Frustrations of the ‘Food Court’ Generation
Graduates will leave engineering jobs that lack meaning.
Opinion by Jenna P. Carpenter
In the romantic comedy Laggies, Keira Knightley plays a 28-year-old paralyzed by doubt about the direction of her life. At first glance, I dismissed her “quarter-life crisis” as a trendy Hollywood invention. But conversations with recent graduates and leaders in engineering education have sparked a growing suspicion that the quarter-life crisis lurks in the shadows at the end of our undergraduate engineering pipeline. Like a movie monster, it has emerged undetected and is poised to wreak havoc.
Before dismissing this phenomenon as mere hype, consider what our engineering graduates say after less than two years in the workforce. “My job isn’t interesting,” they fret. “The things I do have little impact” and “I can’t move around within my company for at least three to five years,” they lament. Our graduates enjoy hefty salaries and great benefits, but that’s not enough to stay in an unfulfilling job. And while they don’t like their current job, they aren’t sure what they want to do. Some are considering graduate school or a start-up company. Others bolt to non-engineering jobs. One alumnus wishes he was an undergrad again.
This angst reflects, at least in part, our efforts to innovate the undergraduate curriculum. We recruit millennial students to engineering with the promise of making a difference in the world. We retain them with engaging, project-driven curricula and provide extracurricular programs where they build cars for the Shell EcoMarathon, design water-filtration systems for Engineers Without Borders, enter senior projects in business-plan competitions, conduct research with top faculty, and tackle societal problems through the Grand Challenge Scholars Program.
Millennial students are the “food court” generation. They expect to be able to customize their lives by selecting from a wide variety of interesting choices – a chai tea from Starbucks or chicken quesadilla from Taco Bell. The disconnect comes when they graduate from our engaging and challenging undergraduate smorgasbord and go to work for companies that operate under the baby boomer “we-are-all-having-fried-chicken-for-dinner” mentality. They don’t want to be pigeonholed in a job where they can’t gravitate toward what interests them. Nor do they want to do repetitive tasks with little opportunity to make a difference, or labor for five years before being able to move around in a hierarchical company.
Sure, someone must do those uninteresting jobs. But millennials don’t buy the old arguments about needing to prove themselves first. They are bored, unchallenged, unmotivated – to the point of abandoning lucrative salaries to do something interesting in an environment where their work can have impact. Think Silicon Valley start-up.
Our graduates will work hard. They just want that work structured in a different way. Unfortunately, many engineering jobs don’t offer that option. Yet I do see recent graduates who are happy. Some work for large companies where they get to pursue an M.B.A. on the side, conduct research with a direct impact on society, or participate in rotation programs that expose them to different parts of the business. Some work for smaller companies or flat organizations that provide a variety of tasks and the opportunity for more control over their work.
My fear is that these jobs are too few, which is why the quarter-life crisis needs to get on our radar now. We already struggle to produce enough engineers to meet workforce demands and still attract too few women and minorities. Meanwhile, we are losing some graduates to non-STEM jobs. We have revamped the entrance to the undergraduate engineering pipeline. Curricular and generational changes now require us to focus on the pipeline’s exit.
ASEE academic and corporate members can work together to rethink how to take in new employees and restructure their work to provide greater flexibility and impact. If we fail to act, we may soon find ourselves responding to an engineering workforce crisis of Hollywood-blockbuster proportions.
Jenna P. Carpenter is the associate dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Engineering and Science at Louisiana Tech University.