A senior engineer reflects on his career and shares his experience and wisdom with the next generation of engineers
While all engineering degrees are inherently valuable and flexible when it comes to career options, the engineering sphere has never been more challenging, and this in turn makes it difficult for many young engineers to focus their careers and make the most of the opportunities that are available. The petrochemical industry, in particular, is inherently volatile based on fluctuations in petroleum and natural gas prices, and this can lead to sudden changes in employment opportunities. This can make it difficult to maintain stable employment, and plan a reasonable, stable engineering career trajectory.
This article shares some “lessons learned” from my 40-plus-year engineering/management career (first in the nuclear industry and then in the chemical and petroleum-refining industries). My time in refining eventually encountered an abrupt downturn that led to a drastic career adjustment for me. This caused me to reflect on how I would redo my career if I could. Some thoughts shared below can provide a level of guidance to young engineers.
When I started my career as a structural engineer in the nuclear power industry, work was booming and all my boss ever asked during my first few years of employment was how much overtime I could work. During those days, countries such as Japan and South Korea, were considered developing nations, and we did a significant work for such international customers to help them build their civil and industrial infrastructure.
There also seemed to be an endless amount of work for domestic utilities and companies. This boon in work led many to become complacent about their future career trajectories, and to become lulled into thinking that this bullish state would be the norm over their entire careers.
Technological developments over the last 40+ years have been mind boggling, and there seems to be no sign such innovation will slow down in the coming years. I recall at the start of my career that slide rules were the norm for doing calculations, and people stared in awe at those who had a small pocket calculator. Now the computational capabilities at our fingertips through the various technology tools are endless. It is said that a modern smartphone has more computing power than the computers on Apollo 11 that first took a man to the moon in 1969.
This rapid pace of change has necessitated constant learning to stay current with technology tools. The need for ongoing education — and a willingness to embrace change — goes well beyond calculation tools and extends into the engineering technologies in every discipline. Constant learning is a bedrock requirement of the engineering field, and is a must going forward.
Competition in the engineering field has intensified, and it is not uncommon now for clients to request a fixed-price quote for engineering services. This was unheard of at the start of my career when nearly all engineering was was done on a time and material basis. And, we are now not only competing with other engineering firms within the U.S., but are also competing internationally. This level of competition within the engineering field will continue, and is likely to intensify.
Job hopping from company to company (and even industry to industry) has become the norm as engineers push to advance their careers, or as a result of companies downsizing. At the start of my career, engineers generally joined companies with the idea that they would retire at the same company. Now lifetime employment at one company is nearly unheard of, and engineers starting their careers have to be prepared for a path that may wind in many directions.
In the U.S., companies have even adjusted their retirement programs to so-called “portable” 401K retirement-savings plans to facilitate employment flexibility. There are a lot of good technical performers who are looking for work because they were displaced due to circumstances beyond their control. This often makes it doubly difficult for the engineer to find his or her next position since the competition is intense for the often limited positions. Also, engineers have become more productive, thanks to advances in technology and computation tools, and therefore firms need fewer engineers to do the same work. As a consultant who now assists a major corporation in talent recruitment, I often quickly see several hundred applicants for a posted position, and this trend is likely to continue.
Ideas for the future
There is no ironclad approach to ensuring an uninterrupted engineering career, but I have developed some ideas to help assist in guiding young engineering professionals. These ideas do not supplant the need to stay current with technologies and innovations, but they offer opportunities to increase your value to future employers. Here are some thoughts that will be discussed in later sections:
- Strive to become a technical expert in a specific facet of your engineering discipline, so that you are recognized for this knowledge.
- Develop a diverse “toolbox” of skills.
- Become knowledgeable in contract development and maintenance, since this has become a key component of every project.
- Consider seeking engineering work on infrastructure enhancement projects, since these generally do not face foreign competition; at least in the U.S. (in many other countries, as well), infrastructure-related engineering work promises to be strong over the next 20–40 years.
- Remain flexible on work location and be willing to relocate.
- Consider starting your own business.
1. Become a technical expert. At the heart of your engineering career should be the goal of being the best you can be in your chosen field. But even among all engineering professionals there are those who distinguish themselves by becoming experts in their fields. Professionals who wish to be recognized as “best in class” devote their careers toward honing their skills in a particular area. They generally become involved in code activities and write technical papers on their area of expertise. These professionals often become very important to engineering companies because they represent a trusted source to go to, to find “final answers” on complex technical matters, and often the professional recognition they garner within their industry sector can help their company to attract business. Such experts generally survive cutbacks within their companies, and if they are displaced, are generally quickly absorbed by other companies that recognize their skills.
2. Build your “toolbox.” Another way to improve your value is to involve yourself in as many different facets of work as possible, even though you may not consider some areas your “sweet spot.” By having different areas of expertise, you will be able to more easily switch to a different area in the event your work area becomes soft. Broader experience also allows you to develop the ability to understand how the different pieces fit together. This broader understanding of how different functions interact is particularly valuable for senior executives who have to oversee multiple disciplines, such as engineering, cost estimating and contracts.
During my career, I have never turned down an opportunity to work in a new and different area. Over the years I have worked as a structural engineer, piping engineer, field construction engineer, estimator, procedure writer, project manager, engineering manager, and senior business executive. This broad experience has served me well in slow times, and has also benefited me for promotions because I demonstrated breadth of knowledge and flexibility.
3. Become knowledgeable in contracts. Unfortunately the engineering world has become driven by the need to write and interpret tight contracts. In my early days, I recall the executives in our company taking pride in the fact that they agreed to design a nuclear plant on a handshake. Now this is unheard of, even for the smallest tasks. The environment is so competitive that owners and engineering companies must protect themselves from the slightest errors. Lawyers play a key role here, but engineers with contract-development knowledge are key to an organization because they understand key technical attributes in the process. Developing contracts knowledge through training and experience can make an engineer immensely valuable.
