The Grunt Years Are Not a Bad Thing!

The Grunt Years Are Not a Bad Thing!

Your first job might not be awesome.

Very early on in my engineering career, I was lucky enough to get a job as a Manufacturing Engineer at Magna. I was involved in all kinds of problem-solving; my team and I connected with multiple people to come up with solutions to problems in real-time. Not only that, but I also got to see the financial impact of my project work on the company, which I found very satisfying. Were there non-glamourous elements to my responsibilities? You bet – lots of them, actually.

Grunt work?  Not a bad thing.

Regardless of how mundane or boring the tasks you’re given seem to be, remember this: now is the time for you to to be a sponge.  It’s a time to break off a little (read: manageable, not insignificant) piece of a real-world problem and make it your own.  It’s a time to earn your stripes, soak up all the training you can get. It’s time for enjoying all those fun and important firsts.

  • first performance review
  • first business trip
  • first business cards
  • first paycheque (how will you spend it?)

These firsts aren’t just fun milestones, they are valuable learning experiences!

Valuable learning experiences are precisely what these first years of your career are all about.  You can make mistakes with relatively little consequence – it’s possible everyone expects you to anyway!

Watch those around you, and learn to build your skills.  You’ve got a head full of fancy math that you’d love to use, but just as important (if not more), some other stuff you probably didn’t learn in engineering school:  selling an idea, getting people to help you, reading between the lines of office politics, figuring out how to get things done, developing your network, and investing in those around you.

Really show up to work every day.

There are piles of advantages to bringing your full creative, awesome, invested, engaged self with you to work everyday. Not only will you get the right kind of attention and earn a reputation for being a great team player and high-impact worker, but you will soak up FAR more learning. Opportunities for advancement and extra training will seek you out, and you’ll be given chances to take on more responsibility.  Then, that’s right, bye-bye grunt work!

Learning below the surface

If you keep your personal goals front and centre, it won’t matter how dreary or bland the meat of your job is. As you keep your eyes on the prize and bring your awesomeness to the table, you’ll be soaking up opportunities that prepare you for your next step.  Think of it as training for the mind, the same way an athlete trains the body.

Bring the full weight of your skill, passion, and investment to every moment – especially the grunt moments – and you will find your way forward sooner than you think.


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Engineering wardrobe: What to wear when you don’t know what to wear

I had a conundrum on my way to a networking meeting this morning.  The contact I was meeting is a potential client for a large engineering firm.  My hope is to get hired to do some consulting work for this firm, so I want to look professional and impressive.  Yet, I want to convey that I have a lot of credibility – that I can roll up my sleeves and get things done.

As far as I can tell there are two distinct schools of thought when it comes to professional dress.  I believe there are good uses for both, and I was caught between the two of them this morning.

1) Gear #1: Blend and assimilate.

What it looks like: This gear looks like someone who wants to most accurately mimic the norms of the given company, industry that you are looking to enter. Your aim is to create a look that absolutely minimizes the splash or impression you will make.

This guy had no trouble picking out what to wear.  Image courtesy of

What you’re trying to do: Your aim is to camoflage and fit in, get a chance to make your name. Your unspoken message is that ‘I understand and respect the norms of this territory. I am humble and eager. I am willing to learn.’

What it looks like: Amongst women, this might mean wearing black or navy, wearing a tailored or boxy suit, keeping makeup minimal. In engineering or other male-dominated industries this might mean wearing khakis, workshirts or other styles meant to make you blend into a typically masculine way of dressing. In men it probably means a suit in conversative colours. The common thread for all genders is that you don’t want to take any chances. You just want to check the boxes and move to the next phase.

When it’s good: When you’re in the very first stages of a job interview process and just looking to get by the various gatekeepers of the process (i.e. HR folks who are not assessing you on your technical skills but on your ability present yourself). When you’re working in a very traditional environment, when you’re applying to your very first job and haven’t got a lot of credentials to fall back upon.

2) Gear #2: Differentiate and work it.

What it looks like: This gear looks like someone who is doing what they please. You want to express yourself, demonstrate your identity.  The beauty of this style is that it can look so many different ways: bright colours, eye-catching styles, stunning eye-wear.

What you’re trying to do: Your aim is to maximize your creative expression of yourself in a way that says ‘hey world, here I am!’. Your aim is to most fully express yourself and make yourself happy and comfortable.

What it looks like: Amongst women, this could be floral prints, more jewelry, maybe a nice manicure to make it pop.  It could mean dressing in a figure-flattering way, accessorizing with scarves or adornments, or great flashy or high-heeled shoes.  For those of us that grew up on the shop floor this was never an option; below the ankles was all about steel-toed shoes, so you’re clomping more than strutting.  Also, you may to be picking things up and getting dirty.  A friend of mine once laughed at me for wearing my girl guide uniform pants to work, but you have to admit that there’s some logic in wearing decade-old pants in a grubby environment. (I was NOT working it back then – but that’s a whole other story).

When men want to work it, they can add a pop of colour or some statement eye-wear.   I always admire a man who goes out of his way to add a little fashion sense to his look, without any fear of compromising his masculinity.

