Interviewing Basics for Engineers

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Like many career fields, engineering is all about preparation: studying the necessary skills in school, developing hands-on experience in the field as an intern, and entering the profession ready to step up and do the work each day.
 
But for most young engineers the interview process is the major hurdle that stands between all this preparation and making career dreams a reality.
 
Interviewing is never easy. But in technical fields such as engineering it can prove especially challenging. Hiring managers are increasingly looking for candidates to bring the expected technical skills to the table as well as a long list of other “soft skills” and culture-fit attributes. The field is evolving and the pressure is on candidates to prove they can keep up, learn new skills and continue to grow on the job.
 
“There’s a lot happening in engineering right now, but there's always a lot happening,” says Ron Patrick, director of talent acquisition at The MITRE Corp., a nonprofit that manages federally funded research and development centers, supports several government agencies, and hires hundreds of engineers each year. Every decade, he adds, brings new challenges along with new opportunities.
 
We reached out to hiring managers and industry experts to get their advice on how young job candidates can successfully tackle the interview process and walk away with a new job.
 
Needs Are Always Changing: In the last 10 years or so, nontechnical experience like managerial skills have become more important to hiring managers, says Anthony Fasano, an engineer-focused career coach and the founder of the Engineering Management Institute. As recently as the 1990s, engineering firms and large companies would hire for a variety of different departments, such as marketing, business development, drafting, engineering, etc. Today, budget constraints are forcing engineers to take on many of those roles. Hiring managers look for candidates who can tackle those additional responsibilities.
 
Soft Skills Matter: The days where technical professionals are isolated from clients are over. Strong communication skills – including oral, written, and presentation skills – are critical for young engineers. It does an employer no good when clients can't understand what its staff is talking about, particularly when dealing with time sensitive and complex technical problems. Learn to summarize your work for nontechnical people and ideas in a way that will excite and engage those on the outside.
 
Another important soft skill is the ability to work in both a team environments and individually, and to agilely move between those two areas. Engineers often need to work on a problem by themselves and then bring that work to the larger team for additional ideas and solutions. Hiring managers look for candidates who can easily transition between those extremes with the same amount of facility, the same amount of comfort, and ultimately the same amount of success.
 
“Unfortunately, these are things that most engineers are not really taught in school,” Fasano says. “So if you can exhibit any kind of ability in those areas, that will help you stand out. Every engineer's going to have a degree. Every engineer's going to have technical knowledge. So you have to think about what you might be able to bring to the table that not every engineer's going to have.”
 
Get Creative: Patrick likewise recommends that engineers look outside of the technical side of the field to understand where today’s best industry opportunities are. That means knowing what’s going on nationally and internationally in the technical, social, and economic worlds.
 
“The bottom line is [engineers] cannot isolate themselves just within their expertise,” he says. “They need to develop that expertise, becoming extremely competent in their area of focus. They need to also be broader beyond that and think about how their expertise links to other applications.”
 
Think Beyond Today’s Jobs: In mechanical and civil engineering, there are dozens of existing specializations graduates entering the workforce can explore. But Fasano suggests that the best approach is to look beyond what everyone else is already doing and focus on emerging areas with plenty of future growth potential. Infrastructure is a growth area right now, along with artificial intelligence and anything involving drones or software, he says. Candidates who can develop the right skills to meet these needs will be in high demand for years to come.
 
Firms like Patrick’s aren’t just hiring engineers to do today’s engineering. They’re hiring engineers to be part of larger problem solving mechanisms for their clients.

 “And you’re only good at that if you understand the larger playing field and not just the little square that you're standing in,” he says.
 
Tim Sprinkle is an independent writer.