October 29, 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.
East Tennessee State University
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
Northern Michigan University
University of Illinois
University of Maryland
University of Baltimore
University of California Merced
Lake Superior State University
Dr. Harvey Hoffman: Graduates need to be flexible and open to taking on new projects, exploring new industries, perhaps non-traditional areas where they see growth, while building and maintaining their networking relationships. Go where the demand is for the role you seek. I hate to use a cliche, but remember that your engineering career is a journey that may take you in many directions. Be open to change.
A professional in any field must continue to learn. Your engineering degree gave you the necessary tools. You must engage in lifelong learning to increase your knowledge and improve your skills and competencies to set yourself apart.
Dr. Harvey Hoffman: The significant fields in electrical engineering include electronics, microelectronics, signal processing, power, telecommunications, instrumentation, medical devices, imaging, automotive, Internet of Things, information technology, manufacturing, and transportation.
Electrical engineers are in a unique position to influence the climate change landscape, from solar power to creating small, inexpensive and efficient devices to light the world. Electrical engineers are exploring ways to convert energy from natural sources to the grid, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In every field, nanotechnology is being used for innovations. The universe of technology blending will continue to integrate engineering, science, and medicine. Bionic devices will become commonplace. Enormous challenges and opportunities exist. Disruptive fusion technologies will change business and society in unimaginable ways.
Dr. Harvey Hoffman: At least shortly, the pandemic will impact us all. Clear communication with our managers, co-workers, and clients will remain vital, especially as we may not be meeting with each other in person. Documenting project details, actions discussed, and following up to close the circle so to speak will go a long way to maintain clear communication. While this should have taken place before this pandemic, it is more important than ever, now. Being flexible, helping when needed, and being proactive when you see something that needs to be done will contribute to a better work environment.
Keeping abreast of new products and processes within the field and continuing to learn new technologies. This will allow workers more agility to change careers and transition into new roles or industries, if need be.
Department Of Physics
Dr. Heidrun Schmitzer: Programming languages, numerical design and simulation tools, knowledge of various measurement equipment.
Dr. Heidrun Schmitzer: Communication, teamwork.
Dr. Heidrun Schmitzer: Depends on the engineering career, but in general, an ability to know how to use design software, measurement/testing, and analysis equipment, in addition to prototyping and fabrication tools
Dr. Heidrun Schmitzer: Problem-solving, troubleshooting, independent learner.
East Tennessee State University
Surveying and Mapping
Jared Wilson: The information I have been provided is positive when the outlook is concerning the workload that is being performed by the professional industry. Land surveying, and subsequently, land surveyors, have been deemed essential; thus, work is still being performed. The profession, as a whole, is driven highly by the status of the economy, and in the current economic state, the current workload is in demand. Thus, graduates should be able to find gainful employment regardless of the impact COVID-19 has. As with all professions, adaptation is necessary, and the profession is adapting well.
Jared Wilson: Within the field of land surveying and related employment opportunities, work is available. However, in my experience, work may not be in the exact location a person wishes to live. So, a move may be necessary, or potentially traveling to where the work is located. Should a graduate, or person for that matter, want to work, work is available.
Jared Wilson: Technology is rapidly changing many professional fields, and land surveying is not immune from the change; however, it is not technology that makes the professional decisions necessary for the field; it is the individual. Technology is a tool, and as such, the correct tool needs to be selected for the task at hand. My opinion is that technology will drive the speed of data collection and analysis, but it has been and will be the professional who ultimately makes the final decisions.
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
College of Engineering
Dr. Sohrab Asgarpoor: The National Association of Colleges and Employers surveys the industry every year regarding the top skills they seek in new graduates. In 2020, the top five were Problem-solving skills (91.2%), Ability to work in a team (86.3%), Strong work ethic (80.4%), Analytical/quantitative skills (79.4%), and Communication skills (written) (77.5%) (Naceweb).
Although this data applies to all new graduates, this, too, aptly applies to students graduating from an engineering college. Employers realize students who graduate from an accredited engineering school are well-equipped with technical aptitude. What they need to showcase mainly are the soft skills they possess, like teamwork and problem-solving. Any remote work experience should also be highlighted, as that skill will continue to be pertinent for those entering industry.
