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Career Pathways: Make Employment Trends Work for You

From an increased focus on diversity and workplace culture to the importance of soft skills, foundational skills, and behavioral interviews, the job search has changed for both employees and job seekers. These insights can help you navigate that frequently confusing landscape.

No longer can personal rapport, a well-rehearsed interview, and a slick-looking resume win over a potential employer. And, thankfully, employers at least say they’re serious about creating a diverse workforce — a far cry from the first job notice published in the SWE Journal in 1956, offering to give female engineers “a try.”

Since that initial job ad, leading and prominent companies have repeatedly sent recruiters to SWE’s career fairs and advertised in SWE’s publications. Recent years have averaged hundreds of companies at the annual conference. Last year at WE18, there were 365 exhibitors.

Research shows that, in addition to voicing a commitment to diversity, job recruiters — as well as engineering teachers and mentors — should show women that their hard work matters. The study appears in the journal American Psychologist.

“The message needs to be that one’s effort and hard work — things you have some degree of control over — are what count,” said Andrei Cimpian, Ph.D., an associate professor in New York University’s department of psychology.

“That kind of cultural environment makes everyone feel welcome,” Dr. Cimpian added. “[So] if young people hear that success is not dependent merely on innate ability, they are likely to be less discouraged.”

Beyond the encouraging diversity and merit-focused employment trends, hiring managers and career fair sponsors are becoming even more proactive in finding the right job prospect. For example, they’re sending scouts to hackathons and to “reverse” job fairs where students set up exhibitions of their school projects.

“It’s completely how creative you can be, however far you let your imagination take you. But if you want to go by the book, that’s there for you, too.”
– Brianne C. Martin, creator and founder, The People Engineer™

Career Pathways: Make Employment Trends Work for You employment trends
Karen Chan, P.Eng., mechanical engineer, Agile coach, and SWE global ambassador who gained certification in behavioral interviewing

Today’s kind of behavioral interviewing involves assessing a potential employee’s ability by teasing out his or her story. “You have to try to assess [a potential employee’s] capability in a different way, so you will say, ‘Tell me about a conflict with a teammate. Tell me about when you had to deal with pressure on a project deadline. How do you deal with exam pressures?’” said Karen Chan, P.Eng., a mechanical engineer, Agile coach, and SWE global ambassador who gained certification in behavioral interviewing. “We’d try to find out how someone would process information,” she explained.

As a hiring manager at a “Big Five” bank in Canada, Chan uses behavioral interviewing at recruiting and networking events to identify and attract top talent. “We look at hackathons as ‘soft’ interviews,” she said. “People are in a room, jammed together. They may not have ever worked together; some may not know how to code.”

“We weren’t there to recruit,” Chan said. “We were there to assess talent. You could see how [the hackathon participants] handled new information, how they performed under stress, and whether they gelled with a team. It wasn’t about hiring the people who placed first, but rather, those who had the ability to be part of a team, deliver on a deadline, and handle pressure.”

That’s why Chan advises students to talk with potential employers at hackathons and other open meetings. “Don’t just hunker down,” she said. “Don’t just do your project and then walk away. Those sponsors are there to talk to you.”

Foundational Skills

Companies that hire engineers also are seeking an emerging set of foundational skills comprising digital building blocks, according to Burning Glass Technologies, an analytics software company that studies labor-force trends. Recently, Burning Glass and the Business-Higher Education Forum issued a joint report, “The New Foundational Skills of the Digital Economy,” which addresses this point. The study found that, in addition to soft skills such as the ability to work on a team and to maintain a positive attitude, employers are seeking the “digital building block” abilities in software development, computer programming, analyzing and managing data, and working with digital security and privacy.

“The notion that you have this walled-off area called engineering is less and less the case,” said Matt Sigelman, CEO of the 20-year-old, Boston-based Burning Glass Technologies. The company’s artificial intelligence-based ciphering of the skills that give engineers career mobility found that, by getting targeted training and by seeking out hybrid jobs — such as those that require a mix of technical and marketing skills — an engineer can command salary premiums without an advanced degree.

