October 12, 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.
University of Utah
Old Dominion University
University of Central Florida
Michigan Technological University
University of Mississippi
University of Mississippi
Kennesaw State University
University of Louisville
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
University of Utah
University of California, Davis
Wright State University
University of Utah
Electrical and Computer Engineering Department
Florian Solzbacher: Examples of having applied the knowledge gained in their studies to practical examples of solving engineering problems that require the combination of skills and at least some understanding of system engineering aspects are important signals that graduating engineers are ready to be productive in a real-world setting are always important. Obviously, participating in projects that address current "hot topic" problems, e.g., in robotics, AI/machine learning, power systems, biomedical applications, or that resonate with specific problems an employer is currently working on, will raise a student's profile.
Supplemental skills, such as Entrepreneurial or business training, can enhance and differentiate a student's resume. This shows that an engineer is not solely focused on the core technical engineering skills but does have an understanding of the driving forces and their interaction in a real-world business setting, that are not only part of the design requirements for a product (e.g., design to cost), but also often drive the selection of technical solution paths, after all, every development and product has to make business sense. Imagine two young engineers proposing a solution to their manager for a new product: one maybe even over-exceeds the technical requirements, but the development and/or manufacturing and servicing effort and cost is significantly higher than a colleagues solution that may only just about reach the requirements, or maybe even compromise on some specifications, but that is far cheaper to develop, make and service and that may allow entering a far larger market- chances are very high that the business may decide to go for the "inferior" solution from a technical point of view, that is, however, the better product. This supplemental skill set is a significant competitive advantage to have as an engineer.
Florian Solzbacher: Engineering is about teamwork. All major quantum leaps and most products require extensive system engineering and diverse skills. Engineers need to be able to understand the languages and workflows not only across engineering disciplines but also ranging into business, legal and ethical aspects of their work. This includes communication and project management skills.
Florian Solzbacher: First of all, the fundamentals (mostly math, physics, materials/chemistry) and basic EE/CE concepts need to be solid. As stated above: the ability to solve real-world development and system integration problems that require "global optimization" of technical performance as opposed to local optimization of specific sub-systems or components is really critical.
Beyond that, given the accelerating breadth of specializations and sub-areas, it is important that students have sufficient depth and breadth of knowledge in the specific area they are targeting. It is important that schools are offering tracks and guidance as to what skills are needed to allow students to successfully master engineering tasks across a range of sub-areas. We have to recognize that in the context of a 4-year program, it is no longer possible to train a student in all areas of ECE - a combined BS/MS degree or MS/Ph.D. degree obviously provides more runway to add breadth.
Florian Solzbacher: The ability to solve problems efficiently and effectively (i.e., fast and cost-effective) really is critical to companies: every month delay in completion delays revenue and income, which may even dwarf the additional engineering cost. Significantly increased development cost also raises the cost of the product, impacting margins. Developments that come with significant after-sales service and support costs also have to be considered.
From experience, there are, of course, "expert tracks" in many companies that allow an engineer to reach very high compensation levels because they are one of a few who solve specific complicated problems. In some cases, this can go all the way to below board level. In most cases, however, management skills (personnel, projects, budgets) lead to tracks that eventually increase management of engineering activities and decrease the active engineering. In recent years, more and more high-tech companies have moved to have engineers lead the entire business as CEO.
Starting your own business is another path to high incomes, but associated with significant risks, and initially possibly much lower income than a job at an established company.
Interpersonal skills - which do not often come easy to engineers who tend to be focused on solving technical problems - must also never be underestimated because so much in solving real-world problems requires communication and balancing competing needs and resources. And we all stand and fall with the team and the people that make up the team. Long term, an engineering leader who is able to coalesce a strong team around a target objective and motivate his team and who is able to mediate inter-team challenges tends to be far more successful than managers who ignore those aspects.
