6 key steps to getting a graduate job in engineering
Published: 17 Oct 2014 By Stephen Harris
You’ve probably heard that the UK has a shortage of engineers. But that doesn’t mean getting a job in engineering is easy.
What employers really mean by a “shortage” is that there aren’t enough engineers with the right mix of technical ability, personal skills and practical experience in specific areas.
But with the right mix of research, planning and action, you can make yourself very attractive to companies who are desperate to find the right people to make their businesses grow.
Here’s our introductory guide on how to find and secure your dream engineering job.
1. Start early
As an engineering student, you should be used to starting early.
If you want to finish your degree and go straight into a job you’ll need to have used your university time effectively to build up your CV. Of course this means getting a good academic result – many employers won’t look at anything below a 2.1 – but also carrying out work experience and taking part in extra-curricular activities. You didn’t think this would be easy, did you?
‘You can never start too early,’ says Fran Shaw, engineering placement manager at Huddersfield University. ‘You’ll be applying for jobs quicker than you think. And if you want to do a work placement you’ll be applying in your second year.’
During your first year at uni you should try to work out what you want your CV to look like by the time you start applying for jobs and then go out and get the experiences to fill it up.
2. Get some experience
Employers are desperate for graduates with practical experience.
The single most important thing that will improve your chances of getting a job in engineering is work experience.
Many university courses include time for year-long placements and these can often lead directly to permanent jobs. They could even help you do better in your degree when you return to uni the following year.
‘Placements help develop academic skills because you will better understand how the theory is applied,’ says Mike Grey, head of Coventry University’s Engineering Futures career team. ‘They also allow you to make decisions about your career path. For example you might change your mind from wanting to be a design engineer to operations.’
But given that over 40 per cent of engineering employers believe graduates lack practical experience, according to the Institution of Engineering and Technology, any time you can put in with a real company will help you stand out.
Of course, the age-old problem is that employers often want you to have experience before they’ll even take you on for a placement. Start by asking firms if you can come in for just a day to see how things work. Then try to undertake a few weeks work experience or a summer internship. This will put you in good stead if you do want to apply for year-long placements, which can be almost as competitive as permanent jobs.
And don’t forget that practical skills don’t just come from work experience. They could come from social clubs, sports teams, part-time jobs or anything where you’ve demonstrated you can do more than just calculations.
‘We’re looking for lots of dimensions that give a person character,’ says Nicky Bassett, UK HR director at multinational engineering firm Eaton. ‘We’re not looking for real geeks who can’t interact. Have they supported themselves? Do they have good motivation?’
3. Aim high – but keep your horizons broad
Don’t rule yourself out for the top jobs - or miss less obvious opportunities.
‘My advice is to aim high – don’t be afraid to apply for the companies you really want to work for.’ That’s the opinion of Maria Zaretskaya, who secured a coveted place on Eaton’s engineering leadership development programme last year.
The UK is home to some of the biggest and best engineering companies in the world, as well as outposts of many international giants. Graduating from a British engineering department creates a fantastic opportunity to target world-class employers.
And don’t let your degree subject stop you from going for a particular firm or job that specialises in a different discipline – the basic principles of engineering are widely applicable.
‘Students tend to rule themselves out more than the companies do,’ says Coventry’s Mike Grey. ‘They might pick mechanical engineering because it’s broad but something else doesn’t necessarily narrow their options.’
But it’s also important to remember some of the most interesting and innovative engineering on the planet is going on in the legions of British small and medium-sized technology firms, most of which you’ve probably never heard of.
If you just apply to the household-name firms like Rolls-Royce and BP, you’ll not only be pitching yourself against the fiercest competition and risk coming out empty-handed, you’ll also be missing out on some amazing opportunities.
Small firms tend to require more niche skills and experience and so struggle to find the right graduates. Matching yourself to the right employer can create fantastic opportunities. ‘Smaller companies can offer an accelerated career path so you’ll get more responsibility quicker,’ says Grey.
‘And it’s not just traditional engineering companies who recruit engineers,’ says Debbie Laing, careers adviser at the University of Huddersfield. ‘For example you could work as a lighting engineer in the entertainment industry, or in the head offices of big companies such as Morrisons.’
4. Make the most of your university
Your lecturers may be able to let you know about interesting job opportunities.
Your uni isn’t just an expensive place to spend three years locked away from sunlight in an engineering lab. It’s also likely to be a hotbed of research that is often called upon by engineering firms to collaborate on exciting new technologies.
As such, your lecturers may be able to give you the lowdown on different companies and relate their own experiences working for them. In fact, it’s not unusual for engineering firms, especially interesting startups, to get in touch with universities they’ve worked with in the past to search for new recruits.
Danny Fennell and Elton Nunes are helping to develop an engine that runs on liquid air for startup firm The Dearman Engine Company, and both heard about their job openings through their universities, Fennell from his lecturer and Nunes by speaking to career advisers.
‘Do check out your career centre,’ says Nunes. ‘It sounds obvious but a lot of people don’t look there.’ As well as job listings and other information, career departments often provide personal advice sessions and coaching in skills such as interview technique.
5. Tailor your applications
Source: Flazingo Photos
Don’t just send the same application to every employer - think carefully about why you want each individual job.
Every employer has stories about candidates sending them applications with the wrong company name on (a surefire way to get your CV thrown in the bin). But getting your form right isn’t just about careful proofreading - although that’s essential. You’ve got to demonstrate not just that you’re a good engineer but that you’re the very best person for that specific job.
‘People often think sending out lots of apps increases your chances,’ says Coventry Univeristy’s Mike Grey. ‘It’s about quality not quantity. Applications need to be targeted, researched, with skills matched to the role. Professionals look at this so they know when someone hasn’t taken care.’
As well as thinking about your individual skills and experience, this means finding out more about the company and demonstrating an understanding of their technology, their challenges and the broader sector in which they operate.
‘Candidates need to understand role they’re going for,’ says Mark Newland, a consultant at specialist recruitment agency STEM Graduates. ‘That means more than just checking website. For example, use LinkedIn to find a profile of the interviewer.’
6. Don’t give up
Keep trying and eventually you’ll be rewarded with your first job.
‘A lot of people have a lot of rejections but it’s important to stay positive and keep going,’ says Maria Zaretskaya from Eaton.
Every time you miss out on a job, take some time to think about why. Was there a gap in your CV? Did you make mistakes in the interview? Were you really right for the role in the first place?
If you made it past the initial application stage then ask for feedback and you’ll be more likely to succeed next time. Each job you’re rejected from is a step towards the one you’ll eventually get.