What You Need To Know About Landing Your First Engineering Job

Written by
Rebecca Smith

Published
Aug 6, 2021

Aug 6, 2021 • by Rebecca Smith

The art and science of good judgment is seldom more needed than when a junior engineer is searching for their first job. The best approach to take is to think of this as a forecasting problem and gather up broad market data and specific job information, integrating the two in order to determine what you should expect. In this article, we will go through a few questions that most job applicants ask, to help you on your journey toward employment. 

How many jobs should you apply for?

Luck is a function of volume of effort and the appropriateness of strategy. Ty Cobb has the greatest batting average of any baseball player ever, Yet at .3662, his batting average implies that he “failed” about 63% of the time. You have to be comfortable with “failure”. Your job is to get out as many applications as possible and employ the correct strategy to raise your odds of landing that first job. How many jobs you can apply to depends on your field of expertise. You want to go after jobs that are within your circle of competence, and broaden the volume of effort that you can make by going for jobs across the country, and even abroad. For instance, if you are a hardware engineer, there may not be many jobs available in Reno, but if you apply for jobs across the country, that number jumps up dramatically. 

Three factors limit how many jobs you can apply to: the kinds of firms that you want to apply to; the narrowness/broadness of your circle of competence; and whether or not you will need to get a visa or some other such clearance in order to move to your job location.

What Kind of Companies Should You Apply to?

This question is not the same as, “What kind of companies do you want to work for?”. This is a pragmatic question of probabilities. You want to do everything you can to tilt the odds in your favor. You may find that career success begins with a job in investment casting rather than in Big Tech and that is an option you might end up considering once you begin your job search.

Generally, your best odds of landing a job with no work experience lie with early-stage companies. An example of this is this little nugget of data: small companies with 1 to 10 employees are responsible for hiring over half of the engineers with no work experience. The downsides of working for such a firm are clear: it may not be financially robust enough or favorably placed within the competitive landscape, to survive long; it may not have the experienced hands needed to mentor you, and it may not be able to provide you with a living wage. The potential rewards are high: often early-stage companies compensate for their inability to offer competitive salaries by offering stock options and other such compensation schemes that link your pay to the company’s fortunes. If the company does well, you can make a lot of money. Remember that the job search process is not just a question of getting someone to hire you: it’s also about vetting businesses to find the ones that meet your needs.

Should You Apply to Jobs You’re Not Qualified For?

You have to separate job criteria and job qualifications. For instance, a company may advertise a job that requires two years of experience. What the company really means is that they are looking for someone who is as proficient as someone would be with two years of experience. In other words, if you have no experience but can perform at the level of someone with two years of experience, then feel free to apply. Companies are not mindlessly looking to tick a box, they are looking for people with specific skills, with a definite circle of competence, and if you have those skills, then you can look past your failure to meet their criteria.

If, however, you lack the skills that a company is looking for, which is to say you are not qualified to do the job, then you will simply be wasting your time. Remember, you have to have an optimistically high volume of effort combined with the right strategy. This is the essence of luck.

How Much Should I Expect to Make?

This is especially important to consider because many companies opt to ask candidates how much they expect to make, rather than presenting the candidate with an offer. The question is composed of two parts. The first part relates to the average salary of a junior-level engineer. The average annual salary of a junior engineer is $58,791. This gives you a base rate that you can refine. Let’s say you are a junior software engineer. Depending on the source you consult, a junior software engineer makes $62,089 or as high as $78,810. Let’s take $62,089 as our national average. At this point, you get even more granular and look at state and even municipal averages. That gives you your base rate for what you should expect. At this point, you can then integrate this knowledge with your understanding of the company’s financial and competitive position. 

There is a great myth that junior-level engineers earn upwards of $200,000. Yet, very few junior-level positions breach $100,000 at the national level. It’s important to ground your expectations in base rates. You may be lucky enough to get a job with a big tech company and earn much more than the national average, but as an engineer, you are obliged to think in terms of probabilities rather than miracles. There are only so many positions open in Big Tech.