How to cultivate new hires

I often think about the tools and tips I am using to encourage the technical and professuinal growth of the young engineers we hire. I have found and used many (often with the help of great folks like yourselves!)

Over the past few interns, I am accepting the reality that the resources I think are relevant are obviously NOT as relevant than I thought. You can point fingers at me and shout white male privilege at me and I will Agree, but we have to move past that, to solutions. The engineering discipline will falter if a generation enters having no mechanical skill.

They read few books. They have not spent time in workshops. My introductions to “common” shop tools is their first exposure to them at 23 years old. Last month I had to explain what a relay is to a guy with a Masters in ME.

When I was 14 years old I was soldering relays and CMOS logic modules to PCBs. I can’t relate to these people I am supposed to teach.

I am crying for help here, to begin working on a new approach to cultivating new recruits, hired out of university.

  • how to frame the problem, fairly
  • what skills I should start with
  • where to back off my expectations
  • where to stand firm on things they should know

Maybe the university is the problem. I see undergraduates building projects in Lego.

Nobody in my year expected labs to be FUN. (they were, but often only in some masochistic fashion).

Is your problem finding recruits, keeping them, or teaching them everything they should have learned at university?

I’m with @GregLocock. The problem is likely the university. If you line up a dozen interns, I could easily pick out which ones went to which (state) university. I’ll hire interns from one of the universities, but I won’t convert them to a full-time employee. They are generally useless when it comes to real-world problem solving, design, or engineering.

Universities have brought on the “fun” approach to try to recruit more people into the profession. The problem is, the people with the fun mindset that are only there because it is fun, don’t have the right stuff to handle all the other aspects of engineering. It’s not always fun. While universities are doing a great job increasing the number of diverse people entering the field, they are doing a disservice by not washing out the ones that shouldn’t be in it - leaving the employers to do it instead.

What a waste of time for the student who could have spent those 4 years and all that money on a more fulfilling career.

To some degree I could point at the university, for enrolling students not having a specific interest in Eng and rather just fitting them to a profile based on high school marks.

There are many other differences that seem to eliminate any hands on work from peoples’ lives, whatever their origin. No interest, no reason to take an interest. But I just can’t see how engineering can be fulfilling without those interests.

Beyond that I want to disavow any resposibility. I would but it is still part of my job description. And I can’t help thinking that part of my frustration is that I haven’t hit on the right approach yet.

Pretty sure Lego Mindstorms is a side issue, or at most a symptom of the problem. Whether Lego, or tinkertoy, or wooden blocks, if Technology, seen as an important element of culture, is not part of the world you want to master, then engineering is not for you. If you are not so engaged by Technology that by 20 years old you havent read a trade journal, parts catalog, or car service manual, let alone DO these things, then what hope should you have for doing this as a career?

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I was picking on Cambridge because I went there. The nearest we had to a kit for labs was putting together, and adjusting until calibrated, an analog multimeter. That was a lot of blood sweat and tears for the people who had never soldered before, and also many more hours than the lab time allowed (we nominally had 16 hours a week of labs, in practice every afternoon and a bit of the evening was not unusual). I also had a machine shop and metal fab shop to play with.

The one thing I’ve noticed about generational disparity is the positive reinforcement. Younger generations need that dopamine hit after everything they do. They also over share (blame social media).

I don’t over praise the younger generation, but I subdivide their tasks into smaller bites. That way they can feel like they are accomplishing something useful and get that “hit” more often. I also set up easy ways for them to communicate: MS Teams, WhatsApp, text, Slack, etc. Whatever you can implement within your company to add additional lines of communication will help them. (Notice that email is not on that list.)

Like anyone, they don’t want to feel stupid and they don’t want to admit to being stupid by asking questions. It’s rare to find a recent grad willing to ask questions in a public setting. They prefer to find the answer themselves on YouTube. But if you create communication paths that are less formal - more conversational or self help - they’ll often use them and ask the right questions.

We know that Universities are not preparing engineering grads for the rigors of the real world. We have to train them on things they should have been taught. The trick is the method of training. Short videos, Wiki’s, self-help (aka internal Google), are all things that will bring them up to speed faster.

It’s not their capabilities or your expectations. It’s a different approach to training & mentoring.

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Thank you swertel, that is the perspective I am looking for.

In fact I have a few “how-to notes” for my own personal use, but maybe polishing them would be of service.

The comm channels exist, but the opportunity to use them may need encouragement.

Will consider this more…

Have you talked to the interns asked them for their thoughts on this matter? Do you have anyone younger than you that has experience mentoring (even if it’s outside the office) to ask for their thoughts?

Very few options in regard to other people with mentoring experience. Relevant mentoring, that is… most I know will always stay away, or are a generation farther than me.

I do speak to our interns about what they need. They too may be locked into certain expectations, like me. They each have different goals, so these answers and contexts turn out differently each time - I am not a master at drawing the line through these points to spot the trend.

I think that old age comes with memory fog.

I graduated in 1979 with a couple of EEs that had never used an oscilloscope, and the ones we had in school were OLD, even then.

The fact that 30% of engineering graduates aren’t working in their discipline says something about the military/industrial complex; they have a vested interest in getting the most talent for the least dollar expenditure, and they’ve been pushing STEM college degrees regardless of aptitude, desire, or even demand. There are lots of people who graduate engineering but actually have zero desire to be there; we hired one such person in 1982, and they putzed around until they finally quit and went to work in their family’s restaurant.

