Like any professional who’s had a few decades in their industry of choice, engineers sometimes look back on their careers and think about what they might have done differently. Without a time machine, it’s impossible to get an actual do-over, but they can do the next best thing and pass their knowledge along to new engineers. Recent graduates have plenty to learn from listening to veterans in their field. If you’re fortunate enough to work with a senior engineer who has sage advice, listen. If you’re on your own, read what a group of engineers who had an average of 23 years of on-the-job experience had to say.
The average length of time on the job for engineers is seven years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, so engineers tend to stay with one company longer than average. Senior engineers would like to see that figure shrink a bit. The most common wish veteran engineers had is that they had taken more risks and ventured into new career opportunities instead of staying put. The old model of working for a single firm from graduation until retirement is vanishingly rare today, but some of the older engineers polled recall when it was the case. They wished they’d had the freedom to explore more opportunities than they did and suggested to new engineers that they not tie themselves too closely to one option.
Although engineers naturally specialize, older engineers suggest being open to branching out, especially for those whose educations lend themselves to an easy switch to nascent industries. An engineer who graduated in the 1960s with a degree in electrical engineering was able to turn his flexibility to his advantage and went more into the budding electronics industry as it grew, eventually founding his own company and specializing in building components for military applications. The work he did shortly before he retired would have been science fiction to his slide-rule-using 1960s self, but by following his passion, he was able to create a niche for himself.
Be Willing to Learn
It’s natural to graduate and believe you’re fully equipped to work, say senior engineers, but experience has taught them a great deal about what they don’t know. Learning is a lifelong process, not something that ends at graduation, and even senior engineers with decades of experience say they still remain open to learning. If they had their careers to do over again, many say they would spend more of their time earning additional certification, returning to school or seeking a mentor as younger engineers. More than a few also wish they had broadened their learning opportunities, citing how much of their jobs are composed of things other than engineering. Business courses, language lessons and life science classes were the ones these engineers felt they’d missed out by skipping.
Most engineers say their younger selves adhered too closely to expectations, something they would change if they had it to do over again. Having independent ideas and pursuing them is a tremendous asset in any field, one engineer notes, but because engineers have a unique ability to turn concepts into reality, they’re especially well-suited to be entrepreneurs and business owners. His message: Don’t hew too closely to what everyone else is doing. If you know you have something special or can be the first to market with a new technology, follow your passion instead of the status quo.