By Ed Brennen
Like so many plastics engineering majors, alum Bob Findlen walked right into a job after earning his bachelor’s degree from UMass Lowell in 1981.
Working in technical services for the plastics division at General Electric, Findlen spent his first two years supporting the sales group. Essentially, Findlen says, he would accompany the salespeople on the road and explain the technical stuff to clients.
“They were taking me into these accounts, and then they’d sit in the car afterward and talk about how they have to close the deal for their bonus,” recalls Findlen, who didn’t get a bonus as an engineer. “Then they’d dropped me off at the airport because they were going on a golf outing with customers.
“I thought, ‘Wait a minute. Something’s not right here. I’m going to be a sales guy.’”
Findlen, who has gone on to a successful sales and marketing career, shared the story with students during a recent alumni panel discussion on the field of “sales engineering.” Co-sponsored by the Francis College of Engineering and the Manning School of Business, the discussion was designed to give students from both disciplines insight into the growing (and potentially lucrative) career of selling complex technological products and services to businesses.
“It’s a field our students may not think about when they’re in a highly technical class,” says Engineering Dean Joe Hartman. “So it’s great for them to hear from alums that there’s another path, especially if you like talking to customers and trying to solve problems, which is what we try to teach our engineering students.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a sales engineer in 2016 was $100,000. With more technologically advanced products coming on the market in the next decade, the field is projected to grow 7 percent.
While engineering students can minor in business administration to gain skills needed for a career in sales engineering, the reverse path can be more tricky for business students. That’s why Hartman and Manning School Dean Sandy Richtermeyer are collaborating to explore new ways to integrate their programs.
“We want to make sure our business students understand how their role intersects with engineering, and that they’re aware of the different career opportunities that are available,” Richtermeyer says. “We hope this event plants the seed for many things to come.”
Manning School Executive-in-Residence Paul Keyser, who began his career as an applications engineer before transitioning into sales and management, moderated the panel discussion, held at the Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center.
The panel also included Theresa O’Riorden (civil engineering ’97), a sales representative for construction equipment supplier Mabey Inc.; Steve Serabian (mechanical engineering ’80), a strategic account executive at Salesforce; and Fred Charpentier (business administration ’81), president and owner of Coastal Plastics Equipment.
Like Findlen, Keyser was introduced to sales while working for GE Plastics in the 1980s – albeit a bit more reluctantly.
“I’d had this misconception that a salesperson was a guy in a plaid suit running across a parking lot trying to sell me something I didn’t like, but GE convinced me it’s a little more technical than that,” says Keyser, who encouraged students to find ways to work with customers no matter which field they choose.
“Even if you’re not going to entertain a sales career, get out there and get to know the customers. You’ll be pleasantly enamored with how they’re using your products,” says Keyser, who has taught as an adjunct professor in the Manning School since retiring as president of Stanley Supply and Services in North Andover in 2015.
Andrew Gys, a senior business administration major with a concentration in finance, hadn’t considered a career in sales engineering before attending the panel discussion.
“I could definitely see myself doing something like that,” says Gys, who was encouraged to hear how a business alum like Charpentier succeeded in the field. “He went down that engineering path once he was on the job and was able to figure it out, which was really cool to see.”
Sophomore plastics engineering major Justin Carbone, meanwhile, came into the discussion with a good understanding of the field. He left with added motivation to pursue it.
“Getting out of the office and being with people is something I really value,” Carbone says. “I think I’d like having a challenge of doing something different.”