9 Self-Improvement Strategies for Engineers
This story was updated on 1/19/2023.
You’ve graduated with a degree in engineering and landed a good job with an engineering firm that promises a stimulating environment—and maybe even some interesting travel. You're all set, right?
Not necessarily. Engineering is a competitive field and, as evidenced during the Great Recession, susceptible to big layoffs when the economy takes a dive.
Carl Vieth, director of corporate education for the department of engineering professional development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, offers some pointers for strengthening your long-term career prospects and helping you stand out from the competition—all of which can be done within your first five years as an engineering professional.
1. Learn the business.
When hired as a professional engineer, it’s important to learn more about your employer than just your day-to-day responsibilities.
- What is the core business strategy?
- How is company revenue made?
- What are the key sources of growth?
Seek opportunities to work with a diverse cross-section of business units within the company— HR, manufacturing, sales, marketing, and customer service, for example. You may also find that your company offers boot-camp-style learning opportunities that will give you a deeper understanding of your industry.
2. Get to know your customers.
Gain an understanding of your customers’ businesses by becoming familiar with how they make money, who their competitors are, and what their problems are—and how you can solve them.
Some ways to do this include:
- Requesting assignments that allow you to work directly at a customer site
- Being inquisitive about their needs and striving to understand how you can meet them
- Regularly reading market publications and familiarizing yourself with what industry analysts are saying
As an engineer, understanding your customer's business is just as important as understanding your own.
3. Learn the upstream supply chain.
By understanding the sources and producers of inputs to your business, you can become familiar with the variety of available options that you can bring to your organization.
Strive to keep up with technical innovations, both within your field and in other engineering and technology disciplines.
4. Don't stop learning.
College taught you a lot, but there’s still much to learn.
Add to your engineering skillset by learning how to become an effective communicator, team member or leader, or project manager. Continue seeking out professional development opportunities to develop your soft skills and, subsequently, open up a world of opportunities.
5. Keep your technical skills current.
The last thing you want is for your hard-earned skills to go stale. Fortunately, there are a few ways to keep your technical skills current:
- Join a professional society and participate as an active member
- Share what you learn with your colleagues at work.
- If your local work group does not have a journal club or study circle, consider starting one—or search for universities that are active in providing technical education in your field.
- Search for professional learning opportunities through engineering associations—short courses and online learning, for example.
6. Find a coach.
You shouldn’t have to navigate the engineering world on your own—even if you’re the independent type.
Find a coach within the organization who can provide valuable advice, direction, and support. More important than having technical credibility, your coach should be adept at navigating the organization.
Find someone sought out by business leaders and customers alike when it comes to answering questions or solving problems. Once you’ve established the relationship, be sure to listen carefully, follow the advice, and act in a way that would make your coach or mentor proud.
7. Seek out new challenges and challenging assignments.
Find challenging assignments to take you out of your comfort zone and provide opportunities to set yourself apart. These “stretch assignments” are opportunities to challenge your knowledge, skills, and creativity in new and different ways.
8. Critique your performance.
As you practice your new skills, try to be self-aware and realistic about your progress. If you need to sharpen your skills or grow your knowledge, take advantage of opportunities that allow you to grow personally and professionally.
9. Think about the next step in your education.
To make the most of your career, you may want to consider furthering your education with a graduate degree.
That said, you’ll want to get a few years of work experience under your belt first, allowing you to make the most of your next learning opportunity.
Mark Crawford is an independent writer.