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Continual Career Change PUBLIC ACCESS

A Figure from Ancient Mythology Could Change at Will to Meet Challenges. Tomorrow's Engineers Will Need to be that Adaptable, Too.

[+] Author Notes

Steven Kerno Jr. is a parts cross-reference analyst at John Deere in Milan. Ill., and a doctoral candidate at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. His research interests include the connection of continuous learning and career success, and the effects of organizational culture and hierarchy on the communities of practice approach to learning.

Mechanical Engineering 129(07), 30-33 (Jul 01, 2007) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2007-JUL-3

This article explains the need of being versatile, flexible, adaptable, or capable of assuming forms for career demands that confront modern day engineers. The protean career, with the growing need for individual motivation and continuous, career-related learning and development, is indeed a contemporary reality for many engineers. The article also highlights that present and future engineering jobs will involve more challenge, more skilled expertise, and the ability to ‘network’ with others who possess similarly valuable knowledge, skills, and abilities. An engineer must be able to define and clearly articulate the nature and scope of current and future project assignments, as opposed to individual jobs. As work becomes more project-oriented, engineering career success will increasingly depend on the ability to move from project to project, and to absorb the learning and ‘best practices’ from each assignment, as opposed to retaining a relatively static job title and work environment. The successful engineer will more and more frequently be the one capable of using the tools at his or her disposal to effectively orient or map their knowledge and abilities to the current and future needs of their current organization, remaining flexible, adaptable, and versatile.

You might not remember Proteus. He was a sea god in ancient Greek mythology. To most engineers, mythology of any kind is likely to be a distant memory—something we learned about in high school, with little perceived relevance or applicability to today's challenges and demands. Or so we thought.

Proteus was capable of altering his shape in order to fit the demands of his environment. His name is the basis of the adjective "protean," which has the general meaning of versatile, flexible, adaptable, or capable of assuming many forms—much like the career demands confronting the modern engineer.

"Protean," especially when applied to "career," isn't simply an abstract term involving a colorful superstition, 'but a modern reality that for many is simultaneously exhilarating in the freedom it provides and terrifying in the security it erodes. The protean career, with the growing need for individual motivation and continuous, careerrelated learning and development, is indeed a contemporary reality for many engineers.

Engineers have undoubtedly been the primary drivers of the industrial progress that has occurred during much of the previous century. They possess many of the skills necessary to link perceived social needs to the commercial applications that satisfy those needs. There is scarcely a product or service available that didn't require the services of an engineer before everyone decided they couldn't live without it.

During the past 50 years, the essential ingredients of engineering education have not changed radically. Until recently, newly graduated engineers received the bulk of their training on the job. Senior engineers would act as mentors, providing task-related direction and guidance, with the organization assuming responsibility for career progression and development. Such an organizationally determined structure, coupled with a more static and predictable econori:li.c environment, were the ingredients thought necessary to adri:li.nister most of the career-related learning the young protege would ever need, and to nurture the qualities deemed necessary for success.

Despite the indispensable nature of their work, engineers have not been exempt from the increasingly turbulent and uncertain employment environment of our time. Beginning in the 1970s, as a result of persistent economic malaise, high energy prices, stagflation, and the resulting turmoil within many sectors of u.s. manufacturing, a covenant that existed began to change.

Before that time, in what amounted to a social contract, an employer generally would provide benefits such as lifetime (or at least long-term) employment, generous pension plans, and fully paid health care to loyal employees. The arrangement assumed that both parties, through econori:li.c peaks and valleys alike, would stick together.

The following decades, and the tumult that accompanied them, have transformed the relationship of engineer and employer into a transactional contract, based upon an exchange of benefits between the two, but having a much shorter life expectancy. The net outcome for engineers is that job security and its trappings will fade in importance and be replaced with marketability of skills, and the need to remain adaptable, versatile, and flexible—in short, the "protean career."

Engineers, despite their unique knowledge and abilities, can be affected particularly harshly by the ·tr.ansformed career. Why? Because the very qualities that for decades have served engineers well in the maintenance and advancement of their careers may now be a liability.

