Amongst discussions the freshly hired have amongst pals and close friends, there is the so infamous but quite taboo “being a new graduate in an office of seniors”. Rookies that are not only new to the industry or the work environment, but also freshly graduated and tackling a new job. They’re not only the Y or Z or XYZ generation, but very often decades if not a generation away from their colleagues or superior. They are the fresh blood of the industry bring new ideas and new thoughts to the party.
A very different working environment
While in other fields of work you may always find yourself surrounded with people your age or at most 3 or 5 years older than you within the same team, engineering, especially design engineering, doesn’t really answer to this. In the past three offices of design where I have been, seniors have been working on the same projects on the same level as juniors. They may be project managers or have a clear distinctive salary, but they still get their hands dirty, they still work in engineering but not, or not exclusively, management. Many still collaborate on a horizontal perimeter with the rest of the team. It’s basically a wide pool of different skills and expertise working all together.
The generation gap
If you now have an accurate image of the environment, you may start having a notion of some challenges that arise: generations different in upbringing and studies, extremely versatile in mentality, trends and experience and gathered together in the same place. Such environments can lead to several problems that youngsters don’t dare discuss in the office or with their superiors and leave to coffee shops conversations with people their age:
“I am not acknowledged. My education is not given proper consideration. I’m not given proper respect or training. The old folk are jealous and not helpful. People around are scared for their spots or relish in my mistakes and don’t provide proper guidance. I’m isolated in my corner and there is no effort to include me. The seniors are arrogant and stingy”…etc, etc. You get the message.
Colleagues become your extended family
You might have gone through it, you may know it, but we will all do it at some point on some sort of level through some kind of behaviour. The main problematic is here: you’ve just stepped into the professional world, a world based upon results. You’re no longer an intern, a trainee or a visitor. You’re bound by a contract, expected to produce and earn a salary for your deed. You have a superior who monitors your work better than a professor and you have a workplace filled with colleagues with whom you spend the best part of your days. Will you find it to be not the indulgent workplace you experienced as an intern, or the laid back one you have gone through as a trainee?
Personal experience broadens the mind
I have personally been through three mechanical design engineering offices and several workplaces: the one filled with only juniors and one senior to attend to all, one filled mostly with seniors with very few youngsters and one with a decent equilibrium between the versed and the learning. I have seen how many seniors choose to treat you as “olives” or “cumin seeds” and make you go through a great deal of pressure or tight monitoring to extract “oil” or “fragrant spice” from you. I have also worked with those deeming you old and smart enough to be able to discipline yourself and be serious, inquisitive, and assertive as well as demanding when you need to. Finally, there are the few who don’t want to spend time training you, simply abhor the task and see you as an unwanted distraction. Many have been trained the old school way and believe in such methods while others are more open minded and willing to try new approaches.
At the end of the day I came to a conclusion: seniors are humans, new workforce too. If both could understand that and then communicate regardless of fear of vengeance or disrespect, we could go much faster and farther than if resentments and questions are internalised. I don’t state that everyone will be as understanding as they could be when you shout “I’m human too, you know”. Many have a life, circumstances and however professional they deem themselves to be, bad days do happen and can take a toll on one’s attitude. I also don’t see it as an easy fix or a straight away answer if you’re hurt by a strict tone or a dry answer. What I’m stating, once more, is that at the end of the day, we’re all humans and working in a team has the implicit scope of relationship creation. Let us not forget that relationships of ANY SORT take time, learning, understanding, observing and communicating from both sides.
We are all very different
If you’re dealing with an algorithm it will give you an answer straight away, or refuse to and state it is not incorporated within its data. But you’re dealing with a human, who may have been through experiences that left them bitter, who might need to build trust, who might have something else on their mind. They may be the by-product of a working career which did not encourage teamwork, where competition between colleagues was encouraged and where individuals were assessed on their own output rather than that of their team.
The good, the bad and the ugly
When I was dealing with a senior who had the “I’ll squeeze the oil out of you” mentality, I took it as a chance to polish my skills and sharpen my habits – a challenge. Thanks to this man, I moved my mouse very fast while doing CAD and always “cleaned” as I worked on the CAD tree and named properly every bit of my sets or bodies. I was also quite vocal when it was getting tight enough to make me lose focus. While it was never a straight clean line and resentments might occasionally build up, it was all in all an excellent experience from which I kept habits I needed and excellent conversations and memories. I conditioned myself to take the best out of every situation and ensure that I never stopped learning. Once you stop learning your career will start going backwards – you should never stop learning.
Being in an exclusive office of juniors was the least pleasant experience to me: youngsters with a lot of ambition, not enough structuring, unable to master the tools of the trade and all keen to make it to management as quickly as possible. This made for a very toxic environment where learning the trade and appreciating the modelling work came last, well behind personal ambition which was often based on false merits. The atmosphere in the workplace was so competitive that personal ambitions were, for many people, more important than the actual job itself – focus was lost and everyone suffered because of this.
My final and current working place was a blast: I had several mentors, the senior one had +16 years in design and would explain A through to Z when I would ask for C through to G. Along with him there was my project manager who was +8 years and supportive colleagues ranging from +3 to +7 years old. They all shared the conviction that knocking knowledge into someone’s head is not a guarantee that person would learn the trade or even want to learn to learn the trade. The seniors were constantly working on projects and managing their time to work with juniors. It was very tough and demanding but they were admirable at it. In the meantime, as youngsters, we got to work on projects and PM+ required tools, we had a decent idea of what the older folk were doing and what we would soon be called upon to do as well. Of course, there were some exceptions but, once more, it was such a nurturing and excellent experience and at the end of it, you realise that your growth and good memories greatly outweigh the bad ones.
Listen, learn but remain true to yourself
If you’re a new graduate moving into your first work experience, don’t lose your curiosity and eagerness to learn. Be open to criticism, recommendations and advice. Take your time adjusting to your new environment, learning and finding a balance. If you’re a senior dealing with a fresh recruit who has come straight from college, be indulgent of their ego, curiosity and need to affirm one’s self. Be wiser and accept they will have some annoying habits but appreciate the awkward phase of fitting in. You were them once, please don’t forget it, and maybe even reminisce with them.
Personally I always found a delight in the accounts of my seniors during their first months on the job, it allowed me to relate to them and understand they had once been in my position.