Ask an Engineer - How to start a Professional Network?

Jul 19, 2011

Ali Asks:

I am a recent graduate with an engineering degree and was wondering if you had any advice for landing a job!  I've found that most companies (biomedical engineering related) I've applied to make it extremely difficult to find an actual person to talk to so it seems like my applications are going into a black hole!  If I am lucky enough to get a contact, I always hear "just fill out an application online and attach your resume".  How can you start networking with the right people so you can actually get some information and a foot in the door?

Jim - Cement Industry, Pennsylvania, USA

I wish I had a good answer for this question.  It seems more difficult to
find that first career position today than it was a generation ago.

The only way to get a career under way is to convince one person that you can reliably provide what he or she needs.  You've discovered that the Internet, and the on-line screening process that's resulted, have if
anything placed an extra layer between you and the hiring decision maker.

I think if I were a new engineering graduate today I wouldn't  bet on success with on-line applications.   I would concentrate my efforts on actually speaking or meeting with people, even if they don't have a job opening I want to fill.  Small consulting outfits are less likely to "guard the gate" with an HR person.  I'd sign up with temp agencies and do

whatever came along.  I'd tell everybody I could that I was trying to start a career.  I'd make it clear that I'm willing to go anywhere in the world for the right opportunity.  And then I'd keep gaining experience, meeting people, asking questions, and pitching in as best I could, all the while looking to jump to a better spot.

It appears to me that young graduate engineers do have a tough time, but they all eventually get off the ground.  Just not always in their preferred field or in their preferred location.
It's not easy.  Good luck!

Scott - Semiconductor Industry - Massachusetts, USA

Unfortunately, networking is one of those things that just takes time. But you probably have a better start on it than you realize.  Did any of your friends from school land jobs?  Start with them to see if how they
got in.  Also, check with your school.  Most schools have a career center to help their graduates find jobs.

Also, try professional organisations, LinkedIn, and any and every job website you can find.  And most importantly, once you start getting contacts, keep them around, even if they aren't helpful right now.  Some day in the future they might be the right person.

Dan - Diesel Engine Manufacturing - Illinois, USA

That old saying about how it's not what you know, it's who you know rings true more often than we'd all like to admit some days.

When I was about to graduate, what I ended up doing was contacting professors both who I had for classes as well as worked for and asked them if they knew anyone in industry who was hiring. This got me contacts at 2 prominent companies in the industry which I was interested at the time (though they had no jobs in the end in which I was qualified for). I did get my current job, though, via networking behind my back. My current boss was teaching the last class I needed for my master's degree and he needed more people. A conversation with a friend of his at the university (with whom I had taken 3 classes and had a good relationship) led him to offer me a position when I graduated.

One other thing I found that may work is if you have a particular interest in a segment of the biomedical engineering field is to find industry association papers related to your interests and email the authors to discuss the paper, ask questions, etc. This gives you an  foot in the door (I've found that most authors have been very open to talking about their work) and sometimes a way to pass your resume along to appropriate parties.

Dyson - Mechanical Technologist - Yukon Territories

Networking is really hard to break into, but one of the most important skills you can have. It's possibly more important then your degree.

  • Don't be afraid to push back against the receptionist, after all his / her job is to the answer the phone and prevent people like you from getting to the person who makes decisions.
  • Look away from the larger more visible companies; smaller companies (two or three employees) are usually easier to apply to.
  • Join professional organizations that deal with your chosen branch of engineering, in HVAC we have ASHRAE, ASPE, NFPA just to name a couple.
  • Did you do a co-op? Talk to your supervisor if they know of any companies that are related to what you do. Look at the product binders that are floating through the office and talk to those manufacturers or their reps. If you can't get any leads with them, ask who they deal with on a daily basis and get names. Connecting names to companies is very useful, eg: "Is this Robert Smith? Oh hi, my name is Ali Awsome, Bruce Roberts from BlahBlah Manufacturing suggested I talk to you..."
  • You could try talking to one of your Prof's. Old guys all know each other and ask for names of other old guys who might know someone who might know who to talk to... (you can see where I'm going with this).
  • Be patient, and don't say no to any form of engineering work, even if it's drafting for a week.

