February 19, 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.
Rob Hayes: A larger migration to STEM fields to strengthen job security under uncertain or upset events (and the higher probability to be able to work from home). Basically improving the standard of living for our fellow citizenry in a sustainable way is always going to be in high demand. Everybody always wants the best engineers, nurses, doctors etc. for whatever they are tasked on.
Rob Hayes: Each discipline will have their own specificities which are characteristic of the degree title required (e.g., dental, electrical, mechanical, etc.) but they all prefer someone with experience. Basically, they assess each candidate by how much money the candidate can make them in terms of how long will they have to wait for them to be productive, how productive they will be and how long they will be productive (yes, it is a profit driver in the end). This has elements such as them being able to also be a team player or do projects alone as the taskings may require various flexibilities to make whatever product they sell to their customer (even in consulting). In STEM this is largely assessed by historical accomplishments (grades, awards, volunteer activities etc.) as your past performance is almost always the primary indicator that will be used to predict your future performance.
Rob Hayes: Yes, they are continually growing, each year. A very highly performing newly minted PhD can make 6 figures, a highly accomplished nuclear engineer who gets a BSNE and then somewhat later in their career is able to get certified as a health physicist can also make 6 figures. These numbers are regularly growing as nuclear engineering is a very demanding technical discipline, partly due to exceedingly high expectations from academia but also from regulators and industry.
Pennsylvania State University
Nuclear Engineering Department
Erin Blumsack: I think there will be a shift in how employees are expected to start their jobs. Obviously, many new hires may be starting remotely if their companies can operate with remote workers. Over time, I expect that there will be a shift in employer flexibility regarding how their employees complete their jobs. I think that a lot of companies were hesitant to let employees work from home before the pandemic due to concerns about productivity, interactions, and lack of oversight. Since the world was forced to let people who could do so work from home, many of the fears that employers had were unfounded. Obviously, not all jobs can be fully remote and some cannot even be partially remote, but if part of an employee's job can be done remotely, then employers can start to offer more flexibility for things like child care and sick time. It will be interesting to see if some employers will stop relocating employees if they aren't required to be in the office.
Erin Blumsack: I would hope that a gap year, especially after the turmoil of the past year, would be used to take a break and disconnect! However, if an engineering graduate has a goal in mind after the gap like getting a job or going to graduate school, that goal should inform where they focus their effort. If an engineering graduate wants to get a job, I would suggest researching thoroughly the industry or industries they might want to join and finding out what gaps exist in those industries. Trade publications, corporate websites, and career services at their alma mater can help with this. And I would suggest that they keep in mind that it is often more valuable to find out what you don't like than what you do. Don't have a fixed idea of what things will look like when you get a job because flexibility leads to opportunities.
For engineers, soft skills and multidisciplinary and innovative thinking are increasingly important to employers. Taking some online classes (if one has the means) in areas where you may feel you need improvement. Or if there's something missing from your resume, think about how you will address that when you eventually interview: take steps to either fill the gap or have a plan to do so once you start work. If an engineering students wants to go to graduate school, I would use the gap year making connections at institutions where you might want to apply. Having a connection with a faculty member can both better inform your graduate school decision and give you good information about what you need to do to get in. Many graduate schools are waiving fees and/or testing requirements due to the pandemic, so this may not be a good year to take a gap since it may be less arduous to fulfill entrance requirements this year.
Erin Blumsack: Have an open mind: you will be surprised at what your career ends up looking like versus what you expected it to look like. Step outside your comfort zone as much as you can. Take on things that are outside your normal interests. Try not to box yourself in to one thing. Even if your goal is to become a subject matter expert, make sure you pay attention to things outside your area of expertise. Cultivate relationships with people in and out of work. Be on the lookout for gaps in your institution's skill sets. If there is one person who does a certain thing and they are going to be retiring in a decade, ask them to mentor you. Pay attention to things you do not enjoy in your job to inform your future decisions. If your relationship with your employer is not symbiotic, look for another job.
Pavel Tsvetkov Ph.D.: This past year has been complicated. However, at the same time, it has been a good year for nuclear engineering graduates. On the one hand, we have lockdowns and quarantine impacting companies and slowing down hires. On the other hand, we have many activities going on in the area of advanced reactors with many new companies emerging. Because of the expanding research range, national labs and federal agencies are also hiring. And this is in addition to normal hiring processes at nuclear power plants and industries related to operating nuclear power plants. As a result, the hiring process has been complicated and on a case-by-case basis, but the number of opportunities has increased. In summary, complicated but a lot of options and a lot of job openings to fill.
Pavel Tsvetkov Ph.D.: We see many employers putting grade point average (GPA) requirements as high as 3.5 (on 4 points scale). If students are graduating with lower GPAs, that will challenge students' ability to compete for jobs. So academic performance is essential. However, it is also important to have research experiences. It is also important to have internship experiences. If a student has interests in a particular area he likes to work in, it is important to have hands-on knowledge in that area. What does it mean in reality? If you are interested in computational efforts, knowledge of effective code systems is essential. Experience in a few programming languages comes in handy as well. The cross-cutting skills and knowledge area is data science and engineering. If one is interested in the experimental pathway, hands-on knowledge of instrumentation/sensor systems and methods is essential. And so on. These skills and expertise are to be developed through research with the faculty and internships. So the message is - engage with the faculty and seek internship opportunities.
Pavel Tsvetkov Ph.D.: Research experiences are significant, both through research engagements with the faculty and through internships.
Mary Lou Dunzik-Gougar Ph.D.: Some challenges the nuclear industry has faced in 2020 included COVID-19 pandemic, retirements of highly experienced personnel, and announcements of additional nuclear power plant closures due to economic reasons. These challenges require focus on being efficient, cost-effective and adaptable to changing environments, while maintaining nuclear safety. The pipeline programs for new hires did not halt in 2020 and training programs for the new engineers continue as scheduled with COVID-19 mitigating precautions. Based on our experience in 2020, we depend on the entry-level nuclear engineers to be capable of working remotely, having an appreciation for the business side of running a nuclear power plant, bringing in new ideas and being flexible in a changing work environment. We have been very pleased with the personnel recruited into this environment.
Mary Lou Dunzik-Gougar Ph.D.: All the students leaving nuclear engineering degree programs have multiple opportunities for employment. Over the years, graduates have reported back that, in addition to the engineering know-how, their employers value the abilities to solve problems, work both independently and as a constructive team member, communicate in writing and verbally with many different audiences, and proactively learn new things needed to get the job done.
Mary Lou Dunzik-Gougar Ph.D.: Nuclear engineers develop skills that are not just needed within the nuclear power industry but across a wide spectrum of industries, federal agencies, medical facilities, and education. Thus, there is a demand for nuclear engineers across all 50 states and globally.