In case you have missed it, my blog has moved to a different website.
It now is located here: https://dwmcclure.com/blog/
Please stop by and visit.
In case you have missed it, my blog has moved to a different website.
It now is located here: https://dwmcclure.com/blog/
Please stop by and visit.
This post came from a question I was asked by a frustrated professor at my alma matter. He tries his hardest to teach his students relevant material and give them the chance to develop skills employers tell him they demand. However, many large companies who his students apply to for employment keep rejecting them. Yet industry experts insist they cannot find enough technicians and engineers with the right qualifications. He asked why and what can be done about this?
Almost everyone has been told the United States is suffering from widespread shortages in its science and engineering workforce, and if they continue, these shortages will cause it to fall behind its major economic competitors. Little credible evidence exists for a numerical shortage. Instead, there are more people with science and engineering degrees then jobs available. If there are enough new graduates out there, why cannot employers find the correct ones? The reasons I have been able to identify are the following:
According to the “talent shortage” and “skills gap” narratives, technical workforce shortages are caused by an inherent weaknesses of American education in science and mathematics. While it is true that there are some bad schools and ineffective degrees, the real problem is a mismatch between what a school is able teach vs what an employer demands. Schools will never be able to produce graduates with exactly all the skills employers want. Training of new hires is supposed to fill any gaps. The mismatch between employer expectations and education in micro and nanotechnologies is a common theme of this blog.
Technology (and the skills needed to work with it) evolves faster than a school’s ability to teach it. This is part of the reason the myth of the “STEM shortage” still exists. It takes students anywhere from 2-4 years to complete a vocational degree, and 4-6 years to complete an undergraduate degree, yet can much faster for the next generation of a technology and processes to manufacture it to be adopted by industry. As technology evolves, a company has to fill jobs and prepare itself to meet demand. If there is a shortage of professionals trained in a particular skill, it can disappear within 2 or 4 years due to employer training and the new employee’s learning curve. These tend to happen faster than the 4 years it takes before a new college graduates will be ready. When these graduates finish their studies, a different set of skills will be in demand. The ease at which a company can fill entry level jobs (or any technical job for that matter) is often based on its ability to train its new hires and the local labor market, not the quality of local schools.
Unwillingness to Train Leads to Unrealistic Expectations
A reason some companies cannot find talented engineers is their unwillingness to train new hires. In place of training, these companies expect new hires to have all the requisite skills, even the industry-specific ones. A good example is any oxymoronic, “entry level” job requiring a Master’s degree and 5 years of postgraduate work experience. In 2014, Dr. Peter Cappelli wrote an editorial in the Washington Post claiming the expectations of many employers have become out of step with reality and they have trouble finding candidates with the work history they want, rather than not having enough recent graduates with the correct skills to be hired. While the problem he explains is still relevant today, it is fortunately not as widespread as many panicked students make it out to be.
Expectations from new hires that are too nitpicky, numerous, or requiring industry-related, postgraduate work experience for an “entry-level” job, only frustrate a company’s recruiting efforts. Not many engineers I know want the same job they have been doing for the last 2 years somewhere else yet new hires can be trained. It is no coincidence that companies that expect this and are unwilling to devote time and resources to training face a “talent shortage.”
Recruiting is Hard for Any Company
For every manger I have spoken with, recruiting is hard. Even for those with a clear idea of the type of person they seek to hire and realistic expectations for skills and work experience, finding the ideal employee can depend on luck. Sometimes a great candidate is available at the right time but often they need to be found.
Many companies complicate their own recruiting efforts by trying to automate them too much or relying on processes that are unfriendly to job applicants. One inefficient yet widespread practice at large companies is to have as many people apply online to their posted jobs as possible. The online application process used by these companies are optimized to filter out candidates based on keywords in ones resume instead of identifying good candidates. For some companies relying on this process, it takes weeks to identify a few finalists and it leaves them with no time to evaluate or correspond with the good candidates they find.
If the listed job requirements do not appear realistic or the application takes more than 5 minutes to fill out, many job seekers will not apply. Some will instead identify relevant managers on LinkedIn, then contact them about the job. Most jobs are filled through referrals in a manner similar to this, even those which are posted online.
Companies which are friendly to job seekers and select new hires in a quick and personable way attract great employees. Many companies which treat all job applicants like cattle and drive them into time consuming recruiting processes as they seek the perfect employee often drive the best people away.
What Can We Do About These?