Angela – Sustainability Industry – Vancouver

Getting the first job is one of those things that you can only do once… I personally think I did it wrong myself, but I don’t have the option to go back and try again.

If I were to go back and try to get my “first job” again, this is what I would do. First, decide what your “dream job” would be. Now, put yourself in the mindset that you already have this dream job. What kind of work would you be doing? Do that work as best you can.  Focus your time on these 3 activities:

1)      Build “proof” that this is, in fact, your dream job. When you actually land an interview, people are going to ask “so why did you apply for this position?” You will say “Well, I’ve always wanted to work in __[industry]____!” They will stare at you blankly. Nobody believes you without PROOF! You have to decide what this proof should be, but spending your time building proof will keep you from going completely crazy.

2)      Meet as many engineers as you can in a casual setting. I haven’t quite cracked the nut on this one yet, but look around for volunteer groups or clubs that look like other career-engineers may plausibly get involved. “Networking events” never ever worked out for me, and later I realized that networking really means “making friends”, so go out and find some friends.

3)      Apply to open positions only. As you said, the general resume submission process is, quite literally, a black hole. But if you apply to open positions, even if they’re not exactly what you want but at the same company, you can get yourself in front of real live people who might be able to connect you to a more appropriate department.

I do think the ‘system’ for getting engineering graduates into first jobs is somewhat broken and is not really evolving at an adequate pace. Sending your resume into a “black hole”, as you describe it so aptly, can be very, very demoralizing after awhile. Hang in there!

 Bruno - Polytechnique - Junior Software Engineer - Quebec (OIQ)

This is a great question. It is not easy to do such a thing. Fortunately, in my school, we had this activity where we invited companies for a "Wine & Cheese" reception (for free), and the students payed a ridiculously low fee (like 10$) to get in and exchanged in a formal context (yes, formal-wear was mandatory). This actually landed me my first internship, my second internship and my current job.

There was also the Career Fair, at which many companies came by to try and recruit newgrads. I actually met the person responsible for human resources where I work now at that kind of activity and was remembered the following year. That is a great way to chat with people that are in charge of hiring in those companies.

I don't know if your school organises these kinds of activities, but if it does, it's the best way I know to start networking. Otherwise, there are always placement agencies (either at your school or outside) and, perhaps, LinkedIn (I haven't had to try such an option, but it seems possible!).

As final pieces of advice: if you send a resume in and you seem not to have an answer, do not hesitate to contact those people. Also, make your existing contacts work: friends, family and THEIR friends, or friends of friends and so on. It will show them you have genuine interest in working at that company. Good luck!

Robert - Oil and Gas Industry - Texas, USA

 Getting started with networking is relatively simple. Note that I said started, and simple, I did not say that it would be anywhere near the end of the process or easy.

To get started, there are several resources to use. The first is past internships and jobs. As long as they're in the sector you want, you have the connections from these to rely on: a professional base to work with. The second is your past classmates, club members, as well as friends and family - basically anyone you worked in groups with or who know you, this serves to be more of a personal base of people. Finally there are career fairs; most universities have these, so looking here will get you some face time with recruiters.

Between these three you should have a fairly decent collection of people you can work with. With these people you should have had some sort of physical presence, in other words you have had your first impression with them already. You're going to have to sift through these to find people within the sector that you want, which takes time, and there's the chance that you need to reintroduce yourself to some people, or introduce yourself from the beginning with others. Then there's also the possibility that you will not find someone in the sector that you want, but you might find someone in something similar. That should be your beginning and primary resource for networking. They either know you, or you have an easy way to introduce yourself in person, and if they work for a company that you want to work for, they might have clues to job openings before outsiders do.

