Midlife Career Change

Find out about resources to help you pursue engineering later in life

21 August 2013

After we published the story “Peter Johnson: From Janitor to NASA Engineer,” we received a lot of comments on how inspired other engineers were by his career path. Some even shared that they too had joined the engineering workforce later in life. Making any type of change in a profession after a decade or more in another field can be scary, especially when the previous job was entirely unrelated. The Institute was inspired by the response and wants to help guide those who are considering a new path toward engineering so we reached out to IEEE-USA’s Employment and Career Services Committee (ECSC) for advice. We also highlighted resources from IEEE that could help.  

While those we spoke to mentioned they each know of an exceptional engineer who went back to school and started their career well into their 40s, it was clear that this is not an easy decision to make. There are several factors to consider, such as the current unemployment rate and competition in the field. However, the IEEE-USA ECSC Chair Ed Kirchner says, “On the positive side, if someone is getting into engineering later in life that probably indicates they are chasing their passion, which means they are likely to be excellent. It also means that they are more likely to be focused in what they want out of their engineering career. That can be very attractive to a prospective employer.”

For those who are ready to take that step, or at least dip their toes into the engineering pool, here are some tips on getting started.

1. Attend MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)
One of the commenters, Reinhard Labuschagne, said he always wanted to pursue a higher-level degree in electrical engineering, but could not because of financial reasons. He recommends checking out MOOCs such as edX, which offers free online courses taught by well-known professors from top schools. You could sign up for courses such as Introduction to Aerodynamics or Energy 101, and earn a Certificate of Mastery. “I am still able to study specific subjects at my own pace, until the time is right when I will apply for a bachelor’s in engineering,” Labuschagne says.

2. Research Prerequisites
If there is a school you’d like to get into, call to set up an informational session with the career counselor to find out what prerequisites are needed to make your way into the program. Like Johnson, many people first start at a community college to catch up on math and science prerequisites or go for an associate’s program before applying to the university they’d like to attend.

3. Network with Other Engineers
If you’re curious about what it might be like to be an engineer, ask. There are many opportunities to network, including the more than 1300 IEEE conferences and events that take place each year around the world, which include training workshops and job fairs. Or check out TryEngineering.org, which introduces people to different areas in engineering.

“An advantage that older graduates have is that it may be easier for them to network since they may have more in common with engineers who are in a position to help them with their careers,” Kirchner says. “Studies show that networking is far and away the most effective way to find employment. Start networking with the community early on.” Read about how becoming an IEEE volunteer opens up opportunities to network with leaders in the field.  

4. Be Flexible
For those who have been in the workforce for some time, it’s important to consider factors such as a non-traditional schedule, giving up a salary, and the patience of family and friends while you pursue a new career or go back to school. For those who are not ready to be a full-time student, consider online or part-time courses that might give you more flexibility and allow you to complete your program without the added stress. To get started, take a look at some of IEEE’s continuing education resources, including the eLearning library, professional certifications program, and pre-university education.

5. Take a Parallel Path
Kirchner says that he hired an engineer who entered the field in his 40s after a career in television. However, such a drastic career shift is rare, he says. Another way to break into the field (without an engineering degree) is by bringing your current skillsets to a project, team, or business such as Google, which are hiring for finance, public relations, and administrative positions. Browse job boards to see if your current field is a fit for an engineering company or consider working as a consultant for engineers who could use your expertise.  

No matter which avenue you take, remember that it is possible to make that change. Johnson was a self-taught sound technician who attended two community colleges before pursuing a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, all while supporting a family working as a janitor. Since then he has been involved in 110 space shuttle missions with NASA. While ambitious, it’s not impossible. “Sometimes I think I am successful today because I was an older student: I was ready to do what it took to get a good education,” he said.

For more on how to start a career in engineering, visit the IEEE Education and Careers website. Also check out our Career & Education channel for articles about ways to manage your career.

Photo: iStockphoto

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