Tips & Tricks

4 Secret Tips for Graduate Engineers Seeking Employment

I have employed and worked with some amazing young graduate engineers. When we look for graduate structural engineers to employ at Cornell Engineers we use the standard job search pages that you already know about, ie Seek and Indeed.

Every time we advertise a vacant position for a structural engineer we are flooded with applications. Our priority is shortlisting applications by removing the applications that do not show a determined approach to gaining our attention.

If you want to make it past round one of the job application process, here are my four secret tips for graduate civil and structural engineers seeking a graduate or junior structural engineer employment role in their first years out of university:

  1. Think like a business
  2. Clean up your resume
  3. Work really hard all the way through university
  4. Choose experience over pay

1. Think Like a Business

It’s time to think like a business. It’s the business of you. Your customer is any company that you would be willing to work for. Your product is you.

To get that first job your product (which is “you”) needs to stand out from the competition.

How do businesses stand out? They target. They do research. They market. In that order.

Think like a business before you apply for a vacant graduate engineering job and answer these questions:

  • Why should the employer buy “you”?
  • What makes “you” different from the other products?
  • How will buying “you” benefit your customer.

See what’s happening? You’re still focusing on your skillset, but you’re thinking about what makes “you” more useful to the customer than the other products. You’re putting yourself in their shoes and thinking like a business.

Remember this: A job advertisement isn’t actually about “you”. It’s not about benefits and lunch breaks and free fruit and what they can do to improve “you”.

A job advertisement is about a company. It’s about a deadline, a growth plan, an upcoming job, a temporary vacancy or a successful business in demand growing to meet the need. They need to get a job done. They just need someone to do it.

The business of “you” is to identify that business, research that business and answer the business’s question of why “you” are just perfect for the job.

Got it? Good. Next.

2. Clean up your resume

Cull the Dull. I’m talking about your resume.

A resume is where the selling of “you” takes place but keep it real.

When an employer advertises a vacant position they are inundated with applications, resumes, cover letters, phone calls, emails and social media feeds. Ugh. They just want to hire the best 1 / 10 / 100 engineers they can lay their hands on and they are taking a risk.

They are asking a risk because they know that you, as a graduate engineer, know nothing. You don’t know that yet because you just finished all those years of school and you think you know HEAPS right?

Except for an employer you all know the same as each other. You all know Nothing. And the first thing any company is going to have to do is train you. They’ll have to train you to write professional emails, how to set out calculations, how to answer the phone professionally and how to speak to a customer. These things are all very foreign to you.

How can you stand out in this jungle of similar, educated but unknowledgeable applicants? What makes you better?

Be better than that know-all/know-nothing bunch even before you write an application.

  1. Know more about the business and what they do than anyone else.
  2. Know about the interview process before it even starts.
  3. Know more about the people who work there. Research them. Look them up on LinkedIn. Google them. Who recommends them? Who else have they worked for? Where else have they worked? What have you got in common? Are they nice people?
  4. Chop the extravagant statements from your resume. You do NOT have extensive experience in design and analysis. You do not have an unparalleled understanding of statics. You are NOT a master of Microsoft Office, Autodesk and 3D modelling. You just aren’t. Be humble.
  5. Chop the high school days from your resume unless you were a standout student/sportsperson/musician. If your interviewer loves dogs and you have three dogs, that can stay but don’t make it overt.
  6. Make it easy for the recruiter to contact you. Position your phone number somewhere prominently. Make your email a clickable link. Make sure your resume and cover letter are in PDF format so nobody loses the document formatting.
  7. Write an application cover letter that stands out. Your greatest asset is you. You are willing to learn. You retain knowledge and that you work hard.
  8. When you get an interview, be enthusiastic. Ask questions.

At the end of my fourth year, there was just one graduate structural engineer job advertised at the university. The employer was keen – anyone who applied got an interview. I saw it last and was the last to apply.

I was the last in my class to have an interview.

I turned up early. I asked lots of questions. I was interested in the answers. I asked more questions.

Apparently, nobody else did that, because as we travelled 400km back to my home town my parents were receiving a call to say “I got the job.” and “Could I start in three days?” That’s how it started for me and it should work for you too.

3. Work Hard all the way through University

From the very minute you arrive at university to the very minute you secure your first job, you will be evaluated against how hard you work.

If you think your first-year results won’t be considered by recruiters and that a first-year blip will be overlooked, you’re wrong.

It all counts. Work hard.

I’m not saying that university can’t be fun for engineers, but man, the rest of your life will be easier if you start working hard sooner.

Go to tutorials. Attend lectures (in person is better). Write notes like they did in the old days. Study those notes.

Work hard and get the best results you can because those results matter four years later when you go to apply for a job.

I wasn’t the smartest kid in my class. Even in high school, I had to attend weekend tutorials in maths and physics just about every weekend. It was hard stuff. The concepts and learning were hard.

Thanks to my parents driving me (literally driving me because we lived 20 kilometres from my high school) and pushing me I got into the university of my choice doing the course I wanted to do. I had worked hard and it paid off.

At university, things change. Nobody drives you. Nobody ares if you don’t turn up to lectures.

You can miss classes. You can skip tutorials. Nobody notices if you attend skip every lecture and every tutorial.

But I am warning you: leave the study until the night before and you’re going to get caught out.

You need to work hard all through university. Attend every lecture. Go to every tutorial. Work hard because you are already competing for jobs; you just don’t know it or appreciate it yet.

4. Choose experience over pay

A good job.

That’s what you’re looking for when you graduate right? One of those big companies with a graduate development program where you can slot into another type of engineering if you don’t like the one you start with. Wouldn’t that be a good job?

Maybe those big companies pay more than the little guys too. Bonus!

Once they slot you into a windowless office cubicle and you start reading and editing office procedures manuals, how long before you are a qualified engineer?


Doing menial tasks, even in a big exciting company, doesn’t make you a better engineer. It makes you a number.

In three or fours year you’re going to want to apply for chartered membership or RPEQ status. What will you have to show for your time? Will you have had major parts in many projects or will you have shuffled, career changed and completed menial tasks for four years?

Some big companies don’t even push you to become charteredn or registered. You have become a number. A bum on a seat. You are a backroom engineer.

Where can you gain some solid experience sooner?

In a firm with less than 6 structural engineers in the office.

There’s nowhere to hide in a small firm.

You’ll be talking to clients. You’ll be designing and using design programs like you dreamt about. You’ll be helping people and learning to be a better engineer.

You’ll be getting jobs done and learning more than your mates that are stuck deep in the bowels of a big company.

A good first job is one that starts contributing to your professional capacity as a structural engineer from day one.

It worked for me and it will work for you.

Want to become a great engineer? Choose experience over pay.

By Matthew Cornell

Matt Cornell is a structural engineer with 25 years experience in residential structural engineering. He lives in Northgate on the northern side of Brisbane, Australia.

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