Michel Audette Ph.D.: My take on this is what I've seen with my wife's work in industry, which suggests that the industrial landscape is going to be increasingly equipped for, and open to, remote work. I think that the implication for graduates is that they may need to be flexible about working within a geographically distributed team. If company deciders feel that someone is worth employing because of a unique skill set, then they would typically be more willing to hire that person even if unable to make it to work regularly, if that is feasible given the nature of the work; some work, such as hardware testing or industrial production, may not lend itself to remote contributions.
Nonetheless, for those areas that accommodate geographically distributed activity, such as software development, graduates can expect to interact with team members all over the US, possibly all over the world, if someone is deemed unique enough to hire despite living abroad. This places a high premium on the ability and willingness to work in a heterogeneous team, where not only will members look different, but also have myriad accents in their English, which will also impose a certain adaptability and tolerance to team members.
A related impact could also be that global hiring will make it easier for multi-national companies to hire a portion of their talent in countries where wages are lower and motivate US-based engineers to seek out graduate degrees in order to increase their competitiveness and employability at US salaries.
Michel Audette Ph.D.: One skill that is timeless is the ability to communicate effectively, such as taking a complex design process and distilling it into intuitive slides or reports that lend themselves for senior managers to process in order to come to a decision. An engineer who has that ability will always have some tools in his/her toolbox that makes that individual attractive to a company and to the local technical ecosystem, thus a ripe target for headhunters who willing to champion them to companies looking for top talent. Moreover, speaking and writing well also comes with a vital component of diplomacy, especially in the context of increasingly distributed company workforce: the ability not just to get on with colleagues from different parts of the world, increasingly heterogeneous in terms of gender and possibly sexual preference, but embrace them for who they are. This is often maps to opportunities to travel, as some collaborations lead to meetings face to face, post-covid.
This embrace of heterogeneity is even more relevant in that technical problems being solved are increasingly multi-disciplinary, so that an engineer may need to interact with biologists, physicians, clothing or furniture designers, mathematicians, lawyers, and so on: in my own case, I have to wear a multitude of different hats, while recognizing someone who is a perfect fit for one of those hats when I meet that individual, and making the most of that opportunity to build a truly competent team. Engineers must be able to hold a meaningful, respectful conversation with any of these counterparts, not just discuss code or circuit design. I would advocate that they spend time reading, to maintain their vocabulary and stay abreast of the world around them.
Another one that I advocate is the ability to tap into a revolution that has occurred in parallel with the advent of Internet and cellular technologies, these past 30+ years: the explosion of open-source software tools. I am a committed proponent of open source, as a former contributor to them while previously employed at Kitware (a pioneer in this area, behind VTK, ITK, CMake, and myriad others). I see job ads in Indeed.com that specifically ask for the ability to work with these tools, since they save work and make it possible to produce a prototype in much less time than developing it completely in-house. This ability does not just presuppose the ability to program at a competent level, but other abilities: the ability to track bugs that not be in the calling program, but in the open-source software library itself, the willingness to get answers in the community of developers, the eye for details that extends to graphical processor units that result in accelerations an order of magnitude or better, and so on. These go way beyond writing a self-contained algorithm. Hardware designers may also have similar tools, based on broad standards, Arduino, and the prevalence of 3D printers that make it possible to physically replicate digital models.
Finally, a vital skill is the willingness and ability to keep learning, while embracing revolutions that take place at breathtaking pace. The latest one is the reliance on deep neural networks (DNNs) to synthesize algorithms that can learn and adapt to their data, with much faster performances than feasible with the previous algorithms that DNNs have replaced. The point to make here is not to embrace neural networks in a proximal sense, but that we cannot anticipate what will come next, downstream of DNNs. Graduates of 2021 have to be willing to keep their curiosity and work ethic enough to be responsive to the next wave of technologies, and embrace them for the opportunities that they represent.
Michel Audette Ph.D.: I am not in Human Resources, so I cannot speak from that perspective, but I suspect that a resume that can describe in a few words not only some meaningful projects undertaken by the engineer, but through a few well-crafted sentences, convey that this engineer has an important role in a design project and possesses real expertise rather than just the ability to insert buzzwords in a sentence. I once heard Elon Musk say in describing who he hired for Tesla, that a true expert can describe a problem at several scales; I like that definition. It takes more than buzzword-level expertise to do that.
