What comes first: the job or the experience? (Note: Job as in what could potentially be a full-time career. Isn’t one of the reasons that we put ourselves through the craziness that is an engineering degree, so that we can achieve a secure professional job?) With career fairs around the corner, it’s also the season for resume building. You’re going to be hard pressed to find a company that will hire you without looking at a resume first. It is logical that employers would equate your prior experiences to your future success. If you were an employer, would you rather have a first-time TA or a TA that’s been in the business for five years with outstanding references to show? The problem is how to obtain said experience without having a job in the first place.
Companies looking to hire inexperienced employees are few and far between. Rarer even are employers who are willing to take on first-year students. As a Mech 2T0, I remember all-too-well the first-year struggle of searching for a job that was even remotely in the field of engineering. On the first review of my resume, I was critiqued on what would be an aesthetically pleasing layout if only I had more experiences to actually lay out. Still, I felt like UofT had equipped me with the baseline skills most jobs require. Being a quick learner was what got me through all my classes, ESP certainly accustomed me to working in a team setting, and even after being bombarded by new concepts every week, I was still passionate and eager to learn more.
Often times, this skill set was enough to get a potential employer interested. But most were quick to turn me away as soon as I told them I was a first year. “We’re really looking to hire second or third years,” I was told time and time again. It became so common that I couldn’t help but wonder why? Why did one or two years more of education make that much difference in employability? Why were first years seen as liabilities? Because we lacked practical engineering experience? In talking with upper years, nearly all attested to having some learning curve when starting at a new workplace. Why couldn’t that learning curve happen in first-year as opposed to later?
Thanks to a family friend, I was fortunate to be brought on as a mechanical engineer intern at a startup in my hometown. The summer was filled with tons of design work and machining and new projects to work on each week. I found that I drew most of my knowledge from ESP. As much as we groan and gripe about it, the course experience–compiling concise engineering documents, planning to meet strict deadlines, brainstorming and resolving issues with a team–is really applicable to the practice of a professional engineer. My very first day on the job, we were tasked with designing an Emergency alert system and the starting point was “What’s the functional basis?”
Nevertheless, to say that there was a learning curve, would be an understatement. The majority of my day was spent asking questions, sometimes the same question multiple times. It would still take me many tries get to the right result. Whether it modeling in the wrong scale or orienting the machine incorrectly or accidentally pressing the emergency stop button, there’d always be some mistake on my first attempt. The lead engineer was incredibly understanding through it all. But with surprising frequency, he would admit that he himself did not know what to do either. The difference was, however, how well he was able to correct the mistakes. Whereas it would take me several trials and errors to come up with a solution, it would take him a few minutes of looking at the problem and thinking of a solution. Even if it did take him multiple tries, he never lost a level-head. He was well-practiced at the try-try-again method.
Somewhere along the line, I came up with some answer to the question of why I’d been having. While having a second/third-year education would have given me a stronger knowledge base with which to tackle the learning curve, I still would not have known everything I needed to know. What really is invaluable, is the experience of being inexperienced. Mistakes are inevitable no matter what your skill level is, even the most professional engineers are wrong sometimes. Success has less to do with how much you know or are able to apply on command. What is more important is how well you are able to handle and overcome not knowing. The asset is not just learning quickly, but being able to learn from your mistakes quickly. And the comfortability and speed in recovery is something that only gets better with the more mistakes you make. Frankly, first-years have lots of time ahead of them, a lot of mistakes still yet to be made and to be learned from. The consequences and the stakes are not as detrimental as they are in later years. First-years are fully capable of taking on the learning curve that is inevitable for any new worker, but there’s also no harm in waiting to take on the obstacle either.
I would not change any aspect about my internship experience, the fact that I got it straight out of first-year included. I believe everyone should at least explore what opportunities are available (hint: a lot!). Just know that while several first-years are able to find engineering-related work, an even greater number are not so lucky. It’s nothing to be discouraged by; think of it as more time to be inexperienced. Because the beauty of having little to no experience, is that there is little to nothing to lose.