Let’s assume, though, that you have absolutely nobody from your beginning search. You’ll have a harder time; not impossible but much harder. You'll need to find people in companies and sectors that you want to work for and go with cold calling. Using something like Linked-In you might be able to find some people in your chosen sector, and can try and introduce yourself from there. Hoping that they enjoy their work, you can ask questions about what they do, as long as you avoid being a pest.  Most people are more than happy to talk about themselves (humans tend to be narcissistic that way).

This should give you a decent opportunity to gain a contact within whatever sector it is. Next up, you can try the human resources department of a company that you want to work for and see if they can arrange a job-shadow, or internship, or something along those lines. It would be easier to do before you graduate, but there's still hope afterwards. This would give you a foot in the door, and hopefully you'll be able to leave a memorable impression for when they look through resumes afterwards. These methods are less desirable than the first options, because you're going to be relying on your phone and email skills, and have very little to leave an impression with them.

Now both of the previous paragraphs assume that you have decent social skills. Whether you do or do not, just remember to be polite, it'll keep a favorable impression in their minds. That's really all there is to networking, well networking with a specific sector in mind anyways.

Kimberly – Software Engineer – Washington, USA

Networking can definitely be challenging, and it can take time and care to find and maintain networking relationships.  Here are some suggestions for getting started acquiring networking contacts:

  1. See if your alma mater offers networking resources for its students/alumni, such as brown bag lunches, tech talks, informational panels, or site tours of companies in your field.  These are all great, low-key ways to meet people.
  2. Get in touch with anyone who's landed a job in the industry and politely inquire as to whether they can put you in touch with others in your field, such as their coworkers, bosses, mentor, etc.  See if they would be willing to set up networking lunches for you, or a site tour of where they work.  More often than not, this will result in you getting to meet people in the field. 
  3. Contact old professors (particularly those who held you in high regard) and school or departmental advisers; ask them if they have any contacts in the industry to whom they could refer you or write a letter of recommendation.  You'd be surprised by how many would be thrilled to help a former student get in touch with the right people.  
  4. Also get in touch with old managers from previous internships or jobs.  Update them on your recent graduation and fill them in on any accomplishments, accolades, projects, etc. that you've completed in the intermediary. Express interest in touching base and catching up in person over lunch.
  5. Remember to politely ask for business cards from every potential networking contact you meet, and follow up the same or next day with a short and sweet email re-introducing yourself, and thanking them for their time.  (At this point you can begin to express interest in working for their company, but do not send a resume just yet.  They will ask if they want/need one.)
  6. Keep in touch regularly with a master list of all of the above networking contacts. Update them, express interest in their work and lives, and, most-importantly, keep them aware of your latest accomplishments and professional or academic goings-on.

Once you've got some lunches and networking meetings set up, it's very important to avoid launching directly into "let me give you my resume" mode.  Developing networking relationships takes time and care: people appreciate getting an opportunity to know you better in person. Talking to you will give them context, not only on the accomplishments that you've no doubt detailed in your resume, but also how well-rounded you are as a person.  Being able to hold a conversation will also put you at a distinct advantage; after all, too often folks in the industry get resumes shoved into their hands only to immediately forget the face that goes with it.  Being able to have an engaging conversation with someone is not an experience you can get from a piece of paper!

One last bit of advice: once you've got networking contacts, maintaining these relationships is also very important.  As mentioned above, request business cards whenever possible and maintain a master list of your contacts.  Take some notes on your contacts with details from your meetings -- their current project, hobbies and interests, etc.  Keep these individuals in the loop via email, and express interest in them as well (that's where having some notes on them will come in handy so you can ask about their project, team, family, etc).  Sending networking emails every two to three months is a reasonable amount of time if you're actively seeking a job, and once every six months to a year is acceptable if you already have a job (even after you have a job you should strive to nurture your networking relationships).

Best of luck!

PS- Congratulations Kimberly on graduating from University and landing her very-own first real job!!

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