Engineering Students Building Flexibility Into Career Plans

October 31, 2008

October 31, 2008 — The classic notion of what it means to be an engineer is evolving.

At one time, students who graduated from the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science may have found lifetime positions with a single company. More recently, however, they are increasingly taking multiple jobs throughout their careers, moving among fields as diverse as management and financial analysis.

C.J. Livesay, director of the school's Center for Engineering Career Development for the past 13 years, has a keen perspective of these career trends and where graduates may find themselves working after leaving U.Va.

"The mindset of the last 10 years, because of downsizing, has been for graduates to put themselves in a position to manage their own careers," Livesay said. "They may have seen a parent's and grandparent's jobs downsized, and so they want to put themselves in a position where they can move to new positions when they want."

He commonly sees young engineers work for three or four years at a company before looking for a new job, within or outside of that company, or entering graduate school. With a few years of work experience and a record of solid academic achievement, graduates are able to smoothly cross over to higher-paying or better-fitting jobs, or to graduate studies.

Mark Smith is one of those graduates. After graduating in 1997 with a degree in chemical engineering, he has held five different positions ranging from a process engineer in a textiles company to a sales/project manager for a telecommunications firm. Smith is currently manufacturing manager at Rutland Plastics Technology in Pineville, N.C.

"As engineers we have to be able to adapt to a changing market," Smith said. "I am certainly one of those individuals who made moves and changes in my career."

While there is some diversity among his different jobs, Smith sees a common thread.

"Looking back on my career, each job has prepared me for the next one," Smith said. "My education at U.Va. prepared me to think quickly on my feet, look at data and make solid decisions based on that data. If I had not received the education that I got at U.Va., I would not have achieved this success."

Chip Blankenship has a similar career story. Now vice president and general manager for commercial engines at GE Aviation, he has moved through eight other roles at the company since graduating with a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering in 1992. Previous roles included staff scientist, airline support engineer and manager of various aircraft engine products as well as a business leader in GE Energy.

"After graduation from U.Va., I joined the General Electric Corporate Research Center," Blankenship said. "Since then I have held nine jobs in 16 years — four technical jobs and five commercial jobs.

"I've learned something new in each role. Each was challenging and rewarding in its own way."

Besides the tendency for graduates to take on multiple career roles, Livesay notices other career trends among recent graduates, including the popularity of consulting, traditional engineering positions and also environmental engineering.

He counts such consulting companies as Booz Allen Hamilton, Advanced Predictive Technologies and Accenture among the top recruiters of engineering graduates. These companies have a particular interest in computer science and systems graduates, but recruit graduates from all engineering majors, he said.

The Associated Press recently reported a national shortage of computer science graduates across the United States, making those who hold the degree attractive prospects for companies looking to support their information technology consulting business.

"All of our graduates possess very strong computer technology skills," Livesay said.

Northrop Grumman, Micron, Lockheed Martin and Aerojet are among the top recruiters for traditional product design, development and testing jobs, he said. With the coming of a Rolls-Royce jet engine manufacturing facility in Prince George County, Va., Livesay foresees a growth in the local availability of mechanical and aerospace engineering positions for U.Va. engineering graduates.

Environmental engineering is another high-growth field. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 25 percent increase in that field by 2016, raising the number of environmental engineers in the nation from 51,000 to 68,000. The projected growth may be linked in part to major energy companies' shift toward greener, renewable-energy solutions, a move that will require environmental engineers to help them make the transition.

Livesay is confident that a U.Va. engineering education prepares graduates to assume diverse roles throughout their career — whether as design engineers or chief executives of companies yet to be founded.

"Employers are looking for students who can come in and hit the ground running," Livesay said.

— By Zak Richards