Career Advice

Are You Underqualified for Your Dream Engineering Job? Maybe Not
Meghan Brown posted on October 19, 2017 |
Not having every qualification on paper doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply for that dream job.

Everyone has a dream job, but what if you find yours and don’t quite meet the laundry list of requirements in the posting?

As seasoned job hunters know, the descriptions and qualifications included in postings are really a wish list for the employer’s ideal candidate, rather than being set in stone.  So, the question becomes: if you seem underqualified, should you still apply?

Am I Underqualified, or Unqualified?

While it can be a fine line, there is a difference between being slightly underqualified, and being critically unqualified.

Being underqualified means you have most of the qualifications in the job posting, but might be missing roughly 10 percent of them.  For example, a job posting might ask for a master’s degree in engineering plus five years experience, while you have the degree, but only two or three years of work experience plus an internship during school.  Chances are good this combination of experience can bridge the perceived gap, so there’s no reason not to pursue this opportunity.

Being unqualified, however, means that you have few to none of the listed requirements.  If you’ve never built a CAD model, prototyped with a 3D printer, programmed a CNC machine or coded software, no amount of enthusiasm for rockets, cars or robots can make up for that lack of technical skills.  If you don’t possess any of the qualifications for your dream job, you’re simply better off looking elsewhere—whether that means a different job at the same company or even going back to school to get the skills you need.

So, the first step is taking a close look at the information in the job posting to determine whether you’re an ideal candidate, slightly underqualified or just downright unqualified. It’s up to you to decide whether the gap between the requirements and your skills is too wide.  After all, you know yourself and your capabilities better than anyone.

If you believe your experience and skillset will enable you to do the job successfully, even if you’re underqualified on paper, then you should apply.  Just be prepared to put some extra effort into your application to demonstrate this fact.

More specifically, here are five ways you can maximize your chances of getting that dream job – even if you don’t meet all the requirements in the posting.

1.  Distinguish Core Competencies from the Wish List

A key part of any job application involves distinguishing which qualifications are integral to doing the job itself and which parts are the extra, “nice to haves.”

Core competencies will differ for each position and company, of course; technical roles can require a very specific skillset, while supervisory or managerial roles will likely depend more on experience.  Moreover, while hard technical skills are binary (i.e., you either have them or you don’t) managing one team probably isn’t too different from managing another.

Regardless, don’t worry too much if you don’t have experience with some proprietary software or custom-built equipment that’s specific to a certain role. Provided you have other core qualifications, you can still present yourself as a strong candidate who’s able to learn unfamiliar aspects of the job. In many cases, companies will even find this desirable, as they will be able to train you “from scratch” on their preferred processes and equipment.

Once you know what the core competencies are, arrange your resume and other application information to emphasize how your skills satisfy these core needs of the job.

Also, be sure to express a clear interest in the position, company and its current projects in order to emphasize your willingness to learn any of the skills or wish list qualifications you don’t possess.

2.  Identify a “Pain Point” and Think About How You Would Resolve It

One way to demonstrate how the skills you have can be applied to the position you want is by researching the company to identify a relevant “pain point,” and then highlighting how your experience can be leveraged to solve that problem.  You can include this information as part of your cover letter, or as an additional page in your resume or application package, as well as discussing it in the interview.

This is a great way to show how the knowledge and skills you do have will make up for any you’re lacking.  This strategy is also particularly useful for demonstrating transferable skills, such as complex problem solving and leadership.

For example, a common pain point in manufacturing is a large-scale change to production processes. If you are an engineer with a degree in engineering management, with work experience on the business side of things rather than the technical side, you may be concerned that you will be considered underqualified for a leadership role.

However, if you have experience leading transition teams through a merger or other significant change, you can demonstrate how you would use those skills to address this pain point, and lead a technical engineering team through changing production software platforms smoothly and effectively.

3.  The All-Important Networking

Like anything else when it comes to job hunting, networking can go a long way to helping you get a job when you don’t have all the qualifications.  Having a contact at the company who can provide a reference or recommendation can greatly increase your chances of being hired.

What if you don’t currently know anyone working at the company?  You can still reach out to try and forge that connection. 

Inquire at the company to see if someone would be willing to chat with you about what the company does—this is sometimes called a “reverse interview.” Use the opportunity to learn how the company operates, what projects they are involved in, what the employee culture is like and what some of their pain points are. 

LinkedIn is the primary way to network online, and you should maintain a current profile and stay active on the site. You can also attend conferences and trade shows where representatives from the company are speaking, and take the time to introduce yourself afterwards.

4.  Prepare a Career Portfolio of Work Samples

Another way to tip the balance in your favor is to share examples of your past work that showcase your abilities.  Ideally, you want projects that are relevant and similar in scope to what you’d be doing in the new position.

Portfolio pieces don’t have to be from another job, either; proprietary work and company policies mean this isn’t always an option.  Instead, include personal projects, examples from school if you are a recent graduate, or even mock-up projects specifically created as portfolio pieces.

Including finished work, such as completed CAD designs or photographs of a finished prototype is always a good idea. However, showing examples from stages throughout the process—such as earlier sketches, progress videos and alternate designs—will showcase your versatility and indicate whether your thought processes will mesh well with others on the team.

You can also include any awards, certificates, recommendation letters—basically, anything that speaks to your skills.

If you have physical examples of your work, collecting it all into a display folder you can bring with you to the interview is ideal.  For work that is primarily digital, hosting your portfolio work on a website, as a slideshow or PDF or another digital format is also an option. 

Just be sure that you can easily access and show the contents to an interviewer; bringing your laptop to an interview isn’t ideal, but carrying a tablet loaded with your portfolio work is fine.  Just don’t rely on having WiFi—load your portfolio directly onto your device.

5.  Make Good Use of Your Cover Letter

A cover letter gives you the opportunity to make a case for why you can do the job, even if you are missing a few items from the wish list—so use it!

Use your cover letter to give examples and parallels of tasks you have performed that demonstrate your transferable skills.  Describe how you solved problems in the past, and relate your methods directly to how you can use those skills for the new role.  Be clear and concise, and explain exactly why you want the job and how you believe your unique experience can contribute to being successful in that role.

Remember: hiring managers can’t read your mind. They won’t know what you can do or how you can benefit the company unless you tell them.

Nothing will get your application passed over faster than only submitting a resume listing an engineering degree, a handful of the requested qualifications and some not-so-relevant work history—with no explanation for why you believe you are qualified for the job anyway.

You may know that you’re perfect for the job, but you still need to convince your prospective employer to agree with you!

Looking for more advice on finding your dream job? Check out Winning Strategies to Land That Great Engineering Job.

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