This article focuses on breadth and depth of skills needed by candidates for engineering jobs. Adaptability—that is, the ability to keep up with the rapid pace of change—and practical skills rank high with today’s employers. Recruiters are finding that breadth of knowledge and experience trumps depth in the form of overspecialization in engineering; in recruitment, this means finding the engineer who fits a job opening ‘to a T.’ The best jobs are won by candidates who demonstrate a breadth of knowledge and experience in their own discipline and the disciplines related to it. According to the experts, systems engineers are specialists in simplifying complexity, resolving ambiguity, and focusing the creativity of others—but they are not generalists. The present day’s engineering students learn to define system boundaries, goals, and functions. They also learn to anticipate failure modes, to plan for mitigation and recovery, and to define and manage interfaces. Engineers with multidisciplinary skills are much more adaptable, and more in demand; but in engineering, there still are more specialists than generalists. The demands of today’s competitive business environments tilt the balance toward breadth. As technologies mature, the balance will tilt back toward depth.
It’s not Always easy to Hear this, but the ME who just landed a new job may have known more about electronics than the other candidates did.
Employers complain that it’s difficult to find engineers with the right skill set. Engineers report that getting a job is harder than ever. But as a recruiter who specializes in technical fields, I’ve seen the job hunt from both sides. I can tell you that adaptability—that is, the ability to keep up with the rapid pace of change— and practical skills rank high with today’s employers. As always, it is vital that an engineer have depth of understanding a specialty, but that has to be combined with a solid grounding in a range of useful subjects.
Recruiters, both at my company and those I’ve talked to at other firms, are finding that breadth of knowledge and experience trumps depth in the form of over-specialization in engineering. In recruitment, this means finding the engineer who fits a job opening “to a T.”
That’s how Nathan Clark, engineering director at kVA in Macomb, Mich., looks at the breadth and depth of skills needed by candidates for engineering jobs. As an automotive-oriented consulting company, kVA focuses on electromechanical systems, vehicle safety, and training managers to meet the ISO 26262 standard, which addresses functional safety for automotive electrical and electronic safety- related systems. The company is based in Greenville, S.C.
“For the vertical stem of the T, kVA seeks engineers with a depth of knowledge in a particular discipline such as ME,” Clark said.“But they also need a broad range of skills in other areas or disciplines—the horizontal crossbar of the T. For MEs, this usually means electronics, or software development, or modeling and simulation.” The best jobs “are won by candidates who demonstrate a breadth of knowledge and experience in their own discipline and the disciplines related to it.”
At one end of the range is mechatronics. These electromechanical devices with sensors, power sources, electronics, software, and control algorithms are the intelligence embedded in nearly all new products. Employers look for very specific sets of skills, experience, and training in these disciplines.
At the other end of the range are a myriad of specialties. Some examples from recent ME searches taken on by my company highlighted skills needed in quality assurance, Six Sigma implementation, non-destructive testing, reliability analysis, and stress/strain calculations. Each of these requires knowledge of statistics.
Searches for metallurgical engineers usually ask for extensive ME skills in failure analysis, creep, stress, strain, and similar physical properties. Ther- mal/mechanical skills are a plus, especially in areas such as friction analysis, lubricants, and thermal breakdown.
My company, Wingate Dunross, has a specialty niche in renewable energy, such as large-scale electricity storage. The jobs we’re trying to fill might require ME candidates with skills in electrochemistry, fluid dynamics, electrical systems, electronics, and control software for complex new types of vanadium batteries.
The bulk of W-D searches are in areas like materials science, nanotechnology, electronics, fossil-fueled and renewable energy, chemistry and chemical engineering, and dealing with disruptive technologies in general. Strong skills in finite element analysis, simulation, and optimization are invariably sought. Whenever competitive forces gain ascendancy over inertia, technology and product development get closer to the “bleeding edges.” That is where engineers encounter the knottiest challenges bound up with the biggest opportunities. Bleeding edges demand of MEs the ability to think of products as completely integrated systems—including their production and the needs of all who use or touch them.
This is best dealt with by systems engineering, “which is the discipline that most closely aligns with the T,” Clark at kVA said. “Systems engineers think holistically about concept, design, development, production processes, and operations plus risk management and sustainability—the entire product life cycle in all its dimensions.”
According To Clark, “Systems Engineers are specialists in simplifying complexity, resolving ambiguity, and focusing the creativity of others—but they are not generalists. Today’s engineering students learn to define system boundaries, goals, and functions. They also learn to anticipate failure modes, to plan for mitigation and recovery, and to define and manage interfaces.”
In the process, “they learn to translate the ‘languages’ spoken by the various disciplines that are involved in every cross-functional project,” Clark added.
All too often engineering specialists cannot understand one another, and the problem goes much deeper than jargon and idiomatic expressions. Systems engineers’ skills “are unmatched for removing organizational barriers, streamlining communication, ridding it of ambiguities, and improving collaboration among everyone while reducing wasted effort” such as rework.
Barton Foster of The Barton Group, a recruiting firm in Livonia, Mich., noted that, “We find that MEs with no manufacturing experience don’t really have the understanding of basic production processes that are required for the best jobs that command the highest salaries.” As to the mix of skills and capabilities for MEs, “there is no combination that's not in demand somewhere.”
