November 6, 2008
What makes those young engineers tick?
By DEBBIE HERNANDEZ
Do a Google search on “engineer shortage,” and more than 2 million entries pop up. Clearly, the industry faces a dearth of new talent to replace baby boomers nearing retirement. What does it take to attract superior-quality young engineers?
A recent roundtable discussion with new hires at CDi Engineers resulted in some fascinating and unexpected answers. Participants included: Daniella Moreano, LEED AP, a 2007 graduate of the University of Colorado in Boulder; Jeremy McClanathan, LEED AP, a 2006 University of Washington grad; and Greg Jernstrom, who graduated from the class of 2006 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Q: What attracted you to an engineering career?
Jeremy: I’ve always been passionate about the environment. Since I enjoy math and science, engineering seemed like a natural way for me to make a difference. Spending six years as an Air Force electronics technician confirmed that decision. Then once I was in college, it was the sustainability aspect that led me to mechanical engineering, especially HVAC work.
Daniella: My high school calculus teacher said I’d enjoy engineering, and he was right. When it came time to choose a subdiscipline, mechanical offered me more career options than, say, chemical engineering.
Greg: I’d always leaned towards a career in engineering because of my interests in math and science. This was made more definite after interning through college in my father’s mechanical engineering office. You could say the career sort of runs in the family.
Q: Was it what you expected?
Daniella: Well, unlike Greg, I had no idea what to expect. My only previous job had been as a nanny in the summer. I envisioned engineers wearing suits every day, working in a hostile, dog-eat-dog environment. But my colleagues here are very supportive and helpful. They understand that I’m young. For the most part, they don’t push too hard, or expect me to transform instantly into an adult.
Jeremy: That’s interesting, Daniella. When you’ve done a stint in the military, you’ve already been out in the adult world for quite a while. You understand discipline, and nobody questions your work ethic. So for me, real-world engineering was pretty close to my expectations.
Q: Did your education prepare you adequately?
Greg: Absolutely. My education gave me a very broad theoretical base, including a lot of knowledge I don’t use on a daily basis. That doesn’t mean they over-educated us, just that the calculations we perform are usually simpler than the ones you cover in class. Then there’s the whole area of dealing with people in a job, which is something very important that you don’t learn about in school.
Q: What was your biggest surprise?
Daniella: Greg mentioned dealing with people. One surprise for me was realizing how varied my days would be, socially. I can be buried on technical tasks for three days straight, without talking with anyone. Then on the fourth day, I’m running around the office, getting information from other people and collaborating on jobs all day long. You just never know what to expect. I like that.
Jeremy: I’ve been pleasantly surprised that there are so many sustainable projects to work on. I thought green projects would be a rare treat. But since joining CDi, I’ve consistently been given sustainability jobs. It’s great!
Q: What advice would you give to employers needing new talent?
Greg: Career fairs are a very good way to introduce students to your company. So is your Web site, which must be up to date. During my job search, I started with a firm’s Web site to see the type of projects they had. I selected a handful of companies, e-mailed my resume, and the majority contacted me back. Most gave me an offer, too.
Daniella: Employers can distinguish themselves (by) demonstrating the same dynamic energy they’re looking for. For example, everyone wants to hire young, energetic minds. But very few recruiters gave me the impression that they would encourage me and help me to continue growing which would keep my mind alive. It’s a culture thing. I liked it when the principals of a company were full of life themselves. They didn’t have to be young in years. But they needed to think young, and also ease the transition for young people just entering the workforce.
Jeremy: Demand is certainly high, which means that candidates have the luxury right now of applying to the companies whose work most interests them. I researched the field very carefully, and then was selective about where I applied. One firm with a relatively narrow focus interviewed me. When they learned that I wanted a broader scope of work, they pointed me to CDi. This type of cooperation, sharing lead information, helps everyone both the applicant and the employer.
Q: How are things different for a woman?
Daniella: Maybe being female helped me land the job I wanted. But if it did, I wasn’t aware of it. You get used to being a rarity, whether it’s in school or on the job, and stop noticing. Most of my male engineering friends had an equally easy time finding work. One real joy is that I’m becoming friends with older women engineers, because there are so few my own age. So I’m learning what it takes to deal with children and a career, for instance, and how difficult it was for women in earlier decades to break into the field. It makes me feel very fortunate.
Q: What advice would you give students considering an engineering career?
Greg: This is a wonderful time to enter the field. There’s such a wide variety of jobs available, and interesting projects to work on once you’re hired.
Jeremy: To find out if engineering might be a good fit, ask yourself several questions: Do you enjoy solving problems? Is it important for you to have a career that makes a difference? Do you like seeing the ideas in your head transformed into physical reality? If yes, then you’re heading in the right direction.
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