March 1, 2021
Given the change of course that has happened in the world, we wanted to provide expert opinions on what aspiring graduates can do to start off their careers in an uncertain economic climate. We wanted to know what skills will be more important, where the economy is doing relatively well, and if there will be any lasting effects on the job market.
Companies are looking for candidates that can handle the new responsibilities of the job market. Recent graduates actually have an advantage because they are comfortable using newer technologies and have been communicating virtually their whole lives. They can take what they've learned and apply it immediately.
We spoke to professors and experts from several universities and companies to get their opinions on where the job market for recent graduates is heading, as well as how young graduates entering the industry can be adequately prepared. Here are their thoughts.
David Wagner: This pandemic will only endure if graduates allow it to continue to impair themselves. There is no question that the switch to online schooling has changed higher education, but I see positive outcomes every week of educators changing their methods so that students can learn in better ways. This also highlights the importance of soft skills and the ability to market yourself. The first assignment for my senior capstone students every year is to submit a resume so that they always have one on-hand if a good job comes their way. In short, there will always be a need for engineers, but it is up to the student or graduate to synthesize their skills and hone them in order to get their dream job; however, there will likely be some non-dream jobs along the way.
David Wagner: Simply put, some of the best jobs out of college are the ones that pay. That is to say, not everyone is offered a paid job with benefits upon graduating. Some contracting work is typically involved, which can be on a short-term basis and work into a long-term or permanent position. A good job is when you, as the employee, and your employer are mutually benefitted from your presence. If you feel welcome at work, then you'll do a better job; it is that simple for some graduates. If, however, you want to move up from technician to engineer to manager to executive, or anywhere in between, then a good job will allow this ascension. On the other hand, being your own boss is a great job as well as long as you are disciplined enough to do so. Ultimately, there is a cost-benefit analysis you will have to perform, either consciously or subconsciously, as to what you define a good job and what obligations you have upon graduation.
David Wagner: I see graduates benefit the most when they learn skills, apply those skills, and communicate how those skills helped them. While this is much easier said than done and it can be time-consuming to learn skills in addition to your education, there is absolutely no substitute for a person that has accrued knowledge and its application and then knows how to use it to their benefit. Certifications, learning badges, project applications, and even letters of recommendation convey to people that you know aspects of your discipline well and can apply them to other disciplines and jobs seamlessly. Skills get you hired; success gets you promoted; you get yourself paid.
Department of Chemistry
Lovell Agwaramgbo Ph.D.: There may be a short term, negative impact of COVID-19 on graduates with respect to employment, emotional drain, and experiences. The severity of these depend on how soon the pandemic is contained, how quickly the economy recovers, and when the hiring freeze is lifted. Unfortunately, graduates will be impacted differently. Graduates with social network, resources, and right skills will find jobs and adapt faster than their counterparts with skills not sought after. Those with experience in computer and data science, information, and other technology related areas will find employment easier. Graduates who majored in areas that require face to face skills such as chemistry, where experiments require personal interaction with chemicals and analysis tools, would be affected more than those who can work from remote sites. For us, it was essential that we expose our students to the needed hands-on experiences, skills and techniques in chemistry. To maintain social distancing our laboratory occupancy dropped to 50% or less in order for us to have face to face laboratory activities.
At Dillard University, the pandemic metaphorically moved our good old sweet cheese (as in the fable "who moved my cheese"? by Spencer Johnson) and imposed on us Zoom, Google Meet, Canvas, Pronto and other different learning platforms. Like Scurry and Sniff, we tried to find new cheese source with the hope of finding opportunity, satisfaction, collaboration, engagement, and creativity in those new teaching and learning platforms. Similarly, graduates who take inventory of their skills and knowledge but also have passion, determination, discipline and strong work ethic will always find ways to overcome any shortcomings posed by the pandemic. Zoom job interviews and meetings and hybrid work schedule models will be lasting impacts of the pandemic. However, like Hem and Hall, graduates who find it difficult to adapt and see opportunity in such a change will feel betrayed, disappointed, lost, and probably depressed.
The pandemic created hardship for everyone including the graduates and industries alike, but it also created new opportunities. In the February edition of the chemical and engineering news, it was reported that employment for those with bachelor's degree was lowest in 2020 due to the pandemic as many industries initiated hiring freeze. Thus, with the current employment for new graduates dips southbound from pre-pandemic level, I recommend that graduates should consider graduate education or certification in areas that will add value to their skills, employability and earning potential as options. Certainly, the clouds of the pandemic will soon clear and the sun will shine again for those who are prepared.
Lovell Agwaramgbo Ph.D.: The certifications/licensures and courses that can have the biggest impact on job prospects are degree dependent. In STEM fields, technology was an engine that kept afloat many sectors during the pandemic. For non-technology-oriented science majors, getting certified in coding, Phython, etc., will increase a student's skill set and job prospects. For a chemist, certification in coding, analytical tools (HPLC, GCMS, AA, and NMR), computational chemistry, bioinformatics, and water remediation and management will guarantee employment.
Students should consider getting a certification in an interdisciplinary area within their field of study that proved to be relevant during the pandemic.
We have been discussing majors of growth potential with the Hanover Group and based on their recommendations we are in the incubation stages of developing new but relevant majors, built-in minors and certifications; particularly those that are interdisciplinary in nature.
Lovell Agwaramgbo Ph.D.: Earning potential is commensurate with expertise, skills, and experience. Acquisition of additional field-related skills will add value to one's resume and thus increase employability and earning potential. Employers appreciate and reward candidates who display initiative, imagination, and creativity in solving problems with clarity, relevance, and logic. It is conventionally understood that those with higher degrees tend to make more income. A chemist with a doctorate degree earns between twenty to thirty thousand dollars more than a bachelor degree holder. Thus, I encourage my students to enroll in doctorate programs or pipeline programs with the goal of earning a doctorate to increase employability and earning potential. Furthermore, as I have stated earlier, acquisition of additional skills, especially in technical and cross discipline skills and experiences will increase earning potential.
Anthony Butterfield: I think the pandemic has taught all of us new tricks and we've overcome the activation barrier to working and meeting remotely. I think the new engineering workplace will be one in which the physical location matter even less. This, of course, means the list of possible employers may grow for graduates who wish to remain in their hometown, but so will the competition for those positions that allow remote work.
Anthony Butterfield: For many engineers, the workplace has always required strict adherence to safe procedures and the use of proper PPE. The pandemic has brought such requirements out of our laboratories and plant floors and into our office spaces, but I feel any employee at a company with a health safety culture will easily adapt to these new restrictions. The most striking difference for the typical workday is the absence of in-person meetings and the limitations on socializing with coworkers outside of work. Most seasoned engineers know their career has been helped significantly through a mentor or friend in the workplace. I think the pandemic makes giving attention to the human aspects of an engineering workplace all the more important, even if they have to be done through a screen.
Anthony Butterfield: I would say the skills that stand out in an interview and early on in someone's career would be:
-Strong conceptual understanding of core engineering concepts. Knowing the exact form of, say, the fluid dynamics equation you need to use is less important than having a reflexive understanding of the relationship between pressure and flowrate. You can look up exact equations quickly, but foundational conceptual understanding of the physics needs to be at the ready.
-The ability to apply their technical understanding to innovate. Many students will graduate with the same ability to code, and the same understanding from core engineering courses. The skill that will bring extraordinary value to your workplace is the ability to creatively apply that knowledge.
-The ability to quickly and flexibly pick up new technical skills. People want new employees who are able to quickly pin down the gaps in their understanding, seek out the resources they need to connect it to what they do know, and then assimilate that new skill or concept into their work.