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Is starting a professional career in Construction and Engineering still possible in the Covid-19 era?

Posted: 10th November 2020

Becan Lawless has a First Class Honours Master’s degree and a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Manchester

The year of 2020 has been characterised by many hits to the global economy, an unprecedented extent of uncertainty and some of the highest levels of unemployment in recent memory. It also happens to be the year that I finished my PhD, ready to go out into the business world and start my engineering career. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has not quite taken off in the way I had hoped. In this post I wanted to provide a bit of anecdotal insight into being a recent engineering graduate who is struggling to find an employment opportunity and reflect on some of the things that are helping me keep going.

The number one adjective this year for me has been “frustrating”. I feel that I have built up my skills and experiences enough to be capable of a job in engineering, but out of the 100+ applications I have sent I can count the unprompted responses I have received on one hand. These include rejections. When I have pushed recruiters for feedback the general consensus has been that I do not have sufficient engineering experience for the advertised role. And no, the engineering I did for my PhD doesn’t count; I checked.

I happily acknowledge that previous direct experience is required for many jobs. The issue as I see is that in 2020 the only jobs that exist are the ones for people already within the industry. For an employer this makes sense as a less experienced hire brings a higher degree of risk. I finished my PhD in May 2020, and after some considerable effort I was able to find professional engineering employment in July 2020. Two and a half months later I and some colleagues were made redundant - last-in first-out. Meaning, it has been a tough year even for those who are already within the industry.

So I know first-hand that there is plenty of difficulty and risk for many companies who want to make opportunities available. Despite the short-term risk reduction, however I also worry that this hiring freeze will lead to a generation of engineers being turned away and moving to other career paths. I’m strongly considering it although I’ve been working towards a job in engineering for eight years. I also can’t help but feel that an erosion of the acceptance of ‘transferable skills’ in favour only of direct experience will lead to the talent pool becoming more brittle, and for my own sake I have to hope this attitude doesn’t run too deep or graduates like myself will remain locked out indefinitely.

Considering this I currently have three goals for myself:

  1. Maintain direct goals that I can actively work towards - In the absence of a job, my biggest enemy has been my own lack of motivation. I have lost entire weeks to this monolith. It’s an uphill battle, but each project I undertake with a clear endpoint has helped me commit to something productive, and each small success has motivated me to keep trying a little bit longer.
  2. Keep to a routine - This year has been out of the ordinary for everyone and for many people (myself included) this has broken down the routines that help structure the day-to-day. In the absence of a job it is very easy to let the days blur together. Anything you can do to add structure to your day or week is a success. I have found that if I can commit to something significantly ahead of time I find it easier to achieve. If I decide if I want to exercise five minutes ahead of time I usually will pick not to. By committing myself to certain times every week I remove the momentary decision and am far more likely to stick to the positive routine.
  3. Keep applying - This may seem obvious but on reflection I have been trying less and less to find work as the year has dragged on. While it does feel like an unpleasant chore, there is no path to employment that doesn’t involve this step. While to me it may be Application No. 105, to the person reading it is Application No. 1. I have to keep putting the hours in and eventually I will find the employer who decides to take me on.

I am mindful that it is useful to reflect on my own position, and the position of others. While my situation is challenging, I am by no means alone. There are first year engineering students who are socially isolated and stranded away from family and friends at home with remote learning. People have been displaced from their jobs. Empathy is surely a crucial part of the path to recovery.

Contributor: Becan Lawless has a First Class Honours Master’s degree and a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Manchester