Dr. Sohrab Asgarpoor: Fortunately, as a broad field, students in engineering can obtain positions across the United States. Furthermore, the possibility of remote work allows for even more flexibility than ever before.
Naturally, though, there are pockets of the industry that are tied to a geographical location. To illustrate, Minneapolis is a hub for biomedical engineering. Students in computer and software engineering may find work all over but are in particular demand in the Silicon Valley, naturally, but now also, the Silicon Prairie, with ample opportunities in Midwestern cities such as Omaha, Lincoln, and Kansas City.
Dr. Sohrab Asgarpoor: Adopting new technology should be an exciting (and expected) reality for those with an engineering degree. The virtual space will continue to grow as folks seek jobs and work online more. But what holds paramount, no matter what particular technological changes arise, is the ability to adapt-and to demonstrate that critical aptitude in their application documents and through their interviews, always highlighting those moments they've done so and articulating their propensity for learning.
Robert Rich: -Certification such as green belt, black-belt, machine learning, Lean Manufacturing, and APICS supply chain/inventory
-Specialized undergraduate research projects that go deep into various leading-edge topics like integrating AI with manufacturing and logistics
-Consulting experience/real projects within areas of undergraduate research
Robert Rich: Many industrial, logistics, and financial decisions require artificial intelligence solutions to remain competitive in the global marketplace.
Robert Rich: The coronavirus is part geopolitical and part-pandemic, sorry to say. As such, there will always be a geopolitical angle to gain control and wealth while terrorizing the general public.
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
Department of Physics and Optical Engineering
Dr. Galen Duree: People with knowledge, even introductory experience, in quantum effects, quantum computing, optics in general (communication, measurements, imaging, illumination, detection), material science and engineering, biotechnology, and nanotechnology, will be in high demand.
Dr. Galen Duree: It depends on what you are applying for. If you are working on product development, then internships or co-ops provide a definite advantage. If you are working on developing new ways of doing things, research experiences in academia or companies are advantageous. Either case, this shows a certain maturity in your career path - you have participated in an activity related to the career you are currently pursuing.
Dr. Galen Duree: It again depends on what the graduate sees as their next step - graduate school or a job with a company or lab. If the next step is graduate school, the graduate should investigate what they are interested in pursuing and then where the best school is to get the experience that the graduate thinks he or she wants.
General reading about technologies or reading available articles about subjects the graduate is interested in will help generate questions they can ask potential graduate schools. This time would also be a chance to improve areas where the graduate may feel weak while an undergraduate. Many online resources can help them brush up on week background topics. Do not worry about transfer credits because that is usually not helpful in graduate school, but improve knowledge and experience in areas where the graduate feels weak. If the graduate has identified a graduate school and program to study in, the graduate school might have some recommendations about what to review. All of this will help improve success in graduate school.
If the next step is a job with a company or lab, taking courses to improve communication will help. Many technically competent or even technically brilliant people struggle with effective communication. Techniques about writing reports, making oral presentations, or communicating technical information will help improve success. The gap year also provides time to investigate technologies that the graduate wants to be involved in and the companies or labs in those areas.
Once the graduate has identified areas of interest and companies or labs that the graduate might want to work for, they can be contacted to either answer questions or point the graduate in a direction for further investigation.
In either case, a gap year can provide a chance to refine the graduate's choice for the next steps and help them prepare other skills overlooked during the undergraduate years.
Michael Rudisill: It depends on what you really mean by enduring, but for all practical purposes, once the pandemic has passed, the economy will return, and anyone in the engineering field who wants a job will have many opportunities. Obviously, the short-term effect can be brutal for new graduates as jobs are not as plentiful as "usual"-but in the long term, those that persevere will end up in great careers. In some ways, it will be harder on the senior engineers who haven't stayed employed, as they are missing out on years when their income should be the highest. New graduates are missing relatively low earning years, so the long-term effects should not be as bad looking at lifetime earnings.
