Your first job

by Nga Cao (nhuong@cais.cais.com)

Your first job...Remember how you found it? How you fell those first few days, weeks, months as an engineer?... How far have you gone since then? For those of you who have yet to experience this important event, here are a few real life stories to wet your appetites: ( all names have been changed for privacy)

-Tran had gone to school in a rural area in a small state. Upon graduation with high honors in 1989, she received several offers by companies such as Texas Instruments and Micron as well as several groups within a government agency. She chose to join one of the government groups that specializes in semiconductor detector systems because she was interested in the physics of semiconductors and also because this agency is located in a large urban area. Since then, she has been very happy with the quality of her assignments there and is highly regarded by colleagues and supervisors.

-Nguyen graduated at the top 10% of his class in the early 80's. He had spent his junior year summer testing wafers at IBM in a co-op program. In his senior year, he started a work study project at school. As a result, he did not have time to concentrate on his job search and only had two offers by the time he graduated: one was at a nuclear plant and the other at IBM's wafer fab. He agonized over this slim choice because he did not believe in either nuclear power or IBM's way of life. So he kept on reading the employment section of the newspaper and polishing his resume. One day he sent one to the local Hewlett-Packard plant, fully aware from a campus interview with its representatives that there were no openings for new graduates that year... To his great surprise, he was hired that summer. At HP, he found his true calling which is power electronics. He is now a respected power supply designer at another company.

-Le graduated at the top of his school in the late 80's. He took part in an engineering co-op program at at a government organization during the summer of his junior year and was offered a position there. He also received several offers from out of state companies which he declined, believing that a government job was more secure. A few years later, he obtained his MSEE but was growing impatient with engineering... He became a part-time finance officer and soon found himself handling the affairs of his colleagues, sometimes conducting business at work. Needless to say, the amount and quality of engineering assignments he got deteriorated, as well as the number of his promotions, until finally he had to transfer to other groups within the same organization.

These stories illustrate a simple fact: for a young engineer just out of school, the first few jobs are the most important. The experience this engineer gets there , more than anywhere else, helps shape his/her perception of the entire profession and, ultimately, determines his/her area of specialization and how well his/her engineering career will fare, for they are used by subsequent employers in hiring decisions.

Of course, not everyone is as lucky as Tran, who gets to chose a job she likes which was also stable and rewarding. Most of us have to start again several times, even if we find our technical vocations, because fields that boomed some years may be phasing out the next, especially in industry. Therefore, it's essentially a race against time ( and obsolescence!) to find our niches in this profession; the sooner we find and the longer we keep them, the better off we are, both professionally and personally. More frequently, though, niches are found by people who enjoy, and therefore are good at, what they do. Whereas people who chose engineering " because they were told to" eventually fall by the wayside unless they break into management, an unlikely development since they would have to compete with the WASP natives to get there...

Thus, while the pressure to find jobs among graduating seniors is great, it is just as important to find the right ones. The young engineer, like Nguyen, is often faced with the dilemna: do I take one of the jobs offered me or do I hold out and keep on looking for the "right" ones?( losely defined as: one that I will enjoy doing for at least 40 hours a week).

Unfortunately, this fact tend to get lost upon a number of young vietnamese engineers, who, like Le, tend to make job decisions based on secondary factors such as the perceived security of the job being offered, the prestige and size of the employer, the location of the job, the size of the compensation and parental or friendly advice etc... Also unfortunate is the fact that most professional organizations offer advice to seniors on HOW to get the jobs but NOT how to decide WHICH kinds of jobs to apply for ( probably some sort of a personality test...).

As a result, some of these bright young people eventually find themselves in the un-enviable position of having to change course in mid-career, switching specialties, moonlighting in non-engineering fields or dropping out altogether. These are certainly risky decisions and the risk goes up the later in life they are made. Above all, they represent a big loss to the engineering profession: of talent, energy and enthusiasm, of years of education and investments...

Is this a problem? Is it inevitable? Are first job experiences that important? You are invited to voice your opinions and comments and, if desired, to tell your stories ( all information will be kept confidential). Perhaps together, we can broaden our data base as to how often vietnamese engineers drop out and find a way to help our engineering students sort out their options early in life.


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