January 26, 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.
California State Polytechnic University - Pomona
Chemical and Materials Engineering
Jonathan Puthoff: I predict a reconsideration of what "attendance" means in a workplace. Knowledge workers have always had some leeway to work from home, but workplaces that have found near-universal remote collaboration congenial may consciously move toward that model. Workers who are afforded more options to work from home should consider carefully the level of support that their employer provides for doing this and should be prepared to negotiate over the exact terms.
Jonathan Puthoff: Collaboration and communication skills. I also think that students should graduate knowing at least one field-specific software design tool or package, as well as some evidence that they can learn more on the job. Finally, workplaces are more diverse in terms of the generations, ethnicities, and genders represented than they have been at any time in the past, so students who have a wide variety of out-of-classroom experiences (and presumably make more considerate colleagues) could do well to highlight those.
Jonathan Puthoff: I always encourage students to look as far afield as their personal circumstances and skill set can accommodate. Geography is a relatively minor constraint in a world with well-developed travel and telework options. I also anticipate that early- and mid-career relocation will be an option or requirement at some point for most tech workers. For these reasons, I think that associating particular opportunities with particular regions might not be a good strategy in an entry-level job search. Graduates should rather identify opportunities and ask "Can I see myself working in this region for the opening years of my career?", understanding that the location will likely change depending on factors both internal and external to their employer.
Diran Apelian: All of humanity has been impacted by the pandemic - every age, race, and country. For our graduates, it will be a "story" that they will pass on to the next generation someday. Each story will be different, but one theme will be common to all of them: that they learned to be agile, resilient, enterprising, and active learners. There is always a silver lining, and the confidence that they now have in being comfortable with the uncomfortable throughout life is perhaps the greatest and most beneficial impact.
Diran Apelian: Talent will be the most in-demand asset in the 21st century. It is not about capitalism or socialism - the 21st century is all about "talentism".
Those graduates who will succeed and lead will have:
an understanding of the human dimension;
the ability to harvest the data revolution;
skills in line with the Industry 4.0 pathways; and
commercial and business acumen.
Diran Apelian: Graduates who have never had industry experience are at a disadvantage. Those who stand out have taken risks and have exposed themselves to various engineering venues through summer jobs and various internships. Theory and practice stands out.
Lorenzo Valdevit Ph.D.: As a practical example, the entire capstone design experience has been heavily compromised, as partial or total lab closures due to social distancing guidelines have made the usual design-fabricate-test-optimize model impossible to implement. Students have to think on their feet and restructure their process flow, to put more emphasis on numerical modeling and digital twinning, and to reassess how they break themselves in sub-teams. While this is inconvenient, stressful, and ,perhaps, unpleasant compared to how a traditional capstone design activity could be, the teams who pull it off will demonstrat a level of mental agility invaluable in their future professional life.
Lorenzo Valdevit Ph.D.: As the pandemic has made it harder for students to secure these invaluable internships and other industrial experience, we expect the gap between the most marketable students (those who succeeded in securing these experiences against all odds) and everyone else to grow even deeper this hiring season.
Dr. Atul Rai Ph.D.: The enduring impact of this pandemic on graduates will be directly related to how this pandemic has affected the society at large.
Any cataclysmic event like this tests the resilience of societies to the limit. These events highlight the best and the worst of the society that we live in. Like Spanish Flu more than one hundred years ago, we can learn from this crisis. For example, a lack of the public health facilities in 1918, at the time Spanish flu pandemic spread, led to a significant improvement in public health in subsequent decades. Similarly, coronavirus has highlighted that our society suffers from great inequalities. The differential impact of this pandemic shows that our society has big economic, racial, and digital divides. Because of these inequalities, some members of the society have been minimally affected, while others have paid a much greater cost. The coronavirus pandemic focuses spotlight on these issues. I hope that in subsequent years, we, as a society, will spend our energies on solving these problems.
Our graduates will experience at a personal level what is happening at the society level. Most of our graduates today were young kids when the Great Recession impacted their parents' jobs. Some were too young when 9/11 happened nineteen years ago. The coronavirus pandemic is the first big crisis many of them have faced as adults. They will see the issues mentioned earlier in their own jobs, families, and friends. It will change the way they look at the world. They will be more motivated to be a part of the solution to the problems they see in the society. They will be more socially active and realize that people must work together. They will be more proactive to make changes in the world we live in, whether to improve economic, social, and racial justice or to deal with climate change. For employers, this means that to retain a talented workforce they will have to align their actions more towards what benefits the society than just shareholders.
