Career Management for Engineers

by Greg Hutchins

Engineers—particularly electrical and electronic engineers—were once insulated from outsourcing. In fact, it could almost be said electrical engineers were recession and outsourcing proof. That’s no longer true.

Outsourcing of U.S. commodity engineering, importing of Indian and Chinese engineers and use of low cost, offshore engineers have forever changed the engineering landscape. Quality engineers and professionals face the same challenges.

New Rules of Engagement

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is the world’s largest technical society. IEEE-USA, the organization’s American arm, has taken the lead for transitioning U.S. engineers to the brave new world of work.

Paul Kostek, former president of IEEE-USA and current chair of the IEEE-USA career and workforce policy committee (WPC), recently put the challenges in context:

U.S. engineers are struggling with the changing employment landscape and the impacts of globalization, outsourcing and just-in-time employment on engineering careers and employment opportunities. Many questions arise: How will these changes, along with transfer of skills development and education to the individual, impact engineering? How will people be forced to change their mind-set on how they are employed and utilized? With entitlement gone, how can engineers be value adding and deliver demonstrable results? What impact will a multigenerational workforce have on competitiveness?

Ed Perkins, chair of the IEEE-USA WPC’s subcommittee on career issues, adds, “We are in the era of just-in-time employees; employers expect to be able to find workers who are immediately available with all the necessary skills to do a job and then let them go when it is done, even if this is an unreasonable expectation. Employees have become commodities.”

Sound like something you can relate to? As quality professionals, we face the same challenges and similar solutions. How can ASQ and its sections help?

Career Survival Workshop

IEEE-USA has developed a workshop called Career Survival in the New Millennium. Hank Lindborg, another QP Career Corner columnist, and I were involved in developing the workshop.

The workshop has three objectives:

  1. Understand your present career paradigm.
  2. Know how you are going to adapt.
  3. Develop a career strategy for change.

The workshop has been piloted in Portland, OR; Detroit; and Austin, TX, with another pilot scheduled in Research Triangle Park, NC.

The workshop will be put on the IEEE-USA website and will be available for downloading to IEEE-USA members and ASQ sections and individual members in early November.

Downloads will be free to individuals. The cost to attend the workshop in person will be determined by the ASQ section offering it.

Lindborg and I believe the career lessons learned for electrical and electronic engineers apply to quality engineers and quality professionals.

Let us look at some of the critical takeaways and actionables from the workshop.

Engineering and Technology Changes

Engineering has changed fundamentally in recent years. Each decade has introduced and reinforced a new model for career success. See how many of the changes apply to you.

In the 1960s, corporate engineers planned on lifelong careers with a single company. The engineer had an understandable career ladder and received ample health and other benefits, including a retirement plan. Most importantly, companies invested in their employees’ success.

In the 1970s, wise engineers invested themselves by adding value through learning new technologies. Engineers participated in continuing education to maintain technical currency.

In the downsizing 1980s and 1990s, transitioning engineers worked as consultants on temporary employment contracts. Contract engineers often earned more than they could as full-time equivalent employees. Most importantly, times were good.

Things then changed dramatically. In the 2000s, the international engineer has emerged due to rapid deployment of new technologies and corporate globalization. Employers are hiring for skills rather than people. Employers do not feel an obligation to hire domestic, U.S. engineers, instead preferring to hire the best and brightest engineers from around the globe.

Then, there is the cost factor: Many of the global engineers from India and China cost 20% or even 10% as much as their U.S. equivalents. In the age of rapid product development and globalization, just-in-time and low cost engineering prevail.

Understand the Present

What can you do about this? First tip: Get real about your technical skills in today’s turbulent job market. Today’s job market is characterized by the following:

  • Organizations are focusing on innovation and productivity, which means further head count reduction.
  • Outsourcing and offshoring will continue during the next few years.
  • Career path and career management are your challenges, not a company’s problem.
  • Your work and career success depend on your initiative, not a company’s success.
  • Most, if not all, of us will evolve into project or just-in-time employees.

How Can You Be Successful?

The bottom line is the fate of your job no longer figures into corporate decisions unless it is related to head count reduction.

Understand this: Employers hire skills they need when they need them, without making a long-term commitment or investment in costly employee benefits. In addition, employers do not want any ramp up delays—they want employees who can add project value immediately.

The IEEE-USA workshop recommends the following for today’s technology and professional workers:

  • Realize you are a business—sooner rather than later, you will become an itinerant professional.
  • Take control of your career—your employer won’t guarantee your employment.
  • Understand how your career may transition if a project folds or your division is merged or acquired.
  • Be willing to relocate and go where the jobs are.
  • Focus on executing projects on time and on budget.
  • Know your value adding contribution to your employer.
  • Develop a high value, personal reputation, which is called your brand value.

And, be sure to visit www.ieeusa.org to download the workshop when it becomes available early this November.

GREG HUTCHINS is an engineering principal with Quality Plus Engineering and Lean SCM in Portland, OR. He is a member of ASQ.

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