Although universities prepare students with knowledge and expertise for meeting specific job role demands, they do far worse in terms of teamwork and company culture requirements. this is, in some ways, impossible to avoid. After all, each job comes with its own specifics.
Many electrical engineering graduates therefore, leave university with a thorough understanding of circuitry or microelectronics, but often aren’t equipped with basic ‘soft skills’: consider immeasurable qualities like project management potential, networking, good business sense, and so on.
Indeed, if you haven't personally shown interest in additional skills as a student or attended extracurricular activities, they are not guaranteed with your electronics engineering or electrical engineering (EE) qualification.
Surviving—and thriving—in an electrical engineering field is not only due to possessing dry engineering knowledge that stops once the university doors close behind you.
Practical, on-the-job effectiveness gathered from experience is also important: it is an area that can be substantially improved by learning from senior colleagues. That’s why you should consider finding yourself a mentor.
When Should You Consider Having a Mentor?
Mentorship can be useful before you become a professional in your field. You can pick up a lot of valuable insights from senior alumni or peer-to-peer mentoring while you are still a graduate.
Mentorship resources have been set up for underrepresented groups in the STEM fields; for instance, Mentornet, which is an e-mentorship programme with an over 90% success rate, primarily aimed at female students.
An electrical engineer learning to diagram a circuit. Image courtesy of Bigstock.
From beyond the limits of student classes and into fieldwork, a similar mentorship is run by Georgia Tech College, which links women graduates with professional female engineers from Georgia Power. Even further from the strict career orientation for EEs, there is another successful example of a generic mentorship initiative, ESW (Engineers for a Sustainable World): a voluntary access network for supporting sustainability innovators.
Mentoring can also be a part of a professional learning and development plan (a sort of business academy), as in the case of Consulting-Specifying Engineer, aka CSE, a consulting engineering firm that sees the future of engineering in career progress, particularly by learning from hands-on job training.
For a true grasp of how a project is executed, from start to finish—be it in a real factory, a plant, or a manufacturing department, and so on—you need to work on it in a business setting.
You can do this with fewer obstacles by building a mentor-mentee relationship. Sometimes, engineers work under a mentor simply because they don’t have a choice. Becoming a chartered engineer or obtaining your professional engineer licence requires additional specific learning. Often, it is necessary to train and practise under the guidance of someone who has been in your shoes.
Regardless of whether you need to establish a formal mentorship in order to build a career or simply attend informal luncheons to network and glean deeper insights about the nature of your job, you can gain a lot from a trusted mentor.
Mentorship Done Right
Working under a mentor is a two-way relationship and should be modelled to help both sides gain the benefits that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Both the mentor and the mentee must start by recognising the role of the other, act with respect and commitment, and set some firm rules and boundaries at the start for the mentorship. If handled the right way, mentorship can help a young engineer prepare for performing in a full job without supervision.
It’s more challenging if you have to do this all by yourself in an informal mentorship programme. But you can learn a lot about treading the off-the-cuff mentorship waters by looking first at best practices in the field.
An engineer instructing another on CAD drawings. Image courtesy of Bigstock.
The IEEE does this via its integrated community Collabratec, which offers testimonials that prove the importance of having local or long-distance or mentoring support (for instance, during a first performance review on a new job).
The IET has an innovative approach with a variety of mentoring schemes that connect engineers from different seniority levels. You can apply individually to become a mentor, find yourself an e-mentor from your speciality, or otherwise connect with a ‘Young Professional Buddy’—a scheme designed for beginner engineers.
Indeed, the IET was the right choice for now-product manager Nicola Combe, for instance, who, on the road to becoming a chartered engineer, experimented with more than one mentor until she found the person (a senior engineer) who was truly willing to dedicate time and effort to the mentorship.
At the IET, companies have the option to set a comprehensive mentorship scheme to guide staff towards developing their careers. Company-wide schemes have proven to be an effective retention scheme for less attractive career fields outside of the scope of the IET, too.
Building a Mentorship Partnership
Given that the burden of passing the knowledge on is usually on the mentor’s shoulders, you may think that being a mentee is a passive role. But as with any growth process, you reap what you sow. As Nicola Tesla says, you must have a goal in your mind.
The US National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) has some great advice on mentoring etiquette and the importance of giving and receiving feedback, which is of course immensely important in any professional relationship, not only in the mentor-mentee partnership.
That’s how you should treat a mentorship: as a partnership of two professionals who have a lot to learn from each other. For example, young EEs may be more digitally savvy, while veterans know how to make tough decisions, carry well-calculated risks, or transfer industry-specific knowledge.
Mentorship is a full package that transcends simply telling you how to take a work process from point A to point B. A mentor should lead rather than instruct. In a way, a mentor is ‘the wise elder’ who finds rewards and pride in supporting a younger colleague in a professional setting.
The mentorship should have the right professional-personal balanced rapport. It requires a solid level of self-awareness, ideally even when faced with tough project deadlines, high-risk environments, ever-evolving technologies, and so on.
The mentor is not the same as a boss: you shouldn’t leave the relationship with plenty of work done and no personal improvements, but you also shouldn’t expect to have the goal delivered to you on a silver plate.
As long as the mentee actively pursues their goals, they will realise them faster once the right mentor is identified. And, as long as the mentor validates the collaboration with a young motivated individual, both are looking at a productive, fruitful, and mutually beneficial relationship.