Michael Rudisill: There are spots for engineers almost anywhere in the US, but the "hottest" spots are always where there is manufacturing. Niches exist in many areas, but manufacturing from suppliers to companies that produce industrial and consumer products provide the majority of engineering positions.
Michael Rudisill: Technology will continue to advance-which will increase the need for trained engineers. Even areas such as sales that not many people would think would be looking for engineers when dealing with technologically advanced products need people who understand how the product works, perform, etc.-in other words-trained engineers.
Michael Rudisill: Patience will be a key - there will be many jobs available - we have been contacted by several employers looking for grads. Still, it certainly is not like we have seen historically. As the economy comes out of the COVID recession, engineering jobs will come back very quickly. By the spring graduation, I think we will be pretty close to back to a somewhat familiar employment picture.
Michael Rudisill: Impossible to pick a technology - but in general, renewable energies, electric cars; in that area, will undoubtedly continue to grow. And even with some public resistance, I think we will continue to see more expert systems, artificial intelligence systems, etc.; everywhere from self-driving cars to security systems.
Michael Rudisill: From what we've seen, salaries haven't been reduced, even though demand is down. I would expect wages and salary progression to remain strong as the need for engineering will only continue to grow.
Dr. Sridhar Santhanam Ph.D.: Well, thought out academic and extracurricular experiences can make a big difference to a resume. Academically, choosing a minor that complements the major can catch the eye of a prospective employer. Most mechanical engineering programs today offer students flexibility in constructing their curriculum; many students take advantage of this by adding a minor or a concentration. Internships during the summers or the academic year are another great way to stand out. Employers are always looking for someone with work experience in a professional setting. An internship experience, paid or unpaid, provides an excellent opportunity to learn many critical workplace skills, such as communication and professionalism. Yet another activity that future employers value highly is involvement in extracurricular clubs that engage in hands-on engineering projects such as the Formula SAE, AIAA Design/Build/Fly, and the MATE ROV.
Dr. Sridhar Santhanam Ph.D.: In a gap year, graduates could consider retooling themselves by acquiring advanced knowledge and skills. Graduate school provides a perfect avenue for this. Enrolling in a Masters's program that aligns with one's interests and aptitudes can be an excellent investment. Many graduate schools also offer shorter certificate programs targeted to specific sub-disciplines within mechanical engineerings, such as robotics, sustainable energy, or additive manufacturing. Certificates can be obtained in a calendar year, or less, and can significantly bolster one's resume in preparation for exploring the job market after the gap year. Several programs offer online graduate classes, thereby providing convenience and accessibility to students.
Dr. Sridhar Santhanam Ph.D.: Mechanical engineering is a vast and diverse field. There are several trends in technologies that are driving changes that will impact the short term. Automation is and will continue to be a significant force in many mechanical engineering industries. This is particularly true in manufacturing, where robots and digital manufacturing make substantial gains in productivity possible. Additive manufacturing will continue to transition from being a prototyping tool to an established manufacturing method for many critical products. The use of machine learning and artificial intelligence will become more prevalent in all sub-disciplines of mechanical engineering as engineers seek to take advantage of big data and sophisticated algorithms to optimize processes. Sustainability will be a dominant theme in the future and impact manufacturing, energy production, and modes of transportation.
Department of Arts and Sciences
John Ring: While our universities consistently educate engineering students with hard skills and strong engineering fundamentals, tomorrow's engineers need to be strong communicators, collaborators, and critical thinkers. Our professional environments are filled with data and information, and the constraint is typically how much time individuals can dedicate to solving a problem. At Elon University, we educate tomorrow's engineers to have the hard skills necessary to analyze the information and situations, apply critical thinking techniques to determine ways to solve the issue, and then concisely and efficiently communicate with colleagues as solutions are being set in motion.
John Ring: Our engineering graduates' geographic work opportunities are more a function of where the student chooses to live and work. A BS in Engineering requires an engineering graduate complete coursework in mechanical and electrical engineering topics and applying it in design courses. These fundamental skills cross over several industries, including biopharma, software engineering, aerospace/defense, civil, environmental, and chemical engineering. If one sector employs engineers, a BS Engineering preps the student with the necessary skills to gain entry.