“Increasingly, companies are looking for engineers to be able to work with and tie into a business context,” Sigelman said. “Engineers can isolate those skills and acquire them, whether in a boot camp or in a degreed professional studies program. Those can enable people to quickly unlock mobility in their careers.”

The study found that engineers can command a premium — boosting an average $81,000 yearly income — for skills such as leadership (a $14,000 income boost); presentation skills (a $12,000 earnings premium); and business analysis (a $10,000 wage hike).

Though engineers have had to become project managers and show their business acumen in years past, the “prevalence of this mixing of skills is a growing phenomenon,” Sigelman said. “If you think about engineering organizations in the pocket-protector days, engineering managers didn’t move into the rest of the organization and vice versa; they were separate cultures and were walled off,” he said. “Now, the traits that unlock upward mobility and salary premiums for engineers are business and human skills — not necessarily the data skills that were part of an engineering curriculum.”

The Role of Social Media

Career Pathways: Make Employment Trends Work for You employment trends
Brianne C. Martin, creator and founder of consultancy The People EngineerTM

Another important way for young people to stand out is to establish “brands” on social media to tout their expertise, unique personalities, and leadership abilities. Brianne C. Martin, who gained experience as a manufacturing engineer in many roles before moving to the nonprofit sector, created her own job assignment and then, after being laid off, started her own consulting firm that has gained social-media prominence.

Martin had gained work experience while attending Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, so upon earning her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, she was hired as a tooling engineer for Zodiac Aerospace.

“I already had the idea that I wanted to travel the world and make business decisions. I wanted to be the ‘face’ of a company, while at the same time be able to talk with clients about technical deliverables,” Martin said. “I wanted to experience the entire scope of ideation, from the idea to the process — even assembling screws — to getting shipments out.”

She went directly to the company’s marketing and sales leader after she had built her own internal rotation program to ensure she covered all the company’s bases. “I was the first entrusted with the authority to make decisions to meet customers’ requests and give technical responses,” she said. Martin dealt with 110 customers throughout India, Africa, southwestern Asia, and the Middle East for about a year.

Then she got laid off.

Martin pivoted by creating her consultancy, The People EngineerTM, replete with blog posts, work tips, and interactive community building. She sees the future of work, at least for people turned off by the corporate ladder, as creating one’s own solutions.

“With education becoming so easily attainable, we can acknowledge what fuels us — what gives us energy versus what drains us — and start crafting our own career,” she said. “It’s completely how creative you can be, however far you let your imagination take you. But if you want to go by the book, that’s there for you, too.”

Tried and True

Regardless of the career path, one trait has held steady for generations: passion for one’s work.

“As a manager, I can teach technical things; but what is really difficult to teach is passion,” said Joan Ferrell, a senior technical supervisor at Honeywell in the Czech Republic, who recruits for the aerospace corporation at SWE career fairs. “How have you shown me — not just told me — that you’re interested in working in aerospace? If someone has volunteered at the space center or gotten a pilot’s license or volunteered for a STEM project, I’m going to lean toward the person showing me they love aerospace.”

Another key trait is excellent communication. “How well do you present yourself?” Ferrell said. “Are you a self-starter? A leader? Have you done things that showcase your talents?” Additionally, “If people are engaged in life, engaged in school, and engaged in learning, you see that when you talk with them,” she said.

And, finally, career fairs are two-way streets. “I love working at Honeywell and the opportunities it provides me,” Ferrell said. “But it’s not just about us wanting a new hire. The interviewee needs to be passionate about us, too. I want to see, ‘Do you [the interviewee] really want us?’”


“Career Pathways: Make Employment Trends Work for You” was written by Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor. This article appears in the 2019 Conference issue of SWE Magazine.

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