4. Consider a career in the infrastructure-enhancement area.While jobs in several manufacturing areas may fluctuate over the coming years, infrastructure-enhancement work promises to grow and stay strong. It has been well documented that in the U.S., bridges, highways, underground pipeline systems, sewer plants, mass transit systems, and other people-serving facilities have exceeded their useful life.
In the U.S., the current presidential administration has pledged a huge amount of funding to remediate our infrastructure. Most of these facilities are not merely a “replace in kind”, but the plan is to utilize innovative techniques to perform the rehabilitation in order to modernize and upgrade the infrastructure element. Innovative techniques can lead to very interesting engineering work, and most importantly, will generate very solid work over a considerable number of years. The opportunities will be available in government agencies, and also engineering-and-construction firms and manufacturers of engineering equipment and materials.
5. Be flexible on work location.My 40+ years has shown that engineers who were flexible on work location nearly always had work.This can be trying for families, and the family-work balance must often be evaluated. However, there can be ways to manage work location changes so there is an upside for the entire family. In my own case, a one-year move to another U.S. location allowed my wife to do a sabbatical in her teaching profession and my daughter to gain new insights at a young age. Another three-year stint at an international power project proved very rewarding from an education and travel standpoint. While modern communication systems can enable people to work remotely, there are other functions where it is essential to be at the plant site or engineering office. Being flexible on work location can be fulfilling, and will often greatly increase your value to your employer.
6. Consider starting your own business. For bold, entrepreneurial types, there is always the option of starting your own business. Under this scenario you generally have direct control over your future. Opponents to this idea will say you do not have the security of a company; however, in today’s market security is not a given anyway, and, often good performers are released due to downturns in the business or challenging overall economic conditions. Being your own business owner will also cause you to go through downturns; however, in this situation with proper planning you can generally ride through the storm. I personally formed my own one-person consulting company near the end of my career and find the work rewarding and flexible.
The key to being successful in your own endeavors is to spend the first ten or so years of your career learning the business. No one should take the route of business owner without years of learning, careful consideration of ownership options and forecast studies of the business being considered. In the end, having your own business can result in a fulfilling and secure career path.
General career guidelines
The discussion above presents specific guidelines for directing an engineering career through the ups-and-downs that are certain to be encountered in a person’s working life. However, there are other general thoughts that are key to increasing your chances for continued employment through your career. These are considered threshold requirements for having a successful engineering career.
1. Always be the best performer you can be. Work hard to be the best performer in your work area. Performance appraisals provide documented and timed input on your work progress, but you should seek out input on an informal basis from your boss and interfacing groups. This provides positive reinforcement, and will raise issues that may otherwise have stayed dormant until the annual review.
2. Stay current with technology changes. Learning should never stop, and every engineer should stay abreast of changes. Technical knowledge is doubling every 10 years and the rate of change is only expected to accelerate. People of my era are often criticized (rightly or wrongly) for not staying abreast of technology changes. Looking forward, young engineers should learn from this and make sure they do not become outdated.
3. Hone your communication skills. The largest gap I have seen with engineers is that both their written and communication skills lag. There are many reasons for this, but the most prominent reason is that engineers feel these skills are important. Many feel they are exempt from good communications because they are technical people, and frankly often have no interest in communications. More than ever, the ability to communicate effectively — and articulate your technical expertise and viewpoint in an effective way — with your boss, co-workers and the public is crucial in our profession, so it is an absolute necessity to seek continuous improvement in your written and oral communication skills. Technology is becoming more complex so it is essential to communicate effectively with disparate colleagues and project team members, who are often scattered all over the world. Understanding foreign cultures and languages can be very beneficial. I personally have recommended that young engineers join an organization called Toastmasters, which works on communication skills. This worldwide organization has a club in countless major towns and cities.
4. Manage your chosen career path. Whatever path you have chosen, it is important that you manage this path. Granted, this can be somewhat limited within your company, but even there you should have occasional discussions with your boss concerning your aspirations. Also, strive to become visible to managers who influence promotions, and take on assignments that go beyond your current work area. For a young engineer, a career looks endless, but in reality, time will go quickly. Do not regret later that you should have made a different career move early on.
5. Network, network, network.Never has it been more important to stay abreast of new technologies and the current job situation through interaction with peers. People have a tendency to network only in time of need (that is, when looking for work), but this activity should be constant. Networking not only keeps you informed regarding the job market, but also keeps you informed on technology changes, thereby making you more valuable. There are organizations with a focus on promoting networking, and also various social media outlets, such as LinkedIn, promote this activity.
Determining a path forward for a young engineer can be vexing, and filled with uncertainties and indecision. A career choice that looks good today may not be the best path forward for the long-term. The one constant in looking forward is that change will always be present. Staying current with technologies is a must in our fast-changing field. Hopefully the recommendations shared here provide some key points for young engineers to consider when focusing on their careers. As I think back to my own career, I had no plan, and this led me into some tough spots along the way. We never get the benefit of “doing it all over again,” but some advice from an “eminence grise” (who did some things wrong) may be helpful. Engineering is one of the most rewarding and professionally satisfying careers that you can enter. I urge all young engineers to develop a plan early on, modify it as needed along the way, and drive to a satisfying finish line. n
Carl Rentschler, P.E., is an engineering consultant specializing in project management, business development, client relationship management and procedure development (210 Main Street, Akron, PA 17501; Phone: 717-951-4772; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org). He has more than 40 years of varied engineering and management experience (in the power and petrochemical fields) with three international EPC companies. He holds a B.S. in civil engineering from Penn State University and an M. Eng. from Cornell University.
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