Career Concepts

A great many U.S. organizations have traditionally defined a "career" as a steady progression of positions, each resulting in increasing levels of authority and responsibility. Against such a backdrop, a "successful" career was measured in terms of position within a formally structured organizational hierarchy. While this scenario is certainly not obsolete, it also doesn't apply as frequently as it used to, and is tending to become less and less common.

It is useful to consider a career concept, a model that identifies four fundamentally different patterns of career experience, each having differing trajectories, motivations, and needs within an organization. An engineer may tend to associate more strongly with one, or equally between two, in which case they may possess a "hybrId" career concept.

The "linear" career concept typically involves a progression of steps, or promotions, within the formal hierarchy of an organization. "Climbing the corporate ladder" would describe the ideal career for a linear.

An "expert" career concept usually involves a long-term commitment to an engineer's chosen field or specialty, with the work often becori:li.ng an important component of self-identity. The department or division "guru" is a status (even if informal) that experts often aspire to attain.

A "spiral" career concept frequently takes the form of moving periodically, every few years, to a related or similar area of employment. Someone may "learn the ropes" in one discipline, then use the acquired knowledge and skills to gain entrance to a closely related field. The knowledge base from each discipline is used to open doors to others.

A " transitory" career concept is just that—transitioning from one experience to another so frequently that it may not seem as if a person settles down long enough to actually have a career (at least in the traditional sense). 'Jack of all trades" would aptly describe the person with such a career. U.S. organizations in the past faced relatively stable economic and social environments. That is, demand for products increased year after year in a predictable manner, fueling economic growth. The dual engines of innovation and efficiency ensured that U.S. manufacturing remained virtually unrivaled, with both workers and management sharing in the fruits of success. Regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn't exist.

In such an environment, employees possessing expert or linear careers had an advantage. Experts benefited from organizational stability, allowing for focus and commitment to the knowledge and skills necessary for achieving expertise in the chosen occupational specialty, while linears could concentrate on ascending the corporate ladder. But times have changed, as have the beneficiaries of the shifting needs of organizations.

With ever-increasing globalization, a more hostile external environment with stakeholders whose agendas are frequently at cross-purposes with the organization's, and with the countless downsizings, layoffs, and off-shorings that such an environment engenders, the opportunities and threats posed to both organizations and the engineers they employ are numerous. Whereas employees with spiral or transitory careers in the past may have been overlooked by employers, they are welcome now, as they are more flexible, adaptable, versatile—more protean—than their expert and linear counterparts. They are able to change with the needs of their organizations. There is good news and bad news in all of this.

First, the bad news. The career concepts that many engineers traditionally have followed, often linear or expert in nature, are dwindling in number. Engineers, by virtue of the educational demands required (longer and more intense than many other college majors), their more common and traditional association with the "core competen. cies" of their employers, and the relatively insulated working environment many have encountered, have enjoyed "favored" status in many U.S. companies.

four career concepts

Understand how to provide, or "broker," your knowledge, skills, and abilities in such a way that unmet organizational needs can be satisfied by the services, engineering and otherwise, you are capable of providing.

LINEAR

  • Progressive series of upward steps within organizational hierarchy.

  • Deeply rooted in cultural emphasis American society places on upward mobility.

  • Key motivations are individual power, achievement, and opportunity to "make things happen."

  • Individuals tend to be competitive, oriented toward leadership, profits, and financial success.

EXPERT

  • Lifelong (at least long-term) commitment to a chosen occupational field or specialty.

  • Focus on development and refinement of knowledge, skills, and abilities within career.

  • Nature of work performed tends to be an integral component of self-identity.

  • Key motivations are expertise or technical competence, security, and stability.

  • Individuals tend to be quality-conscious, oriented toward commitment and reliability.

SPIRAL

  • Periodic (every 7-10 years) major moves across related occupational specialties or disciplines.

  • Ideal career move is from one functional area (engineering, manufacturing) into an adjacent or similar one (R&D, quality).

  • Previous field forms knowledge base for movement into new one, while allowing a person to develop closely related, yet different set of skills and abilities.

  • Key motivations are a need for personal development and increased knowledge.

  • Individuals tend to be creative, possess diverse skills, and are able to coordinate lateral organizational activities.

TRANSITORY

  • Frequent (every 3-5 years) major moves across unrelated occupational specialties or disciplines.

