As engineering recruiters, we get a front-row seat to the careers of a large number of people – in particular, we talk to a lot of people who are early-on in their careers. Sometimes, it seems like these folks have rocket-packs strapped to their backs; they did everything right and now they are seemingly in control of their destiny. Other times, we see someone languishing away in a niche field struggling to find something more mainstream and get themselves “back on track”. So what’s the difference? What separates the person who is cruising from the person who is struggling?
We preface this all by saying that it is understood not everyone will be able to follow this advice. For some, the pull of family vs. career is stronger than it is for others – for some the degree of complexity with family is higher than it is for others. Even more than that – people value different things and you may be someone who values the time spent outside of work more. This is merely a template, based on observation and countless conversations with real-life engineers. This template is, in our opinion, a tried and true method to forge a successful career as an engineer – one that will give you the most amount of options down the road.
The best time to get an idea of what’s out there and what being an engineer is like, is while you are in school. Many chemical manufacturing companies offer summer-long, or sometimes semester-long internships and co-ops and that can be invaluable in a) giving you an idea of what you would like to do and b) landing that first job out of school. You need to take advantage of career fairs, networks (personal, professional, church, etc.) and your school placement office. As a chemical engineer especially, the possibilities of industry are endless. Get some low-pressure, hands-on experience while you’re still a student and this will make the early part of your post-college career MUCH easier.
Think Long-Term Early
If you are still in school or you’re only a year or so out, you have to sit down and ask yourself, “What is important to me?” That question should be asked on a number of levels – what is important to me now? What will be important to me, in 3 years? 5 years? 10 years? What happens is I get married and have children? What will be important to me then? Will I want to travel a lot, or would I like a job that keeps me close to home? Do I like interacting with a lot of people on a daily/weekly basis or do I prefer to work alone or in small groups? Thinking through these questions will lay down the framework for thinking about your career.
Be Flexible on Location early on, and you will be able to choose your location later on.
Let’s talk about location – because it’s something I frequently talk about with people and is probably one of the biggest factors in a job search, especially early in your career. My advice is this: insofar as you can, avoid pinning yourself down to a specific location. In fact, the more flexible you are willing to be in this area of your career early-on (first 3 years), the more options you will have down the road. Some of the biggest and best companies out there have trouble filling roles in less-desirable locations and they are less picky about technical backgrounds and the ‘almighty GPA’. You can get your foot in the door of a front-line company, cut your teeth for a few years and then the world is your oyster. The problem with targeting jobs near cities when you are early in your career is that the competition for those roles is fierce. It’s not impossible, but the path of least resistance is having flexibility with regard to location. Also keep in mind, sometimes companies specifically seek out rural locations because the cost is cheap and they probably received a lot of tax incentives to choose that location. For you this means, the cost of living will be lower and the possibility to save or invest more of your salary.
Avoid Chasing Money
We’ve been there and we get it – you’re two years into your career, you’ve talked to some of your college friends who are making more than you and you’re thinking to yourself, “Am I underpaid?” Sometimes, the answer to that question is definitely ‘yes’, but that seems like more of the exception than the rule. The danger of chasing money is that you run the risk of pricing yourself out of the market. If you get up into the 90-100th percentiles in terms of compensation, your ability to move around, change jobs, etc could be very limited. The reality is, most companies do not like to hire people for less than they are making now because immediately, they’ve created a reason for the person to look elsewhere. If you are really concerned about whether you are underpaid, get in touch with me – we have salary surveys and we can help try and figure out where you are relative to your peers.
Avoid Niches Early in Your Career
One common pitfall we see is the person who, right out of school, chooses some very narrow (niche) field to go into. This could be any number of things – typically it is a smaller company making a very specific product, or marketing a very specific technology. They do that for 3 years and then decide they want to broaden their horizons, but the skill-set they have developed is so narrow, there aren’t really very many options for them without starting over. Target companies where the skills you will develop, and the equipment you will work with, will have transfer-ability to other industries. Message me if you want more detail about this.
This article was co-authored by Pam Mahadeo Dimarzio and Adam Krueger; Pam holds a BS in Chemical Engineering from NYU-Polytechnic School of Engineering and worked in-industry for about 10 years before going into the recruiting business. Adam has a degree in Psychology from Wheaton College (IL) and has been recruiting engineers for the chemical industry for the past 11 years.