Specific to the area of having/not having those skills you see as fundamental, what do the interns say when you share your observations on the matter?

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Great questiom @jari001! Do you get that “deer-in-the-headlights look” or do they say, without hesitation, “I don’t know now, but I will find the answer”. Is the issue too much of the former, and too little of the latter?

I ask that question more in the following vein:

SparWeb to interns: I’ve been working with handtools and such since I was a kid, it helps me with my work/problem solving in X, Y, and Z ways. If you didn’t have that experience, how do you know/think about < insert relevant topic >?

Intern to SparWeb: < Insert response(s) >

I wonder if current new hires/interns have learned new ways to circumvent this skill gap and this causes friction because they are coming into an environment where some other way of working is the norm. Maybe the interns never had the thought that the skill could be helpful because the knowledge from gaining that skill has been codified and taught as such.

I don’t eliminate the possibility that what they learned is imperfect or perhaps too shallow, but I want to get the intern’s side of things (if possible) before thinking how to answer the thread’s titular question.

Understood, my vein goes more towards the intern’s work ethic/character.

Oh, it’s usually the “deer in the headlights”. Doing technical labour simply has never occurred to most of them. They are usually amazed by my little “life story”. There was one exception, and that intern has gone onward and upward → last year she was collecting data from the static firing of an orbital rocket prototype. So there’s hope. I don’t just want the others to know what they’re missing, I want them to DO SOMETHING about it.

The environment of my youth (dairy farm) is completely different from their youthful environment (urban apartment/detached house). We all wear blinders about the experiences of others, and as I’ve been removing mine I think a lot of young people are getting shafted. They get funneled into STEM but their hands are always on educational toys, not greasy wrenches.

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There are several elements that I’m looking for:

  • Sense of curiosity, driving them to explore
  • Self-teaching, in many subjects
  • Mechanical ability, or an appreciation of technology

When considering curiosity, passive interest doesn’t count for much. I’m a bit curious about botany, and I like to identify plants growing around my house, but that won’t earn me a career! When they say they are curious about aircraft, but can’t name three types of airplane, their curiosity is just as useless. When it comes to self-teaching, most of what I have learned about programming, welding, fracture mechanics, and dog-training I just picked up myself, so I’m not impressed when somebody comes to me with a drone they snapped together from a kit.

A pet theory that I usually keep to myself (and reveal tentatively, here, too) is one of class distinction. I am basically talking about manual labour as a key to acquiring skill that can then be the foundation for knowledge. It makes me consider the social views against manual labour that people hold. It won’t be good to run very far on this subject without a rigorous basis of facts, which I don’t have, but I can speak somewhat soundly if I stick to Western culture, where I have a lifetime of observations and history books advising me. Class distinctions have a substantial effect on people’s choices and opportunities. When one activity is associated with a “lower class” then members of “higher classes” or those who aspire, discourage engagement in that activity. The freedom to break class boundaries is a recent phenomenon and still a somewhat rare dream fulfillment of “America”. So why would you find a young man in a workshop if his father didn’t work in one before him?

I can see that I’m spending too much time comparing people to myself, rather than seeing them for their own merits. I’ve broken class boundaries myself and proud of myself for doing it. Meeting others who don’t have to do that, but then come to me for guidance, I can’t relate. But I’m working on it.

This has become a bit too much of a rant, and I’ve let myself stray away from the goal of “how to” that I started with.

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Maybe more of an observation than helpful, but I also grew up on a farm, and now I live in a rural area, but commute to work, or work from home. That said, most of the younger engineers seem to have grew up in the city, and attempt to stay in the city, and that may be because there is not many rural areas around this city. But that can be said for many cities. And that maybe part of the issue, that you only find urban raised engineers, because the rural raised engineers can’t find a place to live near the city.

Sparweb, I think you touched on a good point in your last post: seeing them for their own merits. Maybe they don’t have all the skills you have, but they probably know some stuff that you don’t and you should figure out what that is and then leverage it while you catch them up in other areas.

As an example: My company had a new guy start a few years ago as a mechanical engineer and it became quickly apparent that he was completely undaunted by anything computer related and he would often dive deep into the settings menus in our CAD software to try and solve a problem, he’d try out new modeling techniques to improve workflow, edit XML settings files (which maybe weren’t intended to be edited by end users) etc. He quickly became the de facto guy for solving any software related problems in the engineering department and then ended up leading the CAD user group. None of that was in his job description, but he was good at it and had the drive for it, so we let him run with it and leveraged that to benefit the group. He wasn’t nearly as good at the actual mechanical engineering side of things as the more experienced people in the department, but he was the only one willing to put in the time to improve how we used our CAD software. To help improve him on the more mechanical side of things, he spent some time in our workshop and at customer sites, which definitely helped a lot. That eventually lead to him working directly with some people in our shop to try to improve how CAD data and drawings were shared back and forth between the shop and engineering, which again, none of the more experienced engineers were all that interested in doing or even saw that as an area for improvement. If we hadn’t recognized his general computer abilities, we would be a lot further behind in a lot of ways.


Excellent story, Stick.
That’s exactly the kind of inspiration I’m looking for.

I had lunch with my interns today, and rather than get into technical stuff, just talked to them about things that interest them.