Young Professionals Map Careers

Career Preparation Workshops, Online Employment Sites and Networking Events Give Students the Stepping Stones Needed to Secure Their First Jobs

By Sarah Cechowski

They say college is the best four (or more) years of your life. There is no denying that living with friends, going out as you please and student discounts make for an unforgettable experience. At the same time, it can be a wakeup call for many young adults when confronted with making their own decisions and choices about career paths. The transition out of college and into the real world is one of the biggest challenges for an upcoming graduate, especially in a struggling economy.

In this column, we'll get to know recent college graduates now in the controls and automation industry who took advantage of career preparation workshops, online employment sites and networking events to make connections with automation professionals that eventually gave them the stepping stones to securing their first jobs.

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In future columns, this group and others will tell us how they're doing and we'll learn about the challenges that confront them in their jobs.

Tom Pasterik, manager of applications engineering for 3D printer builder ExOne in North Huntingdon, Pa., considers himself to be one of the luckier young professionals to graduate college, having a job already lined up. Prior to graduating in 2010 from the Art Institute of Pittsburg (AIP) with a B.S. in industrial design, he secured his first position at ExOne as an industrial designer through a reference from one of his college professors. He was first introduced to ExOne during a tour organized by AIP his freshman year.

Pasterik teaches a class every other quarter at AIP that focuses on subjects such as additive manufacturing to help better prepare students choosing career paths in industrial design. He believes he was promoted to his current position because of his growing experience and involvement in the education program.

Sam Strickling, academic broad-based research marketing manager for National Instruments (NI), chose a different approach for his career path. He graduated in December 2010 from Baylor University (BU) with a B.S. in mechanical engineering, and minors in mathematics and business entrepreneurship. 2010 was a difficult job market, which made it critical for him to get his name out there in order to get a call back from a potential employer, he says.

BU created a separate career fair for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students in 2008 in response to a lack of company representatives looking to hire engineering students at the all-majors career fairs. There, Strickling met a BU alum who was working for NI, and that led him to getting hired as an applications engineer.

Strickling says having a mix of education in engineering and business was an advantage in getting his current position. After starting at NI, he discovered different opportunities that were available with his degree, and chose to work in a different area after completing his sales training.

"At NI, applications engineers usually change and develop their roles after the first few years — it's a training ground where you can explore other roles within the company based on your interests, skill sets and career goals," Strickling says. "I knew I wanted this role and actually waited for it to open because I really enjoyed multiple-disciplinary engineering. I found myself gravitating toward how I can use my mechanical knowledge to learn LabView or computer science, electrical engineering concepts, vision and a bunch of other things. I knew I didn't want to specialize in one specific product or one specific product application, so this gave me the ability to do a little bit of everything."

He also used AfterCollege, a networking site similar to LinkedIn that helps students find their first jobs and/or internships after college. Since BU is a partner of AfterCollege, Stickling was able to use the site to stay connected to peers in his field and see what steps they were taking to find jobs. He received additional help in career preparation by attending resume and interview workshops.

Networking played a significant role in Bill Purcell's job hunt as well. A mechanical engineering supervisor for display and scoring products provider Nevco in Greenville, Ill., Purcell graduated in May 2008 from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (SIUE) with a B.S. in mechanical engineering.

Prior to graduating, he secured a position as a mechanical engineer with engineer and land surveyor consulting firm McDonough-Whitlow (MW) in Taylor Springs, Ill., through help from a friend who knew the owner of the company. He worked at MW while attending SIUE for the master's degree he received in 2011.

"[Finding] my first job wasn't really challenging because I had a contact through a contact I knew that was looking to hire a mechanical engineer," he says. "But when I wanted to change jobs, it was a chore. I spent probably six months looking."

Purcell used online employment sites such as Indeed and Monster.com during his job search. It was eventually through an SIUE internal job listings site that he found his current job at Nevco.

Monster.com was a beneficial tool that helped Mohamed Okasha successfully find his job. He graduated in 2007 from Ain-Shams University in Cairo, Egypt, with a B.S. in mechanical engineering. With the desire to further his education to expand job opportunities for his future, he went on to continue his education at SIUE, where he received his master's in mechanical engineering in May 2012. He spent six months searching for a job before he was offered a position as a controls engineer with turnkey controls and software integrator Alliant Technologies in Louisville, Ky., two months before he graduated.

"Monster.com was the basic website that I would go to probably every day and apply for random positions everywhere nationwide," Okasha says. "I think I got a few interviews, including the interview for the company I'm working for. I never really went to a company and applied in person; it was just an online process."

Having a job lined up before graduating is ideal, but it isn't a position that every graduate finds himself in. Martin Copeland, PLC programmer for custom controls panel manufacturer CCK Automations in Jacksonville, Ill., graduated from SIUE in December 2009 with a B.S. in mechanical engineering. He says not having a position with a company before graduating makes the process of finding a job more stressful. Graduate school was a solution that he hadn't planned for originally, he says.

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He also used Career Builder and Monster.com to apply for jobs, but says he believes it was a combination of a lack of experience and the economic recession that made his job search unsuccessful. He was offered a graduate assistantship at the start of his master's program that gave him the first bit of experience he needed. He will complete his M.S. in mechanical engineering after completing his thesis.

Copeland worked as a mechanical intern for air-break switches and accessories manufacturer Turner Electric in Edwardsville, Ill., during the final nine months of graduate school. Throughout college, he stayed in contact with a friend who owned industrial systems integration and manufacturing firm Fastechnology Group in Glen Carbon, Ill. When the company decided to expand into other manufacturing markets, a position in PLC programming and HMI development opened up. Copeland was laid off seven months later, but found work shortly after at CCK, where he has worked for the past nine months.

Copeland believes his education prepared him for his career by giving him a good basis for the actual thought process required to succeed. But he also says that what is taught in the classroom is just a fraction of what you actually learn during on-the-job application.

"Just from my experience and from talking to other engineers who I graduated with, you get into your job and it's almost nothing like what you've done at school," he says. "There's little snippets here and there, but a lot of it is just the thought process that engineering school teaches you."

ExOne's Pasterik believes AIP provided him with an adequate education to be qualified for his job, but agrees that college did not sufficiently prepare him for challenges he would face in real-life application. "I was not prepared for the professional world," he says. "They prepared me enough to get a job, but I had to learn a lot while I was at the job. I started the class for things that AIP missed."

Alliant's Okasha says there are two things his college education gave him: the engineering sense and mindset for his career. For example, PLC programming was never specifically focused on in his classes, but he can take the programming education he received in school and apply it to his job.