Like in many professions, lifelong learning is the reality for engineers facing constant changes in technology, environmental considerations and even budgets as they creatively solve problems and improve life. That education can take many forms: corporate training, formal degrees, certificates or experiences through professional and volunteer organizations.
For this back-to-school season, we compiled thoughts on education from the accomplished professionals featured in Leader’s Edge over the last two years. From advice for aspiring engineers, to ideas for parents who want give their children early exposure to STEM opportunities, these experts show the importance of always learning.
Rovy Branon, vice provost at the University of Washington Continuum College, talked about the top three things engineers need to do to keep their skills relevant in their current roles or to make themselves more competitive for the next one.
First, we need to recognize that learning must be constant throughout our careers. Automation and changes in the workplace mean professionals must continually retool to stay relevant and competitive. There are jobs today that didn’t exist several years ago, such as data scientist or drone operator. A discussion paper from the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that in the next ten to 15 years, the need for new tech skills will accelerate. We will also need people who will develop, innovate and adapt those technologies. The paper asserts that, right now, 80% of the workforce doesn’t have the skills for most of the jobs that will be available in the next five to ten years.
The second piece is having clarity about your career goals with some flexibility built in. Setting goals and milestones helps plan out how you will build on your strengths and skills to meet the emerging needs in the job market. This is where a mentor, career coach or advisor from a program you’re considering can provide perspective and help you prioritize.
That leads to the third part of the equation. Engineers need to know their industry or business and how it’s changing. Certificate programs and boot camps from accredited, respected higher ed institutions that develop programs in collaboration with employers will keep you competitive. Be sure to find out what resources will be available after you’ve completed the program. Top-notch continuing education programs consider certificate program and bootcamp graduates as alumni and invite them to take part in workshops and networking events. Those resources can be invaluable as you evolve your career.
Jay Krueger, executive vice president and resident managing director at Aon, offered a real-life example of staying relevant and competitive as he talked about how his learning path and career path intertwine:
When I graduated, I felt the need to solidify my technical skills, so I went to work for Shell Oil. Shell sent me back to school for postgraduate training as a control systems engineer, a role I remained in for four years. That checked my technical skill box.
Then I knew I needed to be able to sell, so I left Shell and went to Nalco Water and sold into major chemical companies in the Northeast. With my sights set on business next, I went to Purdue University Krannert School of Management and earned a Master’s of Science in Business Administration. This program bundled engineering and business and gave me experience in Purdue’s Technical Assistant program, which granted startups 40 hours of free consulting by grad students. It was terrific experience, hopping in a prop plane and flying around Indiana, writing business plans and finding funding for startups.
It was in that chapter where I met folks at Ernst & Young, and they approached me to do business consulting for them. One of the two clients I picked up was Microsoft. They were growing globally and acquiring companies around the world and needed our help with global taxes and employee mobility. Next, I landed at Microsoft running Global Resources in the HR space, operating the Swiss entity I helped them implement while at Ernst & Young. That’s how I got involved with risk management, global benefits and healthcare, which eventually led to the job I have today at Aon.
Chris Wolf has advice for young people considering a career in engineering or high tech and finding the specialty that’s right for them:
Most important for me has been always trying to give my children a platform to explore and try new things. I’ve always wanted them to find their passion. My oldest son, for example, dabbled in programming early and even took classes outside of school because he was interested. Over time, he realized that programming really wasn’t his calling, and today he’s extremely passionate about statistics. I like to remind him that statistics is the class we all take for a semester because we have to, not because we want to. But he is really passionate about it, and I’m certainly supportive, especially with the opportunities around data science that a foundation in statistics can provide. There is so much out there in terms of school clubs, Maker Faire, and science competitions. My advice is to join clubs, embrace online sources such as Kahn Academy, and always encourage a spirit of trying new things. It’s always been important for me for my children to know that they can dip their toe in the water without feeling they have to fully commit. There is so much in science and technology, and if we can keep the experience positive for our children, many of them will gravitate to an area of STEM that they find truly appealing.
In the same vein, Jonna Gerken, Pratt & Whitney’s F100 Production Readiness Manager and a Girl Scouts of Connecticut board member at large, talked about how being a Girl Scout help can help inspire young women to be the next great engineer, STEM teacher or inventor/entrepreneur:
Being a Girl Scout helps girls thrive in five key ways. She develops a strong sense of self by knowing she is a part of the success of her troop, which helps later with self-confidence in the workplace. She displays positive values learned during her tenure, which will help her act ethically and responsibly. She seeks challenges and learns from setbacks during badge activities, showing perseverance and the growth mindset needed for innovation. She forms and maintains healthy relationships to become a true leader who earns respect from others. She learns to identify and solve problems in her community in true STEM fashion. All of these prepare these young women for the “real world,” which is full of challenges, opinions, diversity and unknowns.
And don’t forget the Boy Scouts. As Noel Schulz, electrical engineering professor and Washington State University’s First Lady, says, family, and sometimes especially non-family, connections can help young people find their passion:
I think universities provide an amazing opportunity to share about careers. It helped me get interested in engineering and helped us get our two sons into engineering and computer science as well. As the daughter of an engineering faculty member, I would go into Dad’s office and join him in teaching laboratories and see his interactions with the students and hear about different technical challenges that interested me. My mom was an elementary school teacher, so I was interested in education too.
Our sons have a mother who is an electrical engineer professor and father who is a chemical engineer professor and university administrator. They attended university student organization meetings, visited research and teaching labs, attended conferences and university laboratory open houses growing up. Additionally, Kirk and I both worked with our sons’ Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops to provide opportunities for all the scouts to learn about STEM fields, including doing electricity and chemistry merit badges.
Another key item is to have them connect with friends to learn about engineering careers. Your children will listen to others about career opportunities better than you as parents. Tim interviewed a CS (computer science) faculty member in high school about CS careers, and while in middle school, Andrew interacted with an industrial engineering faculty member at an open house who shared opportunities in mechanical engineering/industrial engineering. Providing opportunities to learn about different STEM career fields through interactions and hands-on activities helps them find their passion and interests.
– Katherine Brennecke, The Engineering 100