Unfortunately most of these problems are beyond the control of a career-driven student or their educators. A possible skill mismatch may be compensated through completing projects relating to the skills most in demand before a student is about to graduate. The rest are employer problems. Therefore, a new graduate must be prepared to hustle their way into their first jobs!
Some claim internships as the new “entry level” job. However, there is no guarantee an internship will turn into a full-time position. Therefore it is not wise to pursue many postgraduate internships unless there is something special and very valuable about a specific one. Both students and employers should realize interns are a poor substitute for entry level workers due to the educational and short-term nature of such contracts.
A “talent shortage” or “skills gap” can be as much, if not more, of an employer problem then an issue with the abilities of new graduates. Students soon to graduate and educators should realize this. An employer’s unwillingness to train or attempts to be cheap are their problem. This will only hurt them in the long term.
To get their foot in the door, recent graduates have to hustle. It is not enough to passively apply online or attend career fairs. The result of those is typically radio silence from overwhelmed recruiters. Instead, one must seek out the correct person within a company to contact and either 1) express their interest in joining the company or 2) ask for advice and guidance about the industry or company. To be successful in a job search, a recent graduate is well advised to know how to spot business pain and how they can quickly learn how to solve it and become profitable to an employer. Engineering is about solving problems, and technical problems cause a lot of business pain. A successful employee solves these problems. A successful job candidate demonstrates they can solve them.
I majored in NanoEngineering. When I tell people, this can draw curious looks and the question “you majored in what?” During job interviews, “what is nanoengineering” is asked more straightforwardly. It is usually followed by “you are the first nanoengineer I’ve met.” Other professionals more indirectly ask if a major in nanotechnology was a good choice.
I write this almost 3 and a half years after I graduated from UC San Diego, as one of the first students to receive a degree in NanoEngineering. At graduation, most of us had some ideas of which direction we wanted to navigate the next 2 years of our lives. It was either grad school or looking for the first post-graduate job. After that we did not know.
Over the next 2 years, UCSD graduated hundreds more nanoengineers, several of whom I have recently been contact with. Whether or not the major prepared us adequately for our chosen careers can turn into a lively discussion.
Reflecting on my undergraduate education, I would call it a good theoretical introduction to nanotechnology. However, it prepared its students for jobs which did not exist. It alone was not enough to propel me through the academic and career challenges that awaited me for the next 3 years. Immediately after graduating, I pursued a Master’s in Nanoscience and Microsystems Engineering at the University of New Mexico. My undergraduate education was theoretical, and my aim in grad school was to make it practical.
With a nanoengineering major, regardless of what one does with their life, there will be a steep learning curve. The reasons for this is because effective nanotechnology education is broader then it is detailed in any specific field. It must interdisciplinary due to the nature of its subject. Technical departments at most companies, on the other hand, specialize in a specific field.
As a personal example, I took an internship at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in integration and test engineering while a graduate student. My responsibilities included 3D printing, creating and running LabVIEW codes for machines, and SolidWorks drawings for models of propulsion test equipment. I had not studied propulsion in detail prior, and spent a lot of my downtime in JPL’s employee library reading about it and watching videos on advanced techniques for both LabVIEW and SolidWorks. My education had only given me a basic theoretical understanding of 3D printing. I voraciously read technical papers on this too.
Within a month, I felt competent in these tools. The learning curve was steep, but at least I felt like I did not fall off it. Classmates of mine at UCSD and UNM have had steep learning curves too, once they leave academia.
With any technical degree, one’s education will only prepare them a certain amount. A degree in aerospace engineering may have flattened the learning curve at JPL but would not have given me as much career flexibility. Later work and business ventures put me into manufacturing engineering and biotechnology. In these, the learning curve was also steep. My nanoengineering degree enabled me to more easily enter these fields because it give me enough technical knowledge to comprehend the job I was doing. From here, I could identify possible solutions to the technical problems I faced and a way to quickly acquire the specific technical skills needed to solve them.
Finding a Job as a Nanoengineer
One of the greatest challenges of a nanoengineering major is explaining what it is and how it enables a student to become a valuable employee in a technical role. Because of this, I feel a nanotechnology degree granted from any institution makes it harder to find a job then a more traditional engineering degree. Once in a job, the broad background makes gaining experience and moving between disciplines easier.
Applying electronically for jobs is less effective because the resume filtering software used may not have “nanoengineering” programed as an acceptable field and will automatically reject any applications with degrees not approved by the filter. Furthermore, many companies use requirements so rigid few recent graduates can meet. I learned this is why some companies cannot find the skilled engineers they need.