I also believe that employers are looking for certain industry-standard tools, such as GIT software revision control or MS TEAMs, as well as relevant open-source tools that relate to that specific area of the company in question. I am convinced that they also value any leadership qualities that they can ascertain from a resume, where a candidate makes the case for having a formative impact on the outcome of a project. Not a blowhard, made-for-TV, hierarchical take on leadership, but the ability to take a high-level view of the state of a project, parse it in terms of what the bottlenecks or pitfalls are, find a technical solution collegially, as well as rally and motivate collaborators to see those critical areas through.
University of Central Florida
Department of ECE
Maria Jacob: Well, this is a somewhat difficult question, since it's hard to predict what is going to happen.
Given the current research, everything seems to indicate that even with the vaccine, we won't be able to come back to what we were used to for a long time.
This will mean, work and classes from home for some time. Although I see and enjoy some of the advantages of staying at home (that go from clothing to saving money on gas), I feel we are losing some of the human contact we were used to. Of course, we have software like Zoom or Meet that helps us to communicate with others, but this virtuality is just simply different. For example, some students do just fine, and others can't deal with the fact that they have to write their questions over a chat. More than that, some students have family making everything more difficult.
There are other aspects that also impact the knowledge the new graduates have at the time of start working. For example, we as professors also have to take into account that we are living special circumstances and that some students may find this new system more difficult. Then, sometimes is easy to overcompensate and be more lenient with some things. If we are not careful this could lead to students graduating having less knowledge in some topics, where students pass a class not knowing certain topics that they should.
Maria Jacob: I feel that the skills needed will not change to what is currently required; however, it may well happen that some of the graduates don't have them. For example, good communications skills. It may happen that the graduates have good written skills but not verbal, since more and more we send emails than calling someone. I know, I sound like an old person, which is funny because I'm writing this...
Maria Jacob: Well, this is a too general question to answer. It totally depends on which job you are applying. Is the graduate going to the industry or research? Is the job for testing, designing, coding? What will stand out will depend on this.
However, if I really have to choose one, I always thought that one of the most important things you can learn is to work in a multidisciplinary group. Then, if before graduation a student can have an internship either in the industry or in research that will definitely stand out.
Eric Miller Ph.D.: I believe that there may well be some long term impact. Hopefully not in terms of health, but perhaps in terms of the way we work. It is possible, if not likely, that remote work and education will not be going away any time soon. How they evolve over the coming years depends on a variety of factors including the extent to which technology provides the "being there" feeling that is currently absent or at least rather attenuated when using products like Zoom, WebEx or Teams.
Eric Miller Ph.D.: Collaboration and communication. The most pressing problems being addressed by engineers all have critical, non-technical components. The impact of possible solutions on people or the environment, the ethical implications of new and evolving technologies, the tradeoffs of investing in one area rather than another; all of these and related issues are increasingly integral to the engineering process. As such, it is critical for new graduates to be able to work not just well, but truly productively with people from all sorts of backgrounds and in all different fields. Central to this effort is an ability to communicate technical issues clearly and concisely to highly intelligent people whose skills may be in very non-technical areas such as law, public policy, media, and the like.
Eric Miller Ph.D.: Having been an academic my entire career, I am perhaps not the best person to be answering this question. Certainly, when looking for prospective graduate students, I like to see a resume with one or two long-term research projects culminating in some sort of archival publication. To me this type of record indicates the ability to look deeply into a problem over an extended period of time which is the type of dedication one needs for research. Though not on a resume per se, strong letters of reference are important as are grades in those undergraduate and upper-level classes most aligned with a student's intellectual interests. Finally, I really want to see strong writing skills. Something like a paper that could get into a decent academic conference is good. Something closer to a journal article is much better. I am looking for the ability to write a clear and coherent introduction, strong discussion and exposition of the underlying problem and proposed solution, a description of the experiments, and analysis of results.