Dr. Atul Rai Ph.D.: The work environment has changed drastically over the past three decades due to the faster pace of innovation and shorter product lifecycles. This has a direct impact on what young graduates need to succeed in the future. The primary skill needed is the ability to learn quickly. The skills that a graduate acquires in college will become obsolete in a few years, so they should not count on those skills as a means for financial security for life. In this environment, flexibility is the key to success: flexibility to learn new skills, flexibility to work in a new and different business environment, and flexibility to work with others. We face very complex problems, and to solve these problems, we need teams rather than individuals to solve them. This highlights the importance of critical thinking, multi-disciplinary vision, and communication skills.
Dr. Atul Rai Ph.D.: Employers are looking for people who can integrate in multi-disciplinary environments to solve complex problems. They are looking for resumes that show quick learning. Such resumes will permanently be in great demand. Because the world is interconnected much more than it ever was, employees today will deal with customers, supply-chains, and fellow employees who are spread all over the world. It means that an experience that showcases the global perspective will be in demand over the long-term.
Dr. Kamran Abedini: For those graduating this academic year, and maybe next, students are almost in the same category as others who graduated in the years before. They have had their hands-on experiences in labs, and the senior-level courses were more theoretical and model analysis, and it should have been the same to them, whether virtual or in person. As such, the industry expectation should be about the same. However, since the pandemic, many have decided to work virtually; the industry will focus on those who are self-motivated and can work alone or with online interactions. This means less supervision, possibly less mentoring for new engineers, and still the same expectations. Recruiters could possibly focus more on the psychological state of the interviewees for jobs than before.
Virtual manufacturing and Industry 4.0 is becoming a reality. Virtual offices for engineers will become norms in the future, and as such, universities should also try to participate in training engineers who are expected to interact online. This means familiarity with communication software, such as Zoom and others, that connects designers, engineers, and management for an entire working day. As computers took the place of common tools of engineers, such as slide rules, virtual 3D tools will be developed to test the quality of manufactured products at the virtual manufacturing plants. Thus, better perception and visual Imagineering are needed for engineers, in addition to their intelligence. In other words, cognitive skills should be more developed in engineering schools and should be more on wisdom and decision making virtually (the same as when an airplane pilot has to learn new skills if he/she is asked to control a flying drone remotely). Productivity standards will be set for virtual work as it was done for manual and office workers in the past.
Dr. Kamran Abedini: First of all, I do not recommend a gap year or any interruptions in education as it could require additional warm-up and setup for starting it again in the future. However, if they "need" to do so, I recommend they at least take one course so that they understand the trend and the expectations of students in an educational environment. For example, in the last couple of semesters, both faculty and students have learned and experienced new methods of virtual learning and assessment. If you just plan on coming to school after a few semesters, you would be highly surprised by the changes, taking you much time to prepare, and it would cause falling behind your coursework.
Dr. Kamran Abedini: Larger corporations might have more mentors and give you more time to get familiar with the processes; however, smaller ones need your undivided attention from day one to prove your worth. Both have their own advantages. Learn why you are being hired and work toward satisfying that purpose. Graduates need to be tech-savvy and know how to work remotely. This means a formal work setting at home or taking advantage of remote offices, recently becoming popular for those who want to get out of their homes to feel they are in a working environment. Furthermore, they need to spend more time thinking and taking advantage of cognitive skills as artificial intelligence can substitute natural intelligence, but still, pattern recognition and feeling interpretation is still made by humans. Engineers are tasked to imagine and make a better world. That is what they should wake up thinking every day.
Jerry Leth: We are the Manufacturers' Agents National Association, a trade association of independent manufacturers' representative businesses. We will address this question from that perspective.
To a recent college graduate, a question I pose is, "Am I going to be happier and more satisfied working for someone? Or would I be more satisfied if I embarked on a path that leads me to own my own business?"
If the answer is owning your own business, consider looking for employment as an outside salesperson for an existing manufacturers' representative business. Our average member employs six outside salespersons, and the largest employs 160. Starting out as an employee provides an opportunity to learn about the business while earning an income. When you are ready, many manufacturers' representative firms offer ownership opportunities to employees, or you may choose to move on and start your own business. Either way, you achieve your goal of owning and running your own business.
Jerry Leth: The current Covid-19 pandemic saw a huge surge in virtual meeting platforms. Your purpose as a salesperson needs to be to help your customers solve the problems they face, not to get orders. If they sense you want to help them rather than get them to buy something, they trust you and end up buying from you. Prior to Covid, salespeople created and maintained high-trust customer relationships through face-to-face meetings. That is not possible under the current environment, and salespeople rely more on connecting through LinkedIn and growing customer relationships through virtual meeting platforms. Following the pandemic, while face-to-face meetings return, the virtual meetings will continue to gain importance and relevance.