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Class of 2003 Forecast: Partly Sunny with a 73% Chance of Graduating with a Job

It's that time of year again. College seniors are getting ready to graduate and are gearing up to enter the "real world." So, what makes this year different from all other years for engineering grads? Last year's unemployment rate was nearly 6%, the highest yearly average since 1994. In 2002, many reduced operating costs and staff, leaving many recent college graduates unemployed. However, an engineering degree may be the light at the end of the tunnel.

Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that jobs in the engineering field are "expected to increase more slowly than average," the good news is that BLS is projecting job opportunities to be "good" over the next eight years. With technology constantly advancing, engineers will be needed to design and construct new systems and structures. Growing numbers of engineers will be needed to build bridges, roads and tunnels, control pollution and erect public facilities for the growing population. For these reasons, during this slow economic period, BLS expects that engineers will be less likely to be laid off than those in other professions.

Larger companies such as Lockheed Martin, are facing a "train wreck" situation. According to Director of Human Resources Tracy Carter, that means companies will have a more "senior" work force, leaving them in search of replacement workers.

Over the next five years, Carter says, the situation will lead to a portion of Lockheed's population looking to retire. "The number of eligible candidates is not going to be sufficient to replace those leaving the work force," she says.

On the other hand, small firms like Barton and Martin, a Philadelphia-based civil engineering firm, cannot afford to hire recent college graduates.

"We look for people with experience," project manager Jerry Dewaghe says. "It's not that we don't want to hire, it's that we don't have the resources to train them."

Shirley Harrison, a college relations representative for Bechtel Group Inc. in San Francisco, also finds that work experience is important when her firm hires college graduates for civil, mechanical, electrical, and environmental engineering. "Grade point averages don't tell it all," says Harrison. "We look for students who come out prepared with at least one quality internship."

National trends have shown a consistent number of bachelor's degrees awarded in engineering since 1987, and BLS does not project the number to increase anytime soon.

Even with a shaky economy, engineering grads are still very likely to find employment within six months of graduation.

"Historically, architectural and civil [engineers] get the highest number of offers," Drexel University Research Specialist Mark Palladino says.

According to Drexel's "Senior Survey," four months after the class of 2002 graduated, 74% of the engineering majors were employed full time, while 14% were still seeking a job.

Palladino says previous years were more lucrative for graduates. "Within the last few years, the class of 1999 was reporting 79%," he says. "The class of 2001 reported 84% employment full time after four months. For the class of 2003…it's probably going to be just as tough this year as it was for the class of 2002."

According to Virginia Tech's "Post Graduate Report," graduates of an engineering program were more likely to get a job than graduates of any other program, except for business, in 2001. Within the engineering school, ocean engineers reported the highest percentage of employment, followed by civil/environmental operations and civil engineers. Most graduates found jobs through personal contacts or networking.

Palladino says Drexel students have a unique advantage, because "the co-op experience definitely gives our students an edge over other students."

Michelle Fuller

Michelle Fuller, a senior at Drexel, will be graduating this June with a job. The civil and architectural engineering double major was hired by Nave-Newell, a consulting engineering and planning firm specializing in residential, retail and commercial land development, in Cherry Hill, N.J.

Fuller's job hunt wasn't very long. In October, she attended Drexel's job fair, with resumes in hand. Fuller researched companies attending the fair in advance and arrived early to hand out her resume. Afterward, Fuller signed up with Drexel's online system for job interviews and had two out of three interviews on campus. By Thanksgiving, she was offered a position as staff engineer at Nave-Newell.

To Fuller, getting a job right now is "kind of just luck." By the time Fuller attended the job fair, she had already completed three co-ops. "Drexel's not so bad because of co-op," she says. "You know how to act in interviews."

But with unemployment on the rise, Fuller says, "The people who have jobs are very nervous they're not going to have them later on down the road."

Carter's advice for graduating engineers: "Be well-rounded, really focus on getting everything [you] possibly can out of school…focus on academic excellence."

"From year one, try to find summer jobs in a related field," says Dewaghe. "This is very important for civil engineers."

Carter says it is also important for graduates to "be able to interview effectively. Do your homework…understand about the corporation and articulate how you can add value to the business. Be mature and professional in an interview."

Fuller says to "relax and be yourself" when interviewing for a job, "and if they don't like you the way you are, then you're not going to like the job."


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