Additionally, employers demand at least some hands-on experience solving real world problems in the field they recruit for. Some nanotechnology programs have struggled to provide opportunities to develop these skills. Without such, there students face a competitive disadvantage on the job market and this will bring down the reputation of the program.
As an undergraduate, I pursued such outside my major. I later learned that most managers recognize transferable skills and learning experiences obtained from projects, even if their resume filters do not. For this reason, I encourage nanoengineering students to go around, not through, these filters by networking and obtaining referrals to find satisfying jobs.
Was Nanoengineering a Good Choice?
At the time I decided to pursue nanoengineering, it was. The best aspect of a nanoengineering degree is it provides a good overview of the scientific and engineering principles that underlie modern materials and electronics. This has become most valuable aspect of mine, considering my experience and directions my career has taken. Combined with technical experience and the ability to see projects to their completion, a nanoengineering degree can be made to be very useful. Whether or not industry is ready to accommodate engineers with nanoengineering degrees is the subject of a previous post on my blog here
The worst aspect of a nanoengineering degree is it make finding the first job more difficult. Yet this does not reduce career prospects. Nano degrees are more adaptable then those in traditional technical fields. This also means a nanotechnology education alone can fail to provide the depth of knowledge in specific subjects desired by employers. The responsibility to gain this is on the career seeking student. The responsibility to provide adequate opportunities to do so is on the institution and department offering the degree.
To ensure career success and profitability of the degree, I advise students in nano programs to gain project experience in a more traditional scientific or engineering field in addition to their studies. Gain as much as possible and see several projects through to completion. This will provide new technical and leadership skills which support the theoretical knowledge gained through coursework. Bring these to the interview, sell them, and then use these to excel in the first job or two. After that, charting a career will become much easier.
Originally I had created this blog so I could share the knowledge and insights I had gained about nanotechnology education and industry with several of my engineering student friends who felt they were unsure what career direction to take.
For the last 6 months, I was manufacturing in China while working on a startup idea. That did not leave me with as much time and energy to devote to this blog. Now I am back in the US and can bring more posts on these topics: technology trends, industry predictions, and how to prepare and begin a career in a nanotechnology or materials science related field.
For readers who want a change from the standard nanotechnology and career topics of this blog, here is a photo gallery: http://bit.ly/2htYDXe
A fantastic resource for any information pertaining to nanotechnology is nanoHUB.org. This website has information on just about everything nanotechnology and for this reason has proven valuable to researchers and students worldwide. Because there is so much on almost every one of its webpages, looking for something specific on nanoHUB.org can be very time consuming. This post serves as an introduction to using the available material nanoHUB.org to one’s advantage.
A Short Introduction to nanoHUB
While nanoHUB.org advertises itself as the primer place for computational nanotechnology research and collaboration, also on it are many resources that are handy for both educators and any student looking to groom themselves for a career in advanced materials and the semiconductor industry. On the site is a massive amount of simulations and presentation materials. nanoHUB users have the ability to access and use any of the simulation tools or hundreds of resources. Users can also to create new simulations or upload their (typically research oriented) work in a format that is easy to share electronically.
Over 400 Simulation Tools
Most nanoHUB simulations are open to the public and listed under “Tools” accessible from the “Resources” tab on the home screen (https://nanohub.org/resources/tools). Primarily these simulations illustrate the physics and behavior of materials at the nanoscale. I have used four of these simulations for class projects. Other graduate students I know have used nanoHUB tools to supplement their research in nanoelectronics. In my opinion, these tools are very useful for small simulations for class projects or to review a specific topic.
To access these tools, users need to log in. Anyone can sign up. To display these tools, users should make sure they have the latest version of java installed in their computer.
nanoHUB.org has a good group page devoted to education. Users looking for educational material should start by visiting it: https://nanohub.org/groups/education.
For anyone willing to sleuth through all the resources available, nanoHUB.org has the option to search its gigantic database of devoted Teaching Materials and Learning Modules. To find something on a specific topic, I strongly recommend using the “Search” function on the top right corner of the nanoHUB.org home page. Writing from personal experience, looking through any of the gigantic databases on this site for something specific is VERY time consuming.
For more focused, educational material, I recommend nanoHUB-U which contains self-paced courses on advanced topics pertinent to nanotechnology. Additionally, many nanoHUB users, including myself, have assembled collections of the resources we found most relevant to specific topics. Users may browse through these too.
