on November 26th, 2008

When I was a junior engineer in a large multinational company, I was always bemused by the succession planning for engineers and technicians. Potential for advancement up the technical ladder in your early twenties was great - from trades, technician or graduate engineer level all the way up to plant manager. And then, if you were very good, you had the opportunity to gain the position of chief engineer. But after this, unless you were politically very astute, well connected or possibly had an advanced management qualification you were pretty stuck. The only option then was to leave the firm to continue with your career or face zero career advancement or even land up being deskilled. There was no attempt to promote you upwards in a technical sense.  In essence, technical or engineering skills were not regarded as highly as management or marketing or financial skills. Despite the protestations at my first firm, there was no real succession planning for engineers. And I got the feeling that if you had been an engineer for a long time and hadn’t moved much, it was incumbent on you to leave.

As Gary Perman from the IEEE remarks: the number one reason why engineers leave a company is that they perceive management has no interest in developing their career - exactly why I left my first job. He goes onto remark that a company shoots itself in the foot by failing to exploit (and reward) the talents of good engineering professionals. The result of this is morale decline and productivity drop-off. Succession management is critical in a company – to identifying successors in all roles and to ensure there is a match between a company’s needs and the aspirations and abilities of individual engineers and technicians. Needless to say, if you are incompetent or have risen to the highest level of proficiency in your job, then don’t make waves for promotion otherwise you are going to be in an ‘unwinnable’ situation.

In today’s economic climate, the approach is often to neglect succession planning. Yet it is a time when it is critical that everyone contributes to keeping the company vibrant and  opportunities for growth noted and acted upon. According to my sources (including the US dept of Labor) even in today’s rocky market, there is a critical shortage of engineering professionals because of aging and a lack of new entrants, so succession planning is critical if you, as a company, are to retain and grow your good guys. And succession planning is not the sole domain of large companies. It applies to small 3 man partnerships as it does to multinationals with thousands of engineers and technicians.

Whether you are an engineering professional, starting off in a firm, or a senior engineer in an organization what do you need to do:

• Recognise that engineers and technicians’ careers need to grow with the business to ensure their retention and to improve the bottom line of the business
• Ensure there is a long term, real succession plan for you as an engineer in the firm you are joining.
• Ensure, as a senior engineering manager, that your engineers and technicians, with real potential, have a long upwards path in order to add value to the firm and to themselves
• Leave for better prospects outside, to avoid short changing yourself, if you have the ability and the company’s succession plan looks fractured
• Ensure you always look after the talented engineering professionals in your organization. With today’s emphasis on company’s Intellectual Property residing in the heads of employees - when they leave, they take a bit of the company value with them.

We most definitely want to avoid, in our engineering careers, Thornton Wilder’s remark: ‘Life is an unbroken succession of false situations’.

Yours in engineering learning


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