on September 11th, 2009

Dear Colleagues

Since the early seventies, I have watched as engineering careers have morphed into five distinct types: ‘corporate’, ‘learning’, ‘contract’, ‘skilled global’ and ‘manager’. I would be most interested to know what your type is and naturally, make suggestions on what you think of my categorisation. I will conclude by making some suggestions on how you can take advantage of these trends.

I believe each category still exists today, but the last two appear to be growing strongly.

The Corporate Engineer/Technician

During the sixties and early seventies, engineers set themselves up for life with one strong company with a solid career ladder. There were reasonably slow changes in technology so what know-how one gained at university or college was applicable for most of one’s career. Quality was a desirable (and required) attribute in all work and budgets weren’t fought over with such intensity. Competition was minimal. The company invested in the engineer’s career development and looked after him/her. Engineers were sought after and valued – even through the regular recessions. This type is still around, but has diminished over time.

Learning Engineer/Technician

In the seventies, new technologies started to move in, especially with developments such as; electronics, automation, computer technology and miniaturization of components, being typical examples. Competition started to increase and budgets were under some pressure. The engineer and technician had to learn these new technologies or face redundancy (or a dead end job sometimes in the guise of management). Engineering professionals started to move between companies with 4 to 8 employers being the norm before retirement.

Contract Engineer

Competition started to become more vigorous and, in the mid to late eighties, there were continual blasts of corporate downsizing. Management consultants were being called in to, “re-organise and re-engineer the already re-organised” – as one UK engineer expressed to me with some bitterness. Many engineers and technicians, who were dumped as a result of these restructurings, started working on hourly rates as contractors or consultants. Loyalty to the company was lost and instead remuneration levels became the focus. Temporary and often lucrative contracts were given by companies who only wanted to offer temporary jobs for the life of a single project. ‘Bodyshops’ began to emerge. Engineers and technicians began to be hired out – where they were often short-changed by the sweatshop owners. Guaranteed career ladders became more uncommon and continuing education for engineers and technicians more limited. Large companies were able to avoid negative publicity when contract engineers were sacked – they were not “true employees” – merely temporary guests of the company! As a result many were deterred from becoming engineers and technicians as they perceived it to be an unstable career. And many left the profession and moved into other areas, such as commerce.

The Skilled or Global Engineer

A severe shortage of engineering professionals started developing in the late nineties as a result of the downsizing in the eighties. Many with expertise had been sacked (and then retrained in other areas) and others were simply not interested in the profession due to the tough education process, limited income and a sense that there remained some instability. This shortage was exacerbated by a big jump in infrastructure, mining, oil and gas and manufacturing projects and an economic boom. Salaries started jumping in certain engineering professions and engineers and technicians were back in demand.  Paradoxically, however, there appeared to be considerably more demand for specialists. Employers made (temporary) employment conditional on engineers and technicians having the precise skill set they were after, for a specific project (and often fired the engineers and technicians whose skills weren’t considered relevant any longer). Furthermore, engineering professionals in companies found that, due to the severe shortage of expertise, they were expected to multi-task, work longer hours and have a wide range of know-how. Technology change continued to accelerate and engineers /technicians began taking on work on a global basis – including work with virtual teams spread around the world. Due to the shortage of engineering expertise and downward pressure on costs, outsourcing of engineering work accelerated. Companies, however,  found that the old adage; ‘Pay peanuts and you get monkeys’ remained true – under paying engineers and technicians, doing sophisticated design work in certain third world countries, just didn’t work (and actually cost more).

The Manager

Becoming a manager became a popular career choice. This was due in part to the uncertainties in engineering, but was also as a result of the perception that a career in management was the path to a quick buck and a relaxing career. University business schools perpetrated this myth through their misleading marketing. Many engineering students came to believe that they could be transformed in a mere 10 to 12 months. They thought they could break out of their technical shackles and join their more laid back and easy going peers in human resources, finance and administration by following this path. However, the salaries of the ‘Global Engineer’ often surpassed that of ‘The Manager’ – leading many ‘Managers’ to question what they were doing in the corporate environment. However, it must be said that the successful engineers with management ability (and perhaps an MBA), who set up their own businesses, were often extraordinarily successful – creating everything from industrial software to precision manufacturing and employing thousands of people.

So where do we go from here?

You need to become a professional career planner and take ownership of your career on a day-by-day basis. Watch the career trends and avoid being stuck in a dead end job. It sounds like a very lonely world, but no one – not your husband/wife/partner or business associate – is going to do this for you. In the fifties, as a corporate engineer, perhaps you were cared for. This is unlikely these days. If you fail to map your career out you may pay an enormous price in the years to come; with loss of earnings and even worse – loss of job satisfaction. Once you have identified who you are and where you are going, keep firmly to your course using a good compass.

You have to become an avid learner. Not only by absorbing information from your peers, on-the-job or from courses, but also by becoming adept at working with ‘meta-knowledge’ – managing information and knowledge. Know where to find it and have the ability to identify it when it is found. It is not always necessary to absorb and become skilled in the actual know-how, but it is important to ‘know where it is and what it consists of’.

And dare I say, plan for a time when you may be unable to work any longer, due to health reasons or a bad economy. Unpleasant scenarios, but realistic – I hope instead that you work happily at something which is fulfilling and financially satisfactory until you depart this ‘mortal coil’. 

Thanks to Vern Johnson of the IEEE for inspiration for  this article.

Jeff Foxworthy had an interesting take on his career, but is not my advice to you: “My whole career can be summed up with ‘Ignorance is bliss.’ When you do not know better, you do not really worry about failing”.
Yours in engineering learning


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