by Mark Crawford
It’s all good—you’ve graduated with a degree in engineering and landed a good job with an engineering firm that promises a stimulating environment and maybe even some interesting travel. You’re all set, right?
Not necessarily—engineering is a competitive field and, as evidenced during the Great Recession, susceptible to big layoffs when the economy takes a dive. So what you can do in your first five years as a professional engineer to strengthen your long-term career and make you stand out from the competition? Here are some pointers from Carl Vieth, director of corporate education for the department of engineering professional development, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Learn the business.
What is the core business strategy, how is company revenue made, and what are key sources of growth? Seek out opportunities to work with a diverse cross-section of business units within the company, including HR, manufacturing, sales, marketing, and customer service. You may also find that your company offers boot-camp style learning opportunities that will give you a deeper understanding of your industry.
Develop a love affair with your customers.
Understand their business better than you understand your own and learn how your customers make money. Request assignments that allow you to work directly at a customer site; be inquisitive about their needs and strive to understand how you can solve their problems. Regularly read market publications and familiarize yourself with what industry analysts are saying. “Know your customers’ competitive marketplace and understand who their key competitors are, as well as the relative strength of the competition’s value proposition relative to that of your customer,” says Smith.
Learn the upstream supply chain.
Understand the sources and producers of inputs to your business. Become familiar with the variety of options available that you can bring to your organization. Strive to keep on top of technical innovations, both within your field and other engineering and technology disciplines.
Don’t stop learning.
College has left you woefully unprepared for many of the challenges you will face (it’s true!). Becoming an effective communicator, team member or leader, or project manager are worthy goals to aggressively pursue. “Seeking out professional development activities related to growing your soft skills will drive professional growth in dimensions you never knew existed,” says Smith.
Keep your technical skills current.
Join a professional society and participate as an active member. Share what you learn with your colleagues at work. If your local work group does not have a journal club or study circle, consider starting one. Engineering associations also provide professional learning opportunities, including short courses and online learning. Search for universities that are active in providing technical education in your field.
Find a coach.
Being independent types, engineers often feel they have to do it alone. Find a coach within the organization who can provide valuable advice, direction, and support. More important than having technical credibility, your coach should be adept at navigating the organization. “Find the engineer who business leaders and customers seek out when they want to get an answer or solve a problem,” advises Smith. “Once you’ve established the relationship, honor it by listening carefully, following the advice, and carrying yourself in ways that will make your coach proud.”
Seek out new challenges and challenging assignments.
The term “stretch assignment” defines an opportunity to challenge your knowledge, skills, and creativity in new and different ways. Challenging assignments take you out of your comfort zone and provide you with opportunities to set yourself apart.
Critique your performance.
Practice your new skills and try to be self-aware and realistic about how you’re progressing. “New abilities don’t come easily and those who excel in their own personal development take advantage of opportunities that sharpen their skills and grow their knowledge base through practice.
Think about the next step in your education.
“You won’t get far without a graduate degree and you need to start planning,” Smith advises. “A few years of work experience will allow you to make the most of your next learning opportunity and to rediscover the joy in formal learning.”
Mark Crawford is an independent writer.