For the automotive industry, Foster said, “There are just not enough of these broad-gauge engineers with multiple skill sets to go around. MEs with minimal experience outside their discipline still command good salaries, however, because ME is fundamental to so many other areas of engineering.” Foster said that experience in manufacturing, electronics, or mechanical is always in demand.
Diversity in the Workplace Emerged as a challenge and opportunity at Sequence Staffing, a staffing and recruitment firm in Roseville, Calif. “As we look at our northern California markets, diversity accounts for two huge trends in the engineering workplace,” said Frank DeSafey, a Sequence Staffing principal.
“Perhaps uniquely in our time, four generations of engineers are active,” he said. “This diversity in ages presents huge opportunities for fresh, even unorthodox, thinking that accommodates a variety of different societal viewpoints.” Secondly, diversity is the norm worldwide in skill sets and nationalities. “We get a lot of requests from overseas firms looking for American-trained engineers and, vice versa, from American firms looking for engineers trained elsewhere,” DeSafey said.
“Diversity can be a challenge to manage in the workplace, which drives the demand for MEs,” he noted. “More than engineers from other fields, MEs usually have good communications skills, the ability to write clearly, a willingness to accept responsibility, and the basic skills to manage outside resources and diversified teams.”
“This is why there is a rising preference for MEs as generalists rather than specialists,” he said. “We need ME applicants with proven flexibility in their approaches to solving problems. They need to be able to demonstrate their adaptability.”
Power-Gen and the Boomers
Power Generation Companies are Looking at the Prospect of a brain drain. Generally accepted data from the Edison Electric Institute indicates that 45 percent of engineers now on the job will be eligible to retire in five years.
If only half of them decide to retire, that is almost a quarter of an experienced workforce.
“They are very worried about losing the skills and experience of their Baby Boomers,” said Jay Rogers, vice president of recruiting at Randstad Engineering. “They are hiring engineers from other fields and retraining them, which is something new.”
Power generation companies are looking at the prospect of a brain drain... ...The Hardest Mechanical Engineering Spots to Fill in Power Generation are in Nuclear
Demand from power-generation companies is a driver of the recruiting business for Randstad, based in Atlanta. “In power gen, MEs are valued highly for their analytical skills,” Rogers said. “MEs are needed to manage scheduled-maintenance outages and restarts. Experience in commissioning new plants is a plus. So is knowledge of heat transfer, thermal properties, and electrical transmission and distribution.”
The hardest ME spots to fill in power generation are in nuclear, where Randstad fields very high demand from prospective employers. One of Georgia’s big utility companies is building two multibillion-dollar reactors. According to Rogers, skills most in demand are in heat management; rotating equipment such as turbines, pumps, and generators; transmission and distribution; and electrical and electronic systems.
Frank DeSafey at Sequence Staffing in Roseville, Calif., however, is skeptical about some of the common assumptions about the Baby Boomer retirements. “True, there simply are not enough trained people to go around, hence the high demand from all market sectors and disciplines,” he said. “But this demand is a very complicated picture. You have to factor in the outsourcing of so much technical work, a more independent young workforce wanting to work from home or wherever.”
According to DeSafey, “The picture is further complicated by the Baby Boomers themselves. Their retirement plans have been disrupted by the recession. When Boomers do retire, will they be replaced one for one or in some very different ratio? No one knows.”
In my experience, this is something that many early career engineers just don’t get. Confronted with knowledge explosions in every technical field, many engineering professors urge students to “keep up” by delving deeper—taking in-depth extra courses—in their specialties. But engineering students who have spent too many years solely in academia are less desirable to many employers. Such students are seen as lacking experience with deadlines, with the pressures of work, or with the need to make a profi table product.
The Dirty Secret That many People in industry and academia don’t like to talk about is that the “half-life” of knowledge is short. In a lot of fields, half of what engineers needed to know when they were hired may be outdated or irrelevant in a few years.
Engineers with multi-disciplinary skills are much more adaptable, and more in demand, but in engineering there still are more specialists than generalists. Recruiters note that people who are overly specialized in one area may fi nd their skills become obsolete. Successful engineers, they say, reinvent themselves continuously. “Yesterday’s CAD/CAM whiz may turn into a vice president at an orthodontics software company that relies on advanced modeling and imaging software,” one recruiter said.
From my perspective as a recruiter, one of the biggest challenges a working engineer has is staying ahead of skills obsolescence. For most engineers, the problem is finding the time to learn about innovations and reinvent their careers. If they are working 50 hours a week and have a family, it’s a difficult balancing act.
Recruiting and placement is an $11 billion business, of which more than a third is classified as technical recruiting. Standard recruiting fees are 30 percent of the first-year salary. For a high-profile CEO, fees may reach 50 percent, or several million dollars.
Source: The Association of Executive Search Consultants, New York
What is amazing, however, amid the unceasing cross-pollination among engineering disciplines, is how successful engineers are in moving from one field to another. These engineers obviously need breadth of engineering exposure balanced with depth in a specialized field.
The demands of today’s competitive business environments tilt the balance toward breadth. As technologies mature, the balance will tilt back toward depth. But this assumes an end to disruptive technologies—and no one I know foresees that.