Hiring Engineering Students


I have published a few articles on how to evaluate and what to look for in a graduating engineering student.  For undergraduates, I have fixated on evaluating the students through the Senior Design sequence.  I have been accused of over-fixating on this, but I beg to differ.  It is impossible to over fixate on thej importance and relevance of Senior Design to industrial performance.  Engineering courses, by and large, test your mathematical ability and the ability to regurgitate information.  While these are somewhat higher order skills, they pale in comparison to create something from nothing and solve tens if not hundreds of new situations to create a project.  However, one piece of advice I have given in the past I have found to be somewhat erroneous.  After stating that you should ask the Senior Design Instructor for a reference, one of my best friends at a large consumer products company told me that they found that they could not rely on the instructor reference from our mutual alma mater.  Quite a bit of turmoil in our Senior Design program has made me realize the best references come from a combination of the Senior Design Instructor and the teammates that worked the hardest on the team.

Five Recommendations for Evaluating a Student

The number one piece of advice I can give an employer.  Call faculty for references!  The number two piece of advice.  Call faculty not on the student's reference list. Number three is to ask faculty for other faculty references that may have some insight into the student.  I have always been amazed at the arrogance of every organization over the hiring process.  Everyone thinks that somehow they have gained insight from a 1 hour personal discussion or a 6 hour interview process.  Seriously?  Are any of you married or living with someone?  Remember sometime during week one of a live-in relationship when you thought, hmmm, I did not know she did that!  If you want to have fun with this ask your significant other what the quirks she was unaware of that became apparent during the first week of living together.  Notice how many people have quirks that do not show up when you only spend a limited amount of time with them, but do show up when you live with them.  By the way, excluding actual sleep time, some people spend more time with the people they work with than they do their significant other.  Also I am relatively certain that since you are probably an engineer, even if you have ten times the people reading skills of the typical engineer, you are not getting an accurate read on a prospective hire.  Fourth, look at the Senior Design report and at least perform the flip test as I have recommended in Credentials for the Job.  My fifth recommendation is that you or others in your company take the prospective hire to dinner with some of your colleagues significant others (hopefully non-engineers).  Not only are they usually more adept at reading people, they are primarily determining whether or not they are going to have to listen to all of you complain every work night about the new hire.

Let me expand upon calling references.  If a student is an undergraduate the senior design instructors and teammates have clearer understanding of who the student is than anyone else, with the possible exception of a professor that the student has worked for on a research project.  If the student is a graduate student then the advisor and the advisor's other graduate and undergraduate students have this insight.  I cannot recommend anyone 100% including myself.  Why?   Everyone has shortcomings and areas that are probably going to be personal issues to the end of their time on this spinning near ellipsoid.  Take some of my best students that I would be more than happy to hire if I had a company.  All of them have quirks.  One individual would and will still not do certain things that one would think that an employee would do.  This same individual was telling me about the company that hired him trying to get him to do something and he told them no.  They were taken aback.  When he told me we were both laughing at the absurdity of them thinking he would do that.  I was laughing because, I knew him well enough to not have asked, not because it was that unreasonable of a request.  If I had posed the topic to you, you would have thought it was if not reasonable, not unreasonable.  If they would have talked to me, I would have largely sung his praises (I am reading Sting's autobiography on Kindle) and certainly recommended that they hired him, but I would have also told them of this issue.  Why tell them?  Because for some supervisors and organizations this would eventually lead to a firing sometime in the future.  If you are one of those supervisors, you might as well know it so you do not hire him.  I found that this individual's work contribution was such that I would just accommodate the quirk.  I was not very happy accommodating the quirk and I had thought about not hiring him because of it.  I am relatively intolerant of and individual's quirks, but I knew this individual's positive attributes outweighed this negative one.

The 20/60/20 Rule

Here is what I have found from my observations of students on projects in Senior Design.  I have come up with the 20/60/20 rule.  Admittedly, it is related to, but not really an extension of the 20/80 rule.  The top 20 percent of the people do not always do 80% of the work, but they do provide 80% of the organization and leadership of a group and project.  The middle 60% are more or less along for the ride as worker bees.  The bottom 20% are actually negatives.  They can be deadweight, but often they are far worse than that.  The team, and  your organization if you hire someone from the bottom 20%, often have to spend inordinate amount of time dealing with them.  The bottom 20% has two distinct groupings.  The obvious one is the individuals that do not seem bright enough to have made it to senior year in an engineering program, or as a minimum make the faculty question the standards of the entire university.  The second group is the one that is infinitely more worrisome and is comprised of the scammers.  These are the ones that actively know that they are not pulling their weight on a team and are doing everything they can to expend as little effort as possible.  I would like to say that they are sociopaths, but it actually worse than that, they know the difference between right and wrong.  I am also relatively certain that the sociopaths are hiding and one can not identify them.  Well, except for their ethics assignments.

Basically, students are more or less a continuous distrubtion.  I want to say it is a normal distribution, but then that goes to the bell curve and we know how that discussion will end.  The middle 60% are not necessarily bad teammates and will not necessarily be bad employees.  They are just not leaders of people or thought on projects.  It is the rare organization that will be composed predominately of leaders or superstars.  My neighbor, a commercial real estate broker tells me that his company only keeps the top people and they let people go that will be top performers at other companies.  In addition he says that sales people say that the only people that truly  get paid based upon performance are sales people and atheletes.  What can we learn from this?  Well certainly that whether or not it is true, my neighbor's company or at least my neighbor think that they are the elite!  Sales people also think that they are equivalent to professional athletes!  Just think what happy hours are with sales people are like.  Just discussion of their big bonuses with no engineering or math.  How boring!

Grades
 
From the article Hiring the Newly Minted, "Here is what a grade in Senior Design really means. A grade of A distinguishes the team as having exceeded expectations of a senior project team. While this does not mean that every student performed at the top level, it does mean that the overall team effort was at a high level, and there was no compelling reason to lower an individual’s grade from the team grade.  B indicates that the team met expectations for the course.  Every individual on a team should be embarrassed to receive a grade below B-, since the grade is usually indicative of an inadequate effort. A grade of  C or below usually is not attributable to technical difficulties that were insurmountable. Those kinds of difficulties are statistically expected by the instructor for a few projects. Students are expected to address them. The low grade is the result of a lack of effort to overcome difficulties.  A grade of  D+, D, or especially D- implies that, in the instructor’s judgment, the student put forth no effort and should have failed. From past experience, however, instructors know that a failed student is likely to go on to sabotage a team the following year. Thus the student is passed, but just barely, in an educational analogue to triage. We would rather the student tell the rest of the world he or she graduated from our department than have to endure the effect on another senior design project."

I have to modify this for our students from here on out.  We have implemented a rule in the Senior Design course, which students can not seem to accomodate.  If you submit something late, you get a zero.  Thus we now have students that will have grades with below a B- that is not based upon their work effort, just for their inability to listen and follow directions.


References

Rorrer, R. A. L., "Credentials for the Job," Mechanical Engineering, ASME, p. 50, August 2003
Rorrer, R. A. L.,"Hiring the Newly Minted," Mechanical Engineering Magazine, ASME, pp. 36-38, March 2011
2014 Ronald A. L. Rorrer