When it’s good: When you want to be remembered.  When you know who you’re meeting and what they are looking for, and you can express it through your appearance.  For example, a pop of colour can say – hey, I am creative and innovative.  A statement button that helps you show common values with your audience.  I wear my Rotary pin when I know I’ll be interacting with others that will enjoy the ‘Service above Self’ message.  When you work in an environment where you can energize others through making a bit of a statement (which is probably every workplace!).  Of course you need to accommodate all safety regulations.

Most ‘what to wear’ for engineers will tell you that Gear #1 is the only one you’ll ever need.  You’ll need to recognize when being different is going to hurt your credibility or otherwise cause trouble for you.  But I would encourage you to weigh the cost of not being yourself in the long term. Gear #1 to get the job, Gear #2 to keep it.

It’s a fine balance. What do you think? What approach are you taking in picking your engineering wardrobe? Good luck!

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Engineering in Canada: A special report

Yesterday a Special Report in the Globe and Mail: Engineering in Canada June 6 came out.  For our international readers, the Globe and Mail is one of Canada’s most important national newspapers.

I was honoured to have my comments included in it (check out bottom of page 2!) because I am passionate about inspiring and supporting the next generation of engineers, and I am excited by what they will bring to the table which will transform our profession and, by extension, our world.  

I’m also lucky enough to have worked and volunteers with many of the awesome organizations mentioned in the report, like Actua Canada, the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers and Engineers Without Borders.

All the stories in this report are incredible stories in their own way but here’s the one that best screams headline in my mind:

By the numbers
16,000:  Number of new engineering jobs due to investments in resource and infrastructure projects,
between 2011 and 2020
95,000: Number of engineers that will retire by 2020
Source: Engineers Canada, 2012

So, next generation, are you listening?  You have a LOT of work to do.  Good thing you are so smart!  The conversations you are having with yourself now about your own goals might seem trivial, but you are part of a VERY important big picture.

Enjoy this report and please leave your comments, questions and contributions to this extremely important and exciting dialogue.

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Three new must-haves for your engineering job search

Many new grads and 4th year engineering students are stumped by the challenge of finding a job!  Here are three simple and essential things that you can do (either while working or while in school) to prep yourself for a smooth successful job search:
1) An updated, complete LinkedIn profile is absolutely essential.  Once you get your profile set up you should join some LinkedIn groups – there are tons of them, everything from alumni associations (a great source of contacts) to  professional associations to groups about your discipline of engineering, industry of interest or another type of group (e.g. your favourite hobby).  These groups have questions and discussions, and sometimes events too.  Go join those groups and introduce yourself.  Contribute to some discussions or start some yourself.    Voila – new networking buddies!
2) Networking.  This concept is technically not new – but probably new to you! Most students (and I say this with love) have been living in a bubble, where campus events, exams and the universe that contains your friends have crowded out your knowledge and awareness of the outside world.  But you’re getting ready to join that world – so now you need to get out there and spend some time in it!  Online networking is tempting because you can do it in your fuzzy slippers, while snacking and watching youtube videos, but I’d definitely recommend in-person networking too.   Put on some business casual clothes and go out there.  Oh wait, go where?
Check Eventbrite for your city, Career Services at your school, the engineering professional association (OSPE and PEO in Ontario), your school’s alumni association for events you can attend.  You can also try volunteering with some of those organizations, or contacting any one of them –   I’ve also found there is excellent networking available through Rotary, or perhaps another club or association of which you’re a member (Toastmasters?  Boy Scouts? Figure Skating club?).  Don’t be afraid to put the word out that you are looking to connect with a great new opportunity.
 Try to just get out there and learn something.  It can be tedious sometimes but also really enjoyable to meet new people and chat!  You’ll need to stay positive and put effort into thinking about the great job you are going to land.  If you get discouraged, take a break and do something you enjoy until you feel ready to get out there again.   Somewhere, someone out there is looking for you – you want to be smiling and in the right frame of mind to show off your best qualities when you meet them.
3) Follow-up: (You’d be stunned if you knew how many young people take my business card and then do not contact me. Tons!).  Once you have connected with a few people (from your preferred industry or companies you think you might like to work for), ask them if they would be willing to have a quick 15 minute conversation with you to learn more about their career,  their company and what advice they would have for you.  I’d recommend you also ask questions about what those companies are working on, what challenges they are facing, what skills they are looking for.  For example, maybe it’s not pure design they need right now, but some other aspect of your skills that you could offer.
These are called information interviews and they are incredibly useful.  If you ask someone for advice, they will be very happy to give it. If you feel the conversation is going well, offer them a copy of your resume and ask them if they know of any opportunities (or better yet, connect with them on LinkedIn), they will more than likely say yes.   I hear you, this part can be hard.  You will get used to it though.   Being willing to put yourself out there makes you stand out, in a good way.  If 4 out of 5 are really nice and helpful, who cares about that 5th?  :)
Let me stress this – you are NOT wasting their time.  You are not being a bother.  Every single one of us has been there, and needed help and advice when we were first starting out.   People might be busy but they are never unwilling to help, really.
You can also keep an eye on job postings from monster, workpolis, local publications and newspapers, etc.  But more than half of jobs come from the ‘hidden job market’ – the kind of thing you can only tap into by networking, connecting and asking!
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