitely better than being jobless right out of college. Hopefully I can gather experience and move up the ladder in the near future.”
Some of the recent grads we surveyed were fortunate to land their dream jobs right out of school. “I had wanted to work at NASA since I was a kid,” said a recent engineering graduate from Maryland. “To have the opportunity to work there now is just amazing.”
But even some of those who were fortunate to find work quickly often found themselves in situations that either weren’t rewarding enough or didn’t fit the job description. “My employer was not honest about what my job would be or about the hours required for the job,” declared a recent grad from Oklahoma. “The job itself was something that in my opinion didn’t require a college diploma.”
The majority (52%) of recent grads still seeking to land their first job said they were looking to get into the bigger firms, where they expect the money and career opportunities to be better. And that shouldn’t be so surprising. Among their recently employed peers, 70% at large organizations say they see a clear path to career growth, compared to only 43% who landed their first jobs at smaller companies.
Many still looking to land their first job out of school found themselves frustrated with the current job prospects.
“There just aren’t many opportunities available right now,” complained one recent grad from Hawaii. “Most of the employers that I had a chance to meet with wanted certifications and experience in addition to my BS in engineering. It’s very frustrating since I’m a recent graduate just hoping to gain any kind of work experience.”
“Companies are not willing to train new graduates. They always expect you to have some experience within their field,” another recent graduate complained. “They see the new graduate as an expense more than a potential answer for their needs. Another factor is outsourcing. Many big companies have a freeze on local hiring. They would rather employ and train employees overseas.”
Many recent grads are finding that while their education provided them with a broad set of knowledge, most employers are seeking specialized skills. “That’s a difficult situation new graduates face,” said a recent grad from Maine. “I cannot wait for the ideal job opportunity, so I have to move to other options in my top preference list. But it’s practically impossible to have in-depth knowledge and experience in every area.”
Some recent grads felt their education left them ill prepared for their first jobs in engineering. “I wish we had done an actual non-trivial chip design with tape-out and lab characterization, rather than talk about the process all the time in school,” one complained.
Another felt unprepared in parts procurement. “In college, you usually learn to use generic parts, but the bits and pieces on how to decide which, out of a thousand, components do the same thing would be a valuable asset.”
One simply put it this way: “I wish we were explicitly taught why things are done the way they are, instead of a lot of focus on how they are done.”
Many students imagine themselves in dream jobs designing state-of-the-art products like renewable energy, biomedical engineering, robotics, nanotechnology, virtual reality, and defense systems and hope to work for leading technology centers like Apple, Google, NASA, Microsoft, IBM, and Intel.
“I want to work for Google, maybe in security or software development,” fancied one sophomore now studying at the University of Minnesota.
“My dream job is to be a deep brain stimulation development engineer,” mused one graduating senior. “I would like to design the circuitry of medical devices.”
“I am torn between the desire to run my own technology company and the desire to be a CTO of an existing technology company,” dreamed one sophomore enrolled at Lehigh University. “I see myself happiest being a liaison between the IT staff and the board of directors. The combination of technological prowess and social skills that such a position requires would be perfect.”
“I want to work in applied robotics and artificial intelligence,” said a senior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “I’d like to research how the brain works so we can replicate it and help people with things like Alzheimer’s and other types of memory loss.”
“My dream job is one geared towards programming AI modules for either videogames or real-life robots,” said a junior at Notre Dame. “I don’t mind corporate grunt work, but it’s not something I’d see myself doing for the rest of my life.”
“I’m sort of stuck between renewable energy and music technology, the former having more jobs and a higher salary, but the latter being more in line with my hobbies and interests,” said a freshman at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
“My dream job is research and development in robotics, most likely my own company, contracting to the military or government,” said a senior at the University of Nevada, Reno.
“The future lies in space travel,” envisioned a junior at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “As a power-engineering student, I see tremendous potential for new energy technologies that can be safe, compact, and economical for future space endeavors. One day, mankind will be mining asteroid belts for ores, traveling across systems at incredible speeds, and harnessing the power of stars for abundant, reliable energy. I hope to explore every stage of these concepts so that one day, this may become a reality.”