John Ring: An engineering student learns "how to learn" during their time in college. Technology will evolve, and tomorrow's engineers must learn at the same pace so that new technology can be applied to solve a problem.
Bruce Flachsbart: Yes, I believe there will be an enduring change to the society that will exist after this pandemic:
-Wearing face coverings in public will be more accepted and continue, especially during flu season, and by those with health concerns.
-There will be less hand-shaking when people meet, especially in business settings. This cultural practice may eventually die out.
-Because of the above, I think the flu season will be milder in the future-we are becoming well trained on how to not spread a virus.
-I think in the future more virus tests will become available, and someday before entering an airplane or attending an expensive event, people will need to be tested. With speed and costs improvements there likely will be more applications of entrance virus testing.
Bruce Flachsbart: I am making better PPE (personal protective equipment like masks, gloves, face shields, etc.) either in improving the material or the comfort in wearing it. There always has been a competition in manufacturing between choosing automation or low wage workers, and I believe one unforeseen consequence with this pandemic may be less market reliance on low wage workers and a greater push toward domestic automation for manufacturing. I think one of the biggest opportunities is with new companies that have new ways to stop the spread of infections. Either with better ventilation systems or the new 222 nm UV lamps that can kill a virus without hurting people.
Rickey Caldwell Ph.D.: In terms of job opportunities, no. It may take longer to secure that first job, and it may be an employer's job market for the next several years. This means starting salaries may not be as high as a year ago, and yearly raises may be near zero up to 3% (depending on career fields and markets). Additionally, some benefits, such as tuition reimbursement, may not be available at some companies.
However, I strongly suspect that things will get better (as a wild guess) in 3 - 5 years as the economy rebounds. For the immediate future, the full economic effects of the pandemic have not been fully realized. As companies restructure to deal with their impact on their bottom lines and workers are laid-off, more experienced employees are entering the job marking and seeking jobs. This is very similar to the financial system crash around 2008, so that could be referenced for a similar environment, especially its effect on the Midwest. Job seekers must be persistent.
For enduring changes, the pandemic has presented a great opportunity to change the nature of where we do work. This experiment has been tried before at places like Yahoo, for example. Pre-pandemic, some companies allowed workers to work from home several times per month under flexible scheduling. I believe the coronavirus pandemic will make these types of work options a larger part of the business workplace culture. Additionally, many companies are actively working to enhance their diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. With this renewed attention, there may be more opportunities for workers that are women, BIPOC, LBGQT+, and others to rewrite and form new workplace norms to have new working environments. I strongly encourage people to take their seats at this table and create the world you wish to work in.
Rickey Caldwell Ph.D.: The engineering centers of the US seem to have strong job markets. Boston, West Coast, Silicon Prairie, DC area are just a few. There are employment opportunities in every industry and every state. It just may take 6 - 18 months to land that first job. Students may have to cast a bigger and wider search net. For example, if you only want to work in city A, it may take longer to find a job. A better strategy is to search regionally. For example, New England, Mid Atlantic, or the Southwest. Additionally, there are sectors that are always looking for new talent, such as energy production, food companies such as Unilever, and the civilian government work at federally funded research and development laboratories (FFRDC) and University Affiliated Research Centers (UARC) such as The MITRE Corporation and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.
Rickey Caldwell Ph.D.: Technology is always evolving. Machine learning, IOT, and cyber-physical systems are having and will continue to have an impact on areas such as nondestructive evaluation. As 5G comes online, these technologies will be more ubiquitous and impactful. Imagine an accelerometer on your refrigerator, sending you a text message that the compressor has an 80% chance of failing in the next 30 days. Or flying robots using optical measurement techniques, Bayesian statistics, and modal analysis to inspect bridges and then reporting their findings to local newspapers and government agencies. Or meta-materials created human-made materials with designer properties. Or energy harvesting to enhance battery charging technology. Much research and development is occurring in this and other needs and uses areas of engineering physics.
