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Ask The Headhunter: If Your Skills Are Rusty, Learn to Control the Interview

By Nick Corcodilos

Engineering hiring often creates other jobs and boosts the economy, but even, and perhaps especially, in a field like engineering, wowing employers is about controlling the interview and showing what you can do. Photo courtesy of Eva Serrabassa/the Agency Collection via Getty Images.

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

Question: I’m an electronics design engineer. I’m in a situation in which my technical skills are not what they ought to be. The computer-aided design (CAD) tool capabilities have moved further along than those I am familiar with. Taking a course from one of the CAD vendors doesn’t seem beneficial since I’d need my own full-blown workstation with licensed software if I wanted to practice at home. The question then becomes, how can I enhance my skills in this area? How do you get a job in a new company if you don’t have these skills, especially if you are at a senior level? In other words, how do you overcome the constant struggle between employers demanding experience to hire you and your needing the job to gain the experience?

Nick Corcodilos: I wrote my first paid “Ask The Headhunter” Q&A columns for Electronic Engineering Times in 1997. As a Silicon Valley headhunter, engineers were my first real advice audience. You’d think in today’s ultra-high-tech world, engineers would be in even more demand than they were in those days, but according to a recent Computerworld article, “Electrical Engineering Employment Trending Down,” “The number of electrical engineers in the workforce has declined over the last decade.” It’s no higher than about 350,000. One engineer quoted in the article said, “The employers are very fussy. They are really only interested in a perfect match to their needs. They don’t want the cost to develop talent internally.”

The trick is this: You can’t tackle the kind of situation you describe head-on. You must control it instead.

The head-on approach would be to first, pay for the CAD course, second, buy your own workstation, and third, spend any extra time in your day learning the new CAD system in enough depth that you can wow an employer. Then, when you can’t get the job you want anyway, you’re out lots of time and money. So I don’t recommend that.

I think you handle this situation by controlling the interview. This involves getting beyond the employer’s frantic need to hire the “exactly right CAD skills,” and focusing instead on what really makes you a valuable worker. Knowing a particular CAD system is important, but that’s not what makes anyone a valuable employee. To paraphrase an over-used invective that more employers would do well to heed: It’s the engineer, stupid. Your challenge is to prove this to the employer and smarten him up.

Work your way past the employer’s frenzy by taking that course and learning all you can about the CAD system that you’re convinced is necessary for success in your next job, but don’t buy the workstation or devote your life to it. Go as far in the training as is reasonable. Staying up-to-date on skills is your responsibility. Employers should make the investment, but few do any more.

You’re a smart engineer because you realize CAD is a tool, not a job. The job is good design. So, in the interview, sell what you have lots of: engineering talent. Having proved your willingness to invest in the appropriate training, you need to focus your interview on what the employer is really paying for: good designs.

When the employer asks you to sit down at the workstation and show off your expertise, ask to see the concept for the design. Then ask about the product and manufacturing plans.

Demonstrate your more important engineering abilities first by saying, “Let me show you how I review a design before I get started. I’m a big believer in understanding the design and working out any bugs before I park myself in front of the CAD system. That’s where good design work starts, and it’s how costs are reduced.”

Now you’re controlling the interview, and you’re helping the manager focus, too. (For more about how to control job interviews, see “The New Interview.”)

Will some managers react negatively to that? Sure, some might, and they’re fools. You cannot change them. But a smart manager will recognize talent and initiative, and unless you take steps to demonstrate both, you’ll be lumped in with your competition as mediocre.

Having other experience with CAD and having taken the training, your learning curve will be fast. What you’re demonstrating in the interview is your engineering acumen. Whether the manager realizes it or not, that’s also what the manager is really buying. So explain it to him bluntly:

“You might find someone who has used this particular CAD system more than I have, but you’ll be hard pressed to get profitable work as quickly as I’ll be able to deliver it. Any tool is only as good as the engineer using it. I can ride a fast learning curve without falling off. With the extensive training I’ve already taken, I’ll have a clean design done for you on this system within a week (or however long you think it will take).”

I know this sounds pretty blunt. That’s intentional. An employer needs to hear the truth, so “Tell ‘Em What They Need to Hear.”

I think you’ll avoid the catch-22 if you ante up the CAD training and show a strong engineering hand. That’s control. I wish you the best.

I think engineers are the canary in our economy’s coal mine. When engineers’ ranks decline, we’re in trouble. The Computerworld article goes on to say, “Electrical engineers are often employed in the development of technologies that can generate new jobs and even industries.” If American companies are going to undermine our nation’s engineering assets by playing naïve games with hiring and staffing, they will pay for it first — and our society will pay much, much more in the long run.

Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?”, “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2013 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark. This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight. Follow Paul on Twitter.

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