Collecting, Collaborating, and Sharing
NanoHUB allows its users may collaborate online on devoted projects and form groups. Both features create devoted webpages. A project page includes space for its collaborators to create to-do lists, notes, and devoted “resources” and “publications” pages for references. Group pages are like miniature collaborative sites that have the option to create and manage multiple projects, along with an internal message board.
In my opinion, the easiest way to share content from nanoHUB.org is to create “collections” of resources available. nanoHUB.org has a feature that allows that which is similar to Pinterest. Accordingly, creating a collection is similar to creating a Pinterest board. These collections then can be shared externally by providing a link. As an example, here is one I made to share with several friends looking for nanotechnology related jobs.
For more information, visit https://nanohub.org/ and begin looking around.
In the past, this blog has been my assessment and editorial opinion of nanotechnology education. From the feedback I have received from several readers and new resources I have found recently, I now will use this blog to cover the commercial adoption of advanced materials and nanotechnologies and how to navigate the transition from graduation to employment within industry or entrepreneurship. Please stay tuned.
A week ago, I was chatting over social media with fellow undergraduate nanoengineering alumni. Many of our fellow classmates are struggling to find employment and some have for over 2 years. Others are underemployed or working as technicians who happen to hold with a Bachelor’s degree in engineering. Our luckiest classmates either pursued graduate education or trained for work in other fields not directly related to nanotechnology. This begs the question, where are all these nanotechnology jobs we were told needed to be filled? Are there enough of them?
Why Nanotechnology Breakthroughs Have not Become Jobs
While some of the struggles of nanoengineers may be attributed to an overcrowded job market and lackluster economy, the reason for the lack of true nanotechnology jobs in industry is because they have not materialized yet. The ones currently available approach the development of nanotechnology from a functional or market-driven approach as opposed to an academic one. These jobs often work with technologies that are still under development and most often require engineers to hold graduate degrees and technicians to have several years of experience. I have written about the experience requirements here.
The adoption by industry of many advanced materials and nanotechnologies has been hindered by bad application development. Instead of technology being developed to solve a problem, many nanotechnologies are developed to demonstrate they are possible with little regard to how they may be used. As a result many of these technologies or methods, and the associated intellectual property, are not brought outside the laboratories they originated in, despite their potential. The most advanced nanosystems I have reviewed are at technology readiness levels (TRL’s as defined by NASA) between 4 or 6 but may need to be at TRL 8 to be commercially viable.
From my analysis, the main roadblocks to the widespread industry adoption of many promising micro and nanotechnologies appear to be problems relating to any these three factors:
What Can Be Done?
In the long term, nanotechnology jobs may result from nanotechnology application development focusing on addressing specific needs. In other words, more effort needs to be made to bring advances in nanoscience or new micro and nanotechnologies out of the research labs they originate in and into industry and society by developing them to target identified needs. This may even be turned into class projects for a nanotechnology education program.
Near term, nanotechnology education programs and their students are wise to prepare for the current job market. Nanotechnology is multidisciplinary and a nanotechnology workforce may require multidisciplinary training. However, nanotechnology appears to be applied to very specific niches in each field it is used in. These niches each require a very specific set of skills that is not always similar to the others. A generalized nanotechnology curricula may not cover these in enough detail on its own. For the reasons mentioned earlier, there may be few attainable jobs that are direct matches to the background provided by nanotechnology education. Students therefore will need transferable skills and experience working on challenging projects to enter the technical job market and must prepare to take jobs in field other than nanotechnology specifically.
Some of my fellow classmates become materials engineers, biomedical engineers, quality engineers, and even data scientists after graduation. I ended up working on projects related to semiconductor devices and business development during graduate school and in space exploration during my internship. One of the uses of my nanotechnology education recently has been to figure out how well nanotechnology education aligns with industry expectations and how its students can become more job ready.
Until the technical issues holding micro and nanotechnologies back from widespread industry adoption are overcome, there will not be many jobs directly applicable to a nanotechnology degree. Success starting a career with a nanotechnology education appears to be about taking skills learned and applying them to another field, for now.
This post is in response to a recent question I was asked about why not many students choose to study nanotechnology and what can be done to make nanotechnology programs more attractive.
According to its proponents, nanotechnology has so much future potential. They prophesize that it will be everywhere and leave few disciplines untouched. They were right. Nanoscience enables many breakthroughs and technological advantages. However, few people go to school to study nanotechnology. Why?
