There’s More to a Job than Money

There’s More to a Job than Money

Salary is important to today’s mechanical engineering students, but high on the wish list from a career is to work toward solutions to complex problems for the world at large.

There will probably never be an employer that's going to be all things to all job prospects. But mechanical engineering students, despite their individual personalities and expectations, do share many common wishes when weighing offers. And career counselors at leading engineering schools seem to agree that money isn’t one of them for today’s crop of candidates.

“Salary is important, but it never ranks at the top,” said Helen Oloroso, assistant dean and senior director of engineering career development at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “They want to make sure they're being paid competitively and can cover living expenses, but what they’re looking for most is an alignment between their own personal values and the organization’s values.”

Wish list

High on the wish list is the ability to work toward solutions to complex problems for the world at large.

Laura Schaefer, department chair of mechanical engineering at Rice University in Houston, finds growing attention wherever sustainability is valued, including renewable energy resources, autonomous and electric vehicles, and the environment.

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“They are passionate about the issues they see in the world and want to come up with some type of concrete way to help society,” she said.

According to Chris Washko, assistant director for technology and engineering careers at the University of Notre Dame, impact and innovation are the major drivers among mechanical engineering job candidates, notably in the technology and aerospace industries.

As typically the case, those who are more risk averse tend to focus initially on large, high-status tech firms.

“They’re thinking, 'If I can get in at Amazon and work there for a couple years, then I can go anywhere,’” Oloroso said. “They’ll consider doing values-based work later once they get a prestigious name on their résumés.”

Other considerations

That said, given the sweeping layoffs in the big-tech sector, career counselors are seeing a greater willingness to explore smaller start-ups.

“It’s amazingthe surprising number of them and the new ideas they have that are capturing students’ imaginations,” said Kevin Turner, department chair of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

The space industry, which has long been dominated by SpaceX, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, now includes a broad portfolio of start-ups that are making advances appealing to new graduates, he said.

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Those organizations have appeal despite having a shorter record of stability and operating during the threat of a recession.

“Sometimes new graduates are more willing to accept a risk for greater outside potential down the road,” Turner added.

While graduates generally aren’t looking for fully remote work, they are increasingly seeking a hybrid schedule, in large part because of their experiences during the pandemic.

“Working on site and having the ability to work from home one or two days provides the flexibility they’re really excited about,” Washko said.

Students are not opposed to working long hours and tackling tough challenges on the job, but they don't want work to be their only identity. “Making sure they have other ways to fill their cups is really important to them,” he said.

Employers should expect to have conversations about work-life balance, a concept that is “much, much more of a priority than it was 10 years ago,” Schaefer said. Job applicants “want a workplace that understands they might need to take time off for their kids or a parent issue, or that provides childcare.”

Forefront positioning is also enticing. Graduates want to work on the leading edge of technology—machine learning and data-driven approaches, for example—and they carefully evaluate whether an organization can put them there.

That’s true even if their first roles within those organizations aren't the most ideal, because they’re paying attention to future opportunities and long-term career success.

“They’re building a skill set that will help them for the next position, regardless of where that might be,” Turner said.

Finally, culture

An organization’s culture—its shared values, attitudes, behaviors, and standards—is another valuable attraction.

Job seekers are looking to be surrounded by what they experienced in school.

“That’s where they saw the creativity, ideas, and energy that come from being around a diverse group of people in terms of gender, race, religion, and gender identity, and they want that reflected in the workplace as well,” Schaefer said.

They’re also searching for a company culture that encourages novel approaches.

“COVID made them resilient and able to think outside the box,” said Lisa Dickter, director of career consultants at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “They’re curious. Maybe they try out consulting or project management in addition to a technical mechanical engineering role. I’m surprised by how open this generation is to different industries and types of positions.”

Employers should be just as open-minded.

Said Oloroso: “The more rigid their stands are, the less likely they are to attract and retain talent.”

Robin L. Flanigan is an independent writer in Rochester, N.Y.

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