  • Those pursuing transitory "careers" often do not perceive themselves as actually having careers.

  • Key motivations are a desire for very diverse work experiences, variety, and independence.

  • Individuals tend to be fast learners, adaptive to changing circumstances, and project-oriented.

Toolkit for the protean engineer

Understand how to provide, or "broker," your knowledge, skills, and abilities in such a way that unmet organizational needs can be satisfied by the services, engineering and otherwise, you are capable of providing.

  • Present and future engineering jobs will involve more challenge, more skilled expertise, and the ability to "network" with others who possess similarly valuable knowledge, skills, and abilities.

  • Identification of key organizational challenges, as well as building a robust network of colleagues who can provide reciprocal assi.stance, is critical.

  • An engineer must be able to define and clearly articulate the nature and scope of current and future project assignments, as opposed to individual jobs. As work becomes more project-oriented, engineering career success will increasingly depend on the ability to move from project to project, and to absorb the learning and "best practices" from each assignment, as opposed to retaining a relatively static job title and work environment.

  • It is wise to seek out job assignments with managers who think in terms of continuous learning and development. Increasingly, engineering managers will need not only to maximize the present performance of the engineers they oversee, but also promote a culture conducive to career-related continuous learning to confront appropriate challenges in the future.

  • One must stay very well connected, not only with other engineers, but with professionals in adjacent and even unrelated fields (human resources, marketing, finance, accounting, etc.). These occupations face similar threats, but in different ways. Also, they may have unique and fresh career insights for the engineer, or, even better, know of a position for which you'd be perfect.

  • Your current employer can help. Engineering talent isn't as easy to find or develop as you might think, and an engineer who adopts a proactive attitude is more likely to find the right challenges "in house" than ohe who simply tries to blend in with the crowd.

Such employment situations still exist, and indeed those organizations that have the luxury of longer product life cycles, significant barriers to industry entry by potential competitors, and well-established and respected brand names can and do employ engineers in accord with these career concepts. However, engineers must also be aware that even these organizations are not immune to both internal and external pressures to redefine themselves, which very well may leave these engineers to fend for themselves in a work environment that no longer cares who their previous employer was, only what their current knowledge, skills, and abilities are.

Now, the good news. Engineers can help themselves, and other engineers, by developing a higher level of selfawareness and personal responsibility regarding their careers. Like many other types oflearning, this one involves a "learning curve" as an engineer adapts to increased autonomy and decreased organizational support.

The protean career, under such circumstances, requires a continuous learning process—one requiring an engineer to be self-correcting to new demands from the work environment. It will involve less formal, organizationally sponsored training, less planning and development on the part of the organization for an engineer's career, and fewer opportunities to remain in a job where "mastery" is the ultimate goal. However, replacing these more traditional job-related functions are several resources that will likely enrich their work experiences (short term) and job prospects (long term) .

An understanding of where the gaps exist within an organization, and how your knowledge, skills, and abilities can be leveraged to fulfill these unmet needs, is critical. Finding a niche where you are indispensable to an organization may not guarantee long-term employment, but it will likely allow you an opportunity to showcase your abilities and may be used as leverage, if you decide to pursue other interests.

Get used to "networking" with other professionals, even if they're not engineers. Staying connected with others increases your knowledge of the challenges others face in various professions, and as work becomes' more project-oriented, it is these individuals who may be able to provide you with reciprocal assistance when necessary.

Also, be certain to find those managers who share a similar attitude toward career growth and development. In the future, engineering managers will need to balance both the present work activities of their subordinates, as well as make appropriate investments in creating a learning environment that prepares their staff for the challenges ahead.

The occupation of engineering in general, and of mechanical engineering in particular, isn't going the way of the horse and buggy, the typewriter, the slide rule, or the 8-track player. Engineers are simply too valuable in terms of the knowledge, skills, and abilities they bring to our society, and they are likely to increase in importance as the challenges confronting organizations grow more complex.

The successful engineer will more and more frequently be the one capable of using the tools at his or her disposal to effectively orient or map their knowledge and abilities to the current and future needs of their current organization, remaining flexible, adaptable, versatile—protean.

Copyright © 2007 by ASME
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