The problem is the way nanotechnology is often taught. This, is narrowly focused on the nanoscience and its applications while breezing over the fundamental physics, chemistry, and often biology, which enable these. Without knowing these fundamentals in some detail, it is hard to understand how to use nanoscience to create valuable products. All these, however, can be very difficult to cram into a limited curricula.
Compounding the problem, many nanotechnology programs choose not to teach hands-on engineering skills to make room for all this theory. The hands-on skills, however, are what wins students interviews and job offers. Nano education instead focuses on specific scientific phenomena and technologies instead of a discipline, which is why nano programs often come short on teaching the transferable skills needed to work in any specific discipline.
Now, almost every scientific and engineering discipline has work at the nanoscale. Transistor technology, for example has been nanotechnology for decades due to the dimensions of modern transistors. The field of cell biology has used nano-sized viruses to perform gene editing for decades and many chemical products used in daily life have nanoparticles in them. An education in science now inherently implies some training in nanotechnology. Therefore, many students wonder why they should choose to study nanotechnology specifically when they also have the option to study a specific discipline, develop transferable skills in it, and learn something about nanotechnology too. Working in a more traditional discipline may be also be a fallback for them if a job or career in nanotechnology does not materialize.
Attracting More Students to Nanotechnology
As many postsecondary educators know, many of students choose what to study based on how they think it will land them a job once they are out of school. Nanotechnology focused programs are seen as more risky for careers then others. Educators need to minimize this career risk to attract more students.
One way to do so is to give hard scientific or technical problems and have students solve them with support but minimal guidance. Employers will expect this of their new hires. Ideally such a project will involve a lot of lab work and some calculations and simulation directly related to the problem it is addressing.
Another way is to establish connections between a nano program and local industry. In my opinion, this action is beneficial for both if well brokered. These connections should place students and educators in contact with potential employers and create opportunities that benefit both. As an example, I have seen internships and design projects created as a result of the industry outreach efforts by nano programs I have worked with. A program may offer class credit for one of such internships or projects, give students the opportunity to gain industry-like experience, and willing local companies gain potential new hires from them. These connections also ensure local companies the program is trying to cater to their needs. For US based educators and students, a great resource to find local companies working with some form or micro and nanotechnologies is the SCME industry map webpage.
Because nanoscience underlies so many advances in technology, teaching it well is important. Giving students project experience and exposure to industry can be immensely helpful. As a student, I did not fully understand nanoscience or engineering until I started working with it in a lab and interacting with entrepreneurs working with MEMS and nanotechnologies. To increase student employability and attractiveness of nanotechnology as a separate field of study, it needs to be taught in such a way to make it practical and relevant to current technologies.
The most common concern I hear from educators and career-minded students is about how to enter industry when all the “entry level” jobs they see posted require at least 2-4 years of experience. How many of these supposedly “entry-level” jobs posted are written gives the impression that companies are looking to poach each other’s employees instead of hiring new graduates. Yet many of these companies send representatives to university career fairs and tell eager students to apply online only to have such jobs posted on their “careers” page. If recruiters are open to considering new graduates yet their companies would prefer to hire candidates with several years of experience for every job, what does this mean for recent graduates?
I have asked this question to several industry professionals whom I have been in contact with. From what I have been told, some reasons their companies post jobs that require years of experience are:
According to these same professionals, just because a new graduate may not have 2-5 years of previous paid employment does not mean they are not considered. In place of such, many hiring managers are looking for proven technical competency, effective teamwork, initiative, and willingness to learn.
Obtaining Experience as a Student
The students I often meet are technically competent, team players, and are willing to put the effort into learning the skills that will make them successful. The thing they are most concerned about is the experience necessary for a supposedly entry level job, and how to obtain it.
Many employers, including several whom I have asked, consider past internships, class projects and extracurricular activities as a worthwhile substitute to industry experience but within reason. For any of these activities to count, they must require brainpower and original thinking to complete. Mindlessly following instructions or a set procedure does not demonstrate initiative nor is a good indicator of technical competency. The best ways to demonstrate such is to successfully complete open-ended projects to solve a recognized problem faced by the industry. Better yet is to identify a problem then initiate an effort to find and demonstrate a possible solution. For it to count, students should be able to claim at least a year of such “experience” if not more.
To address some confusion, the content of this site relates to micro and nanotechnology and how to receive an education and begin a career in them. The “nano degrees” referred to are nanotechnology programs offered at universities and community colleges. These are not the same as the “nanodegrees” offered by Udacity and others.