Joshua Pearce Ph.D: I think the virtualization of work and automation, in general, has been accelerated by the pandemic. This means that the competition for what most of us consider 'normal' jobs will become fiercer, and the skills a graduate needs to get those jobs are becoming more sophisticated. Graduates need to work at home, and a lot of it relies on the advanced use of computing (think AI, CV, etc., not merely staring at a screen for entertainment).
This also means graduates are competing against a global workforce - hungry people willing to work hard. Overall, we have also seen a massive shift in wealth in the last year, the undereducated are now in real trouble, and the hyper-educated and wealthy are better off than ever before. Graduates will want to make sure they stay in the latter group, bolstering their education and picking up advanced skills. This does not have to be a chore - one of the best ways to do this is to dive into an open-source project and maybe save/make a little money along the way.
Joshua Pearce Ph.D: The trends were already present before COVID - but they have been accelerated: graduates need to work remotely and function in virtual teams on large complex projects. Many jobs have been virtualized, and recruiters are targeting talent with proven abilities. Many graduates received a crash course in large-scale cooperation with massive open-source development projects like the thousands of engineers that joined Helpful Engineering to combat COVID. They worked on everything from designing PPE that overran the NIHs 3D printing Exchange to complicated electronics for open-source ventilators.
Joshua Pearce Ph.D: There has been an ongoing trend of employers wanting to see students' work before interviewing or making a job offer. One of the best ways for graduates to stand out is to have made a significant contribution to an open-source project. Your resume then starts to look more like a portfolio than just a list of positions or skills. This is already mature in the computer and software industries, but now we see it in hardware. For example, in manufacturing industries, employers want to see your CAD work - what open-source designs have you shared on sites like YouMagine and MyMiniFactory?
Dr. John Daigle Ph.D.: Starting with automatic speech recognition and leading to biometrics in identifications/verifications of people and self-driving autonomous vehicles in the near future, artificial intelligence/machine learning continues to play a big role in the development of our society and our thinking with respect to ethics and safety. Additionally, wireless access to information and entertainment and connectivity for data-intensive applications in IoT and industrial IoT would skyrocket with emerging 5G and future technologies. Tomorrow's electrical engineers would work in interdisciplinary teams that would increasingly involve mechanical and biomedical engineers and computer scientists.
Dr. Ramanarayanan "Vish" Viswanathan Ph.D.: All graduates need to 1) have a broad understanding of electrical engineering and have programming skills, 2) be able to work collaboratively, and 3) effectively communicate with co-workers, both orally and through writing. Additionally, depending upon the nature of the job, some would need effective communication skills to interface with external stakeholders, and some would need strong foundations on theory and applications of electrical engineering, including networking of computers and devices.
Dr. Ramanarayanan "Vish" Viswanathan Ph.D.: In general, the whole of the United States has a variety of jobs for graduating electrical engineers. Some of our graduates have landed jobs with companies in the Western part of the US, and many have obtained jobs in companies in and around Mississippi, including those in Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, and Michigan, to name a few.
Hai Ho Ph.D.: I believe the impact is short term, and once vaccines are effective and available, our graduates will have expected graduation and access to a responsive job market.
Hai Ho Ph.D.: For computer engineers, most sectors still have a very healthy demand, because this type of engineer is so versatile and critical in any systems or products involving electronics and sensors. The Southeast region, such as companies in metro Atlanta, hired many of our spring graduates during the pandemic.
Hai Ho Ph.D.: We are heading into the so-called fourth industrial revolution with blossoming technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, mixed reality, etc. Therefore, this field will experience tremendous growth and opportunities.
Cindy Harnett Ph.D.: I had an EE student who was an essential worker because he worked part-time at the power company. The power systems field is going to stay in demand. He had multiple jobs to choose from at graduation.
We also do a lot of device simulations and draw up circuit layouts in software. That's great for remote work, something students are likely to be thinking about now.
For students who are more hardware-oriented, prospects for remote work are still pretty good, thanks to miniaturization and low cost of setting up a workbench. My embedded systems students were able to carry on with remote coursework by taking small circuit boards home.
In 2020 when we can't go into the office, EEs can still be productive working from home.
We do seek grad students to work in research labs and we'll pay their tuition, salary, and health insurance.
