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What are the career prospects for engineering grads?

Ryan Matthews

Not all industries offer a promising future for university students – we reveal the true career prospects for Australian engineering graduates

Just as engineering employers vary widely in size, field of expertise, and global presence, so do too the career prospects that greet newly hired graduates. Some international organisations offer graduates a fast track to more challenging roles in a range of locations; other businesses may emphasise the merits of graduates getting as much as they can out of junior roles before assuming more challenging responsibilities. Overall, however, the outlook is good for engineers of all stripes: they have the opportunity to use their graduate positions as a springboard for all manner of impressive domestic and international careers.

What do the statistics say?

According to a 2017 report, the proportion of graduates from all disciplines who found a full-time job within four months of graduating (in 2016) was 68.8 per cent. On average, however, engineering graduates fare significantly better: 77.7 per cent of civil engineering graduates find a full-time job within four months of graduating, as do 78.1 per cent of electrical engineers, 78.5 per cent of computing engineers, and 76.3 per cent of mining engineers.

Of course, this only demonstrates one’s prospects upon graduating – what about the long-term picture? Engineers Australia’s 2017 vacancies report indicates that growth in the number of available positions has been relatively consistent across disciplines and, as a result of the downturn in Australia’s resources boom, consistent across states. While long-term projections are difficult to model – the vacancy rate for engineers has, historically, been quite volatile – the report’s findings do suggest that contemporary graduates can look forward to a stable career within the foreseeable future.

Where can you go?

Graduate engineers are most often assigned to teams supervised by experienced engineers. In larger organisations, these supervisors may oversee training for graduates, and represent the first point of contact if graduates have any questions or concerns. They also, to a large extent, control the flow of work to graduates, aiming to assign projects that correspond to an individual graduate’s knowledge and experience. Over time, these projects tend to get more difficult and require graduates to assume more independence.

However, that’s only the beginning. As a graduate engineer gains experience, they have the opportunity to build a career that takes them across the world (if they so desire) and lets them focus on the talents or challenges they find most fulfilling. Some of the positions that a graduate engineer might aspire to include:

Advisory/managerial roles

After you’ve gained sufficient experience as a graduate, you may aim to move up within the hierarchy of an engineering organisation into supervisory or managerial roles. Engineering management roles are competitive, and successful applicants are often those who have diversified their skillset by undertaking complementary training in areas such as business, management, human resources, economics, accounting, quality control, or a related field.

Many engineering managers possess a relevant graduate qualification, such as a Master of Engineering Management or Master of Business Administration. They also tend to have extensive experience working on complex and high-profile projects or leading teams in a non-managerial capacity.

Finally, before applying for managerial positions, many engineers pursue professional accreditation through a member’s body such as Engineers Australia (which accredits Chartered Engineers) or the Association of Professional Engineers Australia (which grants the title of ‘Registered Professional Engineer of Professionals Australia’).

Engineering managers assume a range of responsibilities, which include hiring and supervising staff, determining project budgets, drafting project schedules, leading research teams, and coordinating with other senior personnel.

Ultimately, many engineering managers who bring in new clients, demonstrate strong leadership and deliver on lucrative or complex projects end up pursuing the most senior role of all: partnership. This involves assuming partial ownership of an engineering firm (most often by making a sizeable financial investment). Partners have an enormous amount of responsibility and are expected to make decisions about the overall focus and strategy of a firm. They usually forego a salary and, instead, receive dividends that are determined by the firm’s overall performance.

Related specialisations

As a graduate, you may pursue specialised roles related to your subdiscipline. These frequently involve extensive on-the-job training or the completion of a relevant graduate degree. For example, civil engineers may choose to focus on project management, or the management of design, construction, maintenance, or operations. Similarly, mechanical engineers might choose to specialise in areas such as energy and sustainability, robotics, nanotechnology, or product design.

How long does it take to progress?

The time it takes you to progress from a graduate engineering position into a mid-level or senior role varies according to factors such as your experience, performance, contribution to high-profile projects, acquisition of graduate accreditations, and so on. As such, there’s no simple answer to the question of how long it will take you to win your first few promotions. As a general guide, it helps to bear in mind that graduate programs themselves are often two years long. Moreover, many competitive midlevel and senior roles require one to become a chartered or professional engineer, which itself requires you to possess at least five years of on-the-job experience.

What factors lead to career progression?

As mentioned above, there are various factors that can expedite (or slow down) your career progression. In addition to quantifiable metrics, such as your professional performance and academic certifications, hiring managers often look favourably on traits such as ambition, engagement with training, hard work, enthusiasm, and the ability to network effectively. For more specific advice on how graduates can position themselves to make competitive applications when career advancement opportunities arise, we turned the question over to our industry insiders. Here’s what they had to say:

‘The nature of one’s career progression varies from department to department, but there is definitely a lot of potential for rising through the ranks.’  

– Graduate, Sydney, ANSTO

‘Who would want to work for a company where moving up was a 10/10 easy? If that were the case, they would be promoting people who didn’t deserve the role. You should be prepared to work hard and prove yourself.’

– Midlevel, Brisbane, Boeing Defence Australia

‘I find performance and commitment is well recognised, and promotions occur when deserved (i.e, there are no ‘rules’ about when it cannot happen).’

– Midlevel, Sydney, Cochlear

‘I am only one year into my career so it’s a little hard to comment. However, speaking with colleagues assures me that if you work hard and can prove competence, progressing your career through the ranks is definitely doable.’

– Graduate, Melbourne, Wood

‘If you want to progress in your career, hard work is important, but it also definitely helps to meet the right people.’

– Graduate, Perth, Shell

If you’re in your penultimate year of uni, consider applying for an engineering internship, or if you’re graduating soon, search for graduate jobs now - applications usually open in March, during your final year of university.