Quest to impress

Graduation day is looming, and job interviews are piling up fast and furious. Get the inside scoop on how to impress the employers who really matter.

Over the past several years, you’ve spent countless hours attending lectures, memorizing formulas, working in labs and writing up page after page of reports, all to graduate with a degree in your field of engineering and qualify for a job doing something you love. But receiving your diploma isn’t the end of the journey. It is the means, not the end. So why would students think they can put less effort, care or preparation into their job search than they did in their studies?

Eleanore McNaughton, Career Adviser at McGill University’s Faculty of Engineering Career Services, urges engineering students to commit to a summer job or internship related to their studies “as early as possible in their career at school. Don’t wait until the last summer.” She explains that even unpaid volunteering can help students learn more about what goes on in a particular industry and understand the opportunities that will be open to them in the future. “Consider developing not only technical skills, but also transferable skills such as organizing, communication, teamwork and leadership,” she suggests.

Christian Coronado, a doctoral student in industrial engineering at the Université de Montréal’s École Polytechnique, agrees that students should gain experience while still in school: “I believe undergraduate students should concentrate on complementing their academic workload with hands-on experience through internships in several practical domains.” As for graduate students, he says they should do everything they can to emphasize their work experience. “I would also highly recommend taking as many industrial certifications as possible, since this could actually make the difference when similar candidates compete for the same position.”

“Don’t be afraid to approach companies directly,” adds McNaughton, who encourages students to do research to find out what companies are looking for and what different industries offer. She cautions against going to interviews or contacting companies without having done one’s “homework.” “Read up on a company’s operations, magnitude, specialization and financial profile,” she advises.

“I’ve seen letters coming in with the wrong name or full of spelling mistakes,” says Nathalie Bourque, VP of Global Communications at Saint-Laurent-based CAE, which provides simulation technologies to civil aviation and defence customers worldwide. “Some don’t take their interviews seriously. But they should always offer their best. If they come and don’t really know what CAE does, it doesn’t sound like they’re interested. They should do their research first.” She adds, “We have a thorough website!”

Standard (and standout) skills

There are basic skills and qualifications every graduate needs to succeed on their job hunt — and as Bourque explains, these go far beyond good grades. “I think attitude comes out strongly when we do interviews,” she says. “Quality work definitely counts, but it’s important to have someone with a good attitude. We make sure they’re a good team player and are willing to learn.”

“If you’ve done your homework or have the experience of a student job or internship, you’re going to stand out,” says McNaughton. “If you’ve been involved with extracurricular activities, you will know your own abilities and talk better during an interview.” She adds that after landing a job, graduates should continue to stay up to date on the industry they’re involved in. “You have to be willing to advance in your career — to do your best. Take courses, attend technical conferences, keep abreast of what’s going on and stay technically relevant.”

McNaughton points out that when students are called for an interview, they will not only be asked technical questions about the work they’ve done in school and at student jobs, but they may also be tested on what goes on in that company’s industry and be asked to write an IQ test, to solve algorithms, or to write or debug code. “Sometimes the interviewer follows a line of questioning that is close to what the student has done in school, but other times there are fresh problems to solve.”

Language skills and mobility — the willingness to consider relocating — can also be strong selling points, especially for those who want to work for large multinational companies. For example, CAE, which employs 3,000 people in Montréal alone, runs 24 training centres around the world. This creates a need for people with diverse backgrounds that can help them feel at home in many different settings. “We’re often looking for people who have a third and fourth language,” says Bourque. “That’s definitely a plus for us.”

Great expectations

Most employers realize that there’s a steep learning curve during a new graduate’s first two years on the job, but they still keep a close eye on his or her performance. McNaughton says hirees should typically expect to be evaluated every six months for the first two years and once a year after that. “So the first two years are very important,” she says.

CAE looks for people who are willing to innovate — an expectation that other companies in engineering-related industries are likely to share. “In our 60th year, we’re considered the leader in the world,” says Bourque, “and we want people who want to continue to raise that level, to make CAE a better company and to improve our products. We want people who are focused on our customers’ needs.” Job candidates should be ready to ask themselves what they can contribute to the company they want to work for.

Employers aren’t the only ones with expectations. Graduates naturally hope to get the perfect job, with a high salary and great benefits. Coronado cautions that it might take a while for your dream offer to come along. “Don’t expect the right job right after graduation,” he says. “Don’t overprice yourself, but don’t underprice yourself either.”

“Some students expect promotion very quickly,” says McNaughton. “They do have to prove themselves first and some are impatient. If you haven’t done internships, you may be less aware of what salary to expect or the realities of the work world.”

Taking the plunge

So you did all your research, shone in your interviews and got several hard-to-resist job offers. Now what? How do you decide where to go?

McGill’s Faculty of Engineering Career Centre tends to approach the question by breaking things down, says McNaughton. “We go through exercises looking at the industry and its future, entry level conditions, available training programs, relocation, salary, corporate culture, lifestyle, the number of hours and the length of the job: i.e., is it a contract?”

Coronado says experience has taught him to consider the following: his personal interest in what the company is offering, his career expectations in relation to the position being offered and location. “Does it involve relocating? Are there any relocation allowances?”

McNaughton encourages students to explore what will make them feel good about a job. “If you go after money, you’re taking a different kind of risk if you end up not liking the job. You’ll do better at your job if it’s something you enjoy.”

Interview Dos and Don’ts

• Do prepare by learning about the company before the interview.
• Do show up on time and dressed appropriately.
• Do have a positive attitude.
• Do ask important questions.
• Don’t exaggerate or lie about your qualifications.
• Don’t be too shy or modest, either!
• Don’t be too laid-back during the interview.
• Don’t underestimate the importance of a flawless résumé.