Going to grad school means doing cutting-edge research and writing papers. It's exciting but it also means looking for a job in a few years.
It's too soon for me to spot a 2020 trend yet, but in recent years they've largely gone with their co-op employers right out of the master's degree program.
Robert Saunders P.E.: The job market for an electrical engineering student coming out of college is challenging right now. Many companies are still hiring electrical engineering students but, the students can't be as finicky about what jobs they are accepting. More than half of the students are starting their new jobs working remotely, which is a large shift from normal but the companies seem to be using this time to bring the new hires up to speed on policy, procedures, and industry regulations.
Robert Saunders P.E.: Project management and/or leadership training, either at the university they graduated from, or a good online source. Either or both of these would demonstrate the proactive attitude of the student. And get involved in something; community service groups, design a project, anything that shows you are pushing forward professionally and personally, not just sitting at home.
Dr. Angela Rasmussen: Hone your skills by taking online classes, or consider getting something such as the University of Utah Electrical and Computer Engineering Online Master's Degree which can increase your overall income, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, by approximately $20,000 in comparison to just having a Bachelor of Science degree. Our department has removed many barriers and streamlined our admittance process for this upcoming Fall 2020 semester.
Another skill to expand is programming. Consider learning a new programming language to build on your current skills. Also, look at different job opportunities and choose a skill that you are lacking to improve upon.
Dr. Angela Rasmussen: Unfortunately, I think that all careers will be impacted one way or another by the coronavirus pandemic. Hopefully, the positive impacts will be transformative and the negative impacts can be used as learning experiences. I personally look forward to seeing the positive impacts that come out of this for those of us in Electrical Engineering careers.
Dr. Angela Rasmussen: Take heart that while Electrical Engineering jobs have been impacted by COVID19, it's impact is minimal in comparison to most other areas. While many areas have been hit hard by layoffs, Electrical Engineering has only slightly been affected in comparison. Many companies have declared hiring freezes and many others are still hiring. Therefore, don't get discouraged. There are Electrical Engineerings jobs needing to be filled! Make sure to be professional in all your interactions and work on improving your online presence.
Andre Knoesen Ph.D.: Graduates need to be flexible, and open to apply their basic skill set in new areas, and seek out new opportunities. Given the current situation with COVID, such opportunities may require relocation to other states or countries. Entering the workforce as soon as possible allows new electrical engineers to establish themselves as professional engineers while also contributing to economic recovery.
Andre Knoesen Ph.D.: The gap year is an excellent period to expand soft skills (e.g., communication, critical thinking, creativity, writing, and exposure to other cultures) that are essential for new engineers. Basic engineering talents could be maintained by volunteering time in K-12 schools, such as assisting in distance learning efforts.
Andre Knoesen Ph.D.: As an educator of electric engineers, I am optimistic that the core skillsets we provide our students will continue to be essential for the immediate future, albeit that demands by industry maybe different. One positive aspect is that new engineers have gained practical experience working in virtual environments, a trend that had become commonplace in industry before the pandemic. Effectively operating such virtual collaborative team environments will be expected from new engineers.
Fred Garber Ph.D.: I think the primary question, in the minds of those who are yet to graduate or are still searching, is in regard to the strength of the technical job market, especially the local job market. But you are in a position to definitively answer that question.
In you article, I would ask that you address the following:
Number of employers looking to fill and number of job offerings in the region (by engineering and computer science major) compared to last year and to the previous five years.
Any noticeable differences in job descriptions Zippia is receiving relative to work environment, benefits, starting salaries, etc.
Many of our soon-to-graduate students would be very interested in these quantitative and qualitative comparisons. Additionally, vast numbers of potential students would benefit from such information to guide their career choices.
Fred Garber Ph.D.: I would advise them to look at a certificate program or certifications employers are highlighting, and move in that direction with either additional coursework or training - unless, they are certain that additional coursework or certification training will be underwritten by their employer.
Fred Garber Ph.D.: Many of our EE grads had jobs in place before March. Some of these have been put on hold, especially some that require relocating.