We all know that no one is indispensable – companies and people come and go. Even the owner or ‘boss’ of a business is often a fragile commodity. Bearing this in mind you could be cynical and indifferent - or work hard on building your career value to make yourself infinitely more valuable.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Make sure you are The Expert on an engineering or technology topic. Pick a “hot useful” topic, learn it inside out and use this know-how to contribute to your firm and clients. Become well known as the local and indispensable expert who takes delight in assisting and educating everyone on this difficult topic - both in your organisation and to your clients. For example, if you are working with an industrial data communications system and are able to knowledgeably troubleshoot protocol packets with Wireshark (a freely available utility) you have a unique and enviable skill. Or if you are able to diagnose and rectify problems with electrical harmonics on an oil and gas platform you will be looked upon as the expert. Remember that these skill requirements are often temporary – you need to keep learning and refining your know-how.
- Write well and document what you do in simple English. Most engineering professionals hate writing and documenting things. If you have this skill you will become well known and respected. Supplementing your text with clear drawings and diagrams and a neatly-structured spreadsheet, for example, also adds enormous value to your communications.
- Add presentation communication skills to your expertise. Being able to communicate simply and effectively (avoiding jargon) is always highly regarded. Make opportunities to attend professional development classes that focus on critical thinking and presentation skills or join a group like Toastmasters International which will give you practice.
- Watch out for changes in your field of endeavour. Change is guaranteed and not always welcome - especially when you have spent your career investing in a particular skill. For example, a decade before, you had to know about the RS-232E serial communication standard and you were able to wield a soldering iron with some panache. This is mostly obsolete now and instead you need to know all about Gigabit Ethernet and TCP/IP addressing. So watch for changes, be prepared to change and where possible avoid backing yourself into a career dead end.
- Hitch a lift with a magic carpet rider. There are employees going places in an organisation that can be fairly easily identified. They show clear signs of leadership with their enthusiasm, high level of energy, innovative thinking and involvement in pioneering and ultimately productive projects. Endeavouring to work in their departments is far more intelligent than working for and with dead-end colleagues and managers – those who tend to be cynical, negative and disappointed with the firms they work for and with their own careers. Avoid those who say:” I have told my kids never to take engineering as a career as it is a dead-end”.
- Discuss your career with your manager. Put a plan together of where you want to go with your career over a 6 to 12 month period. In the plan consider; type of work and experience, progress and a forecast, education or professional development and naturally salary. Don’t haggle with your manager on salaries, however, and play your firm off against a job offer from another firm - you are likely to be labelled mercenary and untrustworthy. Keep an eye on salaries, though, with comparable jobs in the market and ensure your management is aware of any discrepancies. In tough economic times flexibility with salaries is more challenging, but you may be able to negotiate on intangible benefits. These include things such as; more time off, longer holidays, opportunities for experience in other areas of the firm, training and education.
- Make a point of understanding the business side of your firm. This is mainly what your managers are interested in after all. Whether this involves financial, marketing or legal issues – gaining some knowledge in the relevant areas and contributing intelligently will make your managers sit up and take notice - your advice may even become invaluable and sought after. This is a big ask, however, as very few people have a good understanding and a good mix of skills in technology, engineering and business. However, I believe gaining an understanding of finance, is critical for all engineering professionals (as it is vital in your personal life as well).
- It is the long haul and persistence that matters. Don’t worry about short term setbacks in your career development. Reassess your direction every now and again, by all means, but ultimately set your objectives and keep trucking doggedly in their direction. Don’t give up or compromise.
Remember as Bob Wells remarked: Your true value depends entirely on what you are compared with.
Make sure that in your firm and with your clients you are considered one of the best there is.
Yours in engineering learning