Career Lifelines for Engineering Seniors

Monday, April 1, 2013

Imagine you are about to graduate from the University of Iowa College of Engineering.

After four years of hard work and with a bachelor’s degree in hand, you are now ready for gainful employment and the start of a successful and fulfilling engineering career. Now imagine it is 1938; in the pre-computer, pre-Facebook, Great Depression era, how will you explore your options and successfully land the job that’s right for you?

For most of the 20th century, engineering students could rely on only a few strategies to help them connect with prospective employers: their personal knowledge of mostly Midwest companies developed through summer work, family connections, and faculty mentors, and the US Postal Service. Of course, the telephone helped, too, but until the post-World War II era, telephonic communication was still limited—long distance calls were expensive, and some students and their families didn’t have long-distance service. In fact, in rural areas, some families might not even have telephone service.

So to help the Class of 1937 graduating seniors connect with potential employers, the Electrical Engineering and Chemical Engineering Departments each published a set of resumes that showcased the talents, experience, and know-how of the newly minted electrical and chemical engineers. A brief article in the April 1937 Iowa Transit notes that although the departments had been “very successful in placing [their] graduates each year, even during the depression years, it was felt that a more systematic approach” would benefit the new alumni.

The department staff mailed about 100 sets of these resume “yearbooks” to private and municipal power companies, telephone companies, and manufacturers. In addition, each student received 25 copies of his page to market himself. The response from potential employers was positive, with one manufacturing company stating, “We are offering a few young men an opportunity to learn our business. We do not have the proposition that pays the most money, but if these young men are interested in learning...we are in the position to give them some consideration.”

The 1937 trial run of resume yearbooks was so successful the entire College of Engineering adopted the scheme the following year. Simply titled Senior Class of 1938, College of Engineering, the small book—it could almost fit into a shirt pocket—began with a brief “Dear Sir” letter from Ralph M. Barnes, Director of Personnel. The purpose of the “plan,” Barnes said, was to “better acquaint employers with our senior students.” The College provided copies to faculty members and graduating seniors, and then forwarded the rest to “those industries and organizations, which we think will be interested.”

The booklets continued to be published by the College for some thirty years and are a treasure trove of information about the students, the College, and the world at large. The format remained virtually identical every year. A single page presented the name and photograph of each student, as well as his address, personal information, occupational choices, a list of high school and college activities, and practical experience.

The first entry in the 1938 booklet describes Nathan B. Barber, Jr., a chemical engineering student interested in “metallurgical work.” The Waterloo native worked two summers in the Deere & Co. plant in his hometown, claimed a reading knowledge of three languages, and enjoyed hobbies such as “photography, radio, and shop work.”

And then this:

Height: 5 ft. 11 in.
Weight: 160 pounds.
No physical defects. Not married.
Racial extraction: Scotch-Irish.

The presence of photographs and details about ethnic background, physical ability, and marital status were part-and-parcel of virtually the entire series of booklets and reflected the biases of the early-to-mid 20th-century social and cultural norms until well into the 1970s, when post-secondary schools and employers began to understand that students, faculty members, and employees with diverse backgrounds and abilities enriched, rather than threatened, their institutions. As they are, however, the booklets are a unique historical window that both reveals and reflects the nature of the College of Engineering and the larger society of which it was part.

For 32 years, the introductory letter included a “Dear Sir” greeting and referred to the students as “men”—this despite the fact that at least a half-dozen women who earned bachelor degrees during that period also are included. The ethnic makeup of the student body was almost exclusively some combination of Anglo-Irish-Scotch and German, with the occasional Scandinavian heritage for good measure. In the 1941 yearbook, students were for the first time also required to list their citizenship—likely the result of growing concern about the war in Europe and Japanese expansion in Asia. The yearbooks apparently were not published for the classes of 1945 and 1946. The dramatic impact of the war also is abundantly clear in the 1949 volume. That edition is an inch thick—more than four times larger than any other yearbook except 1959, and a clear indication of the swelling ranks of war veterans who had returned to civilian life and began college after the war ended in mid-summer 1945.

By 1949, some students indicated “American” as their ancestry. Other tidbits hint at a bygone era. Until the 1950s, a number of students listed Latin among the languages they had learned in high school, and work experiences included bellhop, motion and time studies, “plant employee, Home Town Dairy, Iowa City,” and “auto mechanic in Clark’s Garage in Cedar Rapids.” And, of course, farm labor. By the mid-1950s, however, many students were listing summer jobs more akin to professional positions and touting experience in firms such as Deere & Co.,
Motorola, and General Electric.

Across the span of the booklets, a surprising number of UI engineering students were married by their senior year, and some even had children. In the early 1950s, a notable uptick in older, “non-traditional” students appears in the books—possibly a lingering effect of the war which delayed even civilians from seeking an education.

The dramatic social changes that reshaped the country during the 1960s also changed the nature of the College of Engineering as reflected in the senior booklets. Although ancestry continued to be fairly clear from student photos, seniors graduating in 1968 were no longer asked to specify that characteristic. In the 1971 edition, students listed their Selective Service status and draft lottery numbers—indicators of the likelihood a newly minted graduate would soon be entering Vietnam War military service.

That rather chilling volume was also the final one to be issued by the College. Although students still indicated their height and weight, it undoubtedly no longer seemed relevant to include information about ancestry, marital status, or “physical defects” (which, in fact, had ceased to be of interest sometime between the World War II 1943 and 1948 volumes). The final edition includes one student who is 49 years old and another who is a woman. For the first time, however, it does not include the standard letter of explanation to some anonymous industry
“Dear Sir.” Instead, Yearbook Coordinator Max Robertson tells his “Fellow Students” that “Our paths will soon diverge, but our memories of shared experiences will remain. This yearbook will help us recall these times during the coming years.” He notes that the Alumni News and the
Iowa Transit will help the class remain in touch and updated about College happenings, and he ends with the hope “may we all enjoy rewarding and satisfying careers.”

Sixty-five years from now, the College will still be helping guide its students to successful career choices, just as it did sixty-five years ago with the inaugural College of Engineering senior yearbook.

“In a very real sense, the yearbook was the LinkedIn of its day,” Phil Jordan, Director of Engineering Professional Development says.

“Companies and organizations have always liked to hire people they know and are comfortable with, and the College of Engineering has a long tradition of bringing students and employers together.”