Craig Carignan: Yes, it will have an enduring impact on aerospace grads, especially those going into aeronautical engineering. The airline industry has been hit especially hard by the pandemic, and commercial aircraft manufacture has come to a screeching halt. That means not just the airplane manufacturers being affected but all of the hundreds of aircraft parts suppliers too. The other factor is that people are learning how to attend conferences and meetings virtually, through applications like Zoom and Teams, which also saves a lot of money on travel. So even when things do start returning to normal, I think that the demand for air travel will not return to the same levels as before.
Some long term impact may also be felt by the space industry. Even though there are quarantine precautions in place (before and after a flight), human space flight might be seen as riskier due to possible infection from viruses that may not show symptoms. So we might try to do more from the ground using robotics. Also, the density of workers in a lot of places in the aerospace industry is very high, and I would expect telecommuting to become more common.
Craig Carignan: My bet would be in remote sensing, automated delivery systems (e.g., quadcopters), and robotics. These fields were all doing well before the pandemic, and the current situation has just increased demand for these services. The telecommunications satellite industry is probably also going to be a strong area due to the heightened need for satellite TV and other communications services. I also think the automotive industry will be great for aerospace engineers because of their skills in vehicle design and development of autonomous technology.
Craig Carignan: I think sensing and automation are going to have a huge impact on the aerospace industry, in both manufacturing and operation. The sensing will enable the development of real-time automation (especially vision), and robotics can have a significant impact on increasing quality and productivity. And, as always, robots are only as good as the people who program them, so we need lots of engineering software know-how to go along with that!
Dr. Giovanni Vincenti: COVID-19 put into perspective the importance of technology for everyone. Those people who would typically work in fully staffed offices and took IT systems for granted have now realized how the lack of dedicated personnel and resources is a significant issue as everyone is working from home. The same realization has also reached upper-management, often creating a nearly immediate need for innovation that would have otherwise remained just a plan for the future. Graduates in the IT field and technology, in general, will benefit from this realization, as projects move from the planning stage into implementation and eventually maintenance. This increment in reliance on IT-related resources will create a greater need for employment.
Dr. Giovanni Vincenti: Cities that are typically associated with technology will probably remain hubs of innovation, especially if they have local administrations that are favorable towards entrepreneurship. However, the recent need for companies to leverage the ability to work remotely has opened up the possibilities of workers who may not otherwise be willing to relocate. This trend is probably here to stay for a while, so the ability of graduates to work with virtual collaborators will bring tech jobs to parts of the country that are not typically known for innovation. Even though there probably will not be clusters that will identify new equivalents of Silicon Valley out of nowhere, the fact that the reach of potential employees has extended beyond their geographical immediacy will create major opportunities for any location.
Dr. Giovanni Vincenti: Technology will take an ever more prominent role in any field over the next few years. However, it is important for companies to realize that someone who is somewhat familiar with IT probably will not have the same expertise as a trained technologist. Whether we are creating mobile applications, finding new ways to deliver physical products, or ways to facilitate the workflow when people are working remotely, technology will remain the unifying foundation across most fields and gain significant importance in the list of essential assets for operations continuity.
Ashlie Martini: The pandemic is and will continue to have a severe adverse effect on job opportunities for new graduates. Most companies have slowed or stopped hiring, and, even when positions are available, new graduates are competing with experienced engineers who are now in the job market. I have no way of predicting how long this will be the case, but it is certainly going to be a significant issue for the next year or two.
Ashlie Martini: I am assuming you are asking about the physical location in this question. If so, then I don't think there is some specific geographical location that is best for finding work opportunities. If anything, the pandemic has shown companies that remote work is a viable alternative to traditional in-person work. So, it is likely that location is now less important than it was before, at least for functions that can be carried out remotely.
Ben Ebenhack: I believe that the impact of the pandemic on the US economy is still unfolding and that we won't be able to see any kind of robust turnaround until vaccines are widely available and seen, in practice, to be effective. Until that time, I suspect that we'll continue to see a lot of volatility as investors speculate about recovery, reopening, etc., but the trends will probably vacillate.
