December 2, 2011

I recently attended a job fair at the University of Michigan as a recruiter on behalf of my company. Despite the slow economy, we were fortunate to be looking for highly qualified structural engineering students. Attending a job fair as a recruiter is part company promotion, part interviewing, and part career counseling.

The top candidates are usually pretty obvious. They’re in the right degree program and are pursing the right level of education. For structural engineering, that means focusing on structural design courses and working toward your Master’s degree. The best candidates also have relevant work experience. Prior work experience is even important when looking for an internship. Finally, the best recruits also demonstrate a real interest and competency in the field. Leadership in project teams, research, or sometimes a convincing personal narrative let the recruiter know that you have the drive to succeed at their company. It sounds easy enough to reach the elite status, but the majority of candidates widely miss the mark.

I think many students overlook the competition. Realize that all of your peers have had the same courses, have learned the same computer programs, and will be speaking to the same companies that day. Secondly, realize that there are many other highly regarded colleges filled with students taking the same classes, learning the same programs, speaking to the same companies tomorrow. Differentiation is important. “So you say you’ve learned how to use AutoCAD… oh it was a lab in CEE 123.” Everyone I’ve talked to takes that class. I’d rather know, “you’ve been working with some architecture students on a new campus plan, and you had to draft three of the campus building structures in CAD [ps. bonus points if you used Revit or Rhino]?  You must really know the software!”

There is no need to add silly gimmicks to your resume – like saying that your objective is only to work for Company A or printing on brightly colored paper. The place to differentiate yourself is in the content of the resume. Don’t bend the truth though. Most recruiters for civil engineering firms were once civil engineering students. They know all about ASCE, the concrete canoe, and tech aides in the research lab. A good recruiter will ask questions about the activities listed on your resume and gauge your level of involvement. Overreach is a big turn-off. Instead, actually go for the leadership positions and let those experiences be your differentiator.

Experience means a lot to recruiters. It demonstrates that someone else was willing to hire you, and perhaps it won’t take as long to train you for the workforce. Trust me, you’ll need a lot of on the job training. If it takes a job to get a job, how do you start the cycle? First, recognize that some companies take on more junior level employees. My first engineering internship was carrying around a density meter for the department of transportation. My second job was inspecting all the bolts in a stadium roof to make sure they were on tight. Finally, on job number three, I was allowed to touch actual design work, but mostly I checked shop drawings.

If you can’t get your foot in the door there are other options, and I don’t mean working at a summer camp or Subway. There is nothing wrong with trying to earn extra cash, but try to find time for activities that will set you apart from the crowd. Call up a local engineer and ask to job shadow once a week. They will enjoy imparting their seasoned advice, and it might even lead to part time work. Sign up for some software or skills training. Professional organizations, software vendors, and unions offer training courses all the time. Talk to everyone; you might find a job. If you’re staying on campus, look to help a professor with their research, engage in a cross-disciplinary design project (like Engineers Without Borders), or help your friends in the architecture school with their studio projects.

Finally, recruiters can tell if you’re not really that into their line of work. Companies look for employees that they can imagine as part of their team for years to come. See last week’s blog for all the benefits of following your passion. Before your interview, read the company website to learn about their practice areas and office locations. The recruiter will wan to know where you see yourself. If you haven’t had enough experiences, whether through coursework, internships, or extracurriculars, to form an opinion about the specific line of work, you won’t likely be invited for a second interview.

Even if you’re in the undecided category, there is plenty of benefit to speaking with the recruiters at a job fair. They know the industry; they know what you need to get your foot in the door. Ask lots of questions of the recruiters. They are the perfect career counselors.


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  • I have never been involved in campus recruiting, but I find your insights fascinating. Indeed, it must be hard for a student to hear the words that “experience matters” when they are still in school and aspiring to an entry level job in the field; but it is the truth!

    Even if it’s not technically challenging experience, it is experience having to operate in the professional, industry-specific work place. I would think that just knowing that a student has learned a few real-life anecdotal lessons about teamwork, business behavior and deadlines would signal to an employer that their expectations are likely to be well-aligned with reality.

    Nice post!

  • Great advice, especially the part regarding speaking with a local to job shadow is a great tip, many students may not think of that as a viable option. I also agree with trying to find people who are passionate about their work. I recently read another blog post, cant remember the name of the article otherwise I’d link to it, but anyways it had a few good questions to ask potential employees to kind of test their competence and enthusiasm. Anyways, great article.

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