Once the pandemic is clearly seen to be reasonably well-controlled, I think that there will be a good deal of pent-up demand for energy and its services. I expect to see a modest recovery in energy prices, but that may not translate to jobs for a few years. Ultimately, the world's need for energy will drive prices up, and there will probably be another boom. Everyone should remember that half of humanity (~3.5 billion people) lack access to modern energy, on which development depends. With global economic recovery, I would expect that to apply considerable upward pressure on energy (and related resource) demands for the next several decades. Alternative energy will continue to grow, but I don't think it can grow as fast as some optimists expect.
Ben Ebenhack: In general, there have been some continued employment opportunities in Texas and the Gulf (although that may be slacking off now too.) Some companies have pulled back from the shale plays (such as North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Ohio), but I think that the amount of long-term production potential will keep at least modest demand there.
Ben Ebenhack: Technology radically transformed American oil and gas production a little over ten years ago, by opening up the shale plays. That will continue to evolve and remain important in the medium term, I think. We may see some of the technological developments opening new opportunities in geothermal power production.
Libby Toping: It has definitely been a unique time to start my first job. COVID-19 has caused many of my peers to struggle to find a job, so I think it has caused me to recognize how thankful I am to have a job that I enjoy working and that allows me to improve my community, even in the midst of a pandemic. There are certainly struggles with virtual meetings and mask-wearing, but learning to be flexible and adaptable are skills that I think will make me a better engineer in the long run!
Andrea Welker Ph.D.: Be open to new experiences. Find a good mentor. Become a valued employee. Always remember that you are designing something for someone.
Andrea Welker Ph.D.: Virtual/augmented reality will play an increasingly important role in visualizing designs and interacting with them.
Andrea Welker Ph.D.: Travel will be significantly impacted for a long while. It will be fascinating to see if the pandemic slows or reverses the increasing urbanization we saw before. Medical devices and supplies may be on more of a fast track. Offices will be slow to repopulate. Do we need all of this office space if people can work at home effectively?
More immediately, we found that our graduates did fine with finding jobs, but many internships dried up. I hope that employers remember that in a few years when those students don’t have has many courses as students did in the past.
Lake Superior State University
Edoardo Sarda Ph.D.: Flexibility has become a key asset for new graduates, due to the current COVID19 pandemic. Fortunately, engineers are still in high demand. Even fresh graduates may need to seek opportunities and accept positions working in areas that were not exactly what they had in mind while in college. Besides, the pandemic has created a reality where specific industries are struggling while others are booming. That will undoubtedly impact the demand for new engineers. Lastly, since the United States took a non-uniform approach to fight the pandemic, where every state is independently deciding how to reopen, leading to some states being stricter than others, in addition to new epicenters forming in different areas of the country at different times, new grads may not necessarily end up in the geographical location they may have originally planned.
Edoardo Sarda Ph.D.: It's evident that social distancing regulations have already affected our way of life, including our work routine, and will continue to do so for the near future. This is only going to accelerate the growth of robotics and automation that we had already been experiencing in recent years. A human working closely with a robot is still tolerated, while multiple humans being close to each other is becoming less acceptable. Besides, robots are not affected by any sort of virus, including COVID19 (the exception being computer viruses, of course). This tells me that the trend towards human-robot collaboration will become more dominant as the regulations for social distancing become stricter in the industry. Mobile robots represent another technology that may gain popularity, due to the pandemic. Applications that require non-stationary, autonomous systems, such as disinfecting facilities, greeting people, serving customers, and others, will benefit from using mobile robots.
Edoardo Sarda Ph.D.: The short answer is yes, and there will be. I believe the pandemic is going to have an enduring impact on everyone, not just new graduates. If we look at the way we have been teaching for the last few months and how we, as educators, will be preparing for the forthcoming future, we can already see a significant change: from face-to-face to online and hybrid methods, and there is still more to come. This will have an impact on our students' education and, thus, on the way we prepare them to enter the workforce. At the same time, companies are trying to adapt to this new reality by changing who had conducted work for the last few years. It's evident that both of these factors, including students' education and a new reality within the industry, have been forced upon us by the coronavirus pandemic. They are going to have an enduring impact on graduates. When we say we cannot wait to get back to normal, we cannot wait to identify what the new normal will be like.