Careers Come in Four Varieties
During the past
half-century, I have observed at least four different engineering
career types. Decade by decade, it seems, engineers have been
characterized as being corporate engineers; learning engineers;
contract engineers; and finally, skilled or global engineers.
As each “new” career type emerged, it seemingly brought with
it more independence for the engineers than its predecessor
types. It didn’t replace the others; it usually modified them
somewhat, and a sizeable part of the engineering workforce could
be described by its characteristics. Engineers now comprise
each of the four career types, but the fourth is growing rapidly,
and has a significant impact on most of today’s career searches.
professionals today probably identify with the characteristics
of more than one type. Which type or combination fits you?
Engineer: Career-Long Allegiance
During the 1950s
and 1960s — and maybe before — most engineers planned
on enjoying a lifelong career with a single company; had access
to an understandable career ladder; received ample health and
other benefits as well as a retirement plan; dealt with relatively
slow changes in technology; and didn’t have to defend quality
to the extent they do today.
in their employees’ success by providing training that would
help workers maintain their value to the company and that would
ensure profitability. Engineers produced products with a focus
on performance, and companies sold what they could produce best,
often without significant competition.
Engineer: Keeping Up With New Technologies
During the 1970s,
new technologies hit the industry with more frequency and more
urgency than they had in the decades before. Suddenly, engineers
had to participate in some form of continuing education just
to maintain employment. The engineers of the 1970s had to become
As old technologies
gave way to new, improved ones, many engineers felt the need
to change employers to advance their careers. Gone were the
days of the one-company career; the average engineer could now
plan to work for four to seven employers before retiring. In
addition to learning activities, the career plan concept emerged
to help engineers during their transitions from employer to
Engineer: Dealing Creatively With Unemployment
downsizing of the late 1980s and early 1990s helped to create
the third engineering career type: the contract engineer. During
this time, many unemployed engineers found work as consultants
— or at least referred to themselves as such. During their
job searches, they didn’t want to tell prospective employers
they were unemployed, so they purchased business cards with
the title “consulting engineer” on them. In turn, sometimes
rather than being offered consulting jobs or full-time employment,
these engineers secured temporary employment contracts.
For many, being
a contract engineer offered a degree of local and technological
stability. These engineers didn’t need to sell their homes and
move away, and they could focus their continued learning activities
on improving both their competencies and their personal interests.
They did, however, have to become more independent learning
professionals, as most contract employers did not feel obligated
to train their contract engineers. In addition, contract engineers
had no real career ladder to follow, and they needed to provide
for their own health and retirement needs, not to mention plan
for a loss of income between contracts. Some acted accordingly
on their own, while others banded together under the management
of contracting firms to broker their services and coordinate
their benefits. All in all, the contract engineer option worked
to like using contract engineers, too; they could hire the skills
they needed when they needed them, without making a long-term
commitment or shelling out continuing education expenses and
costly employee benefits. As a bonus, when contract engineers
left their employment, companies didn’t have to deal with reputation-damaging
PR related to layoffs. They simply kept a small number of full-time
engineers on staff to ensure leadership and continuity, and
they offered contracts to the rest.
or Global Engineer: the Contract Engineer Extended
are now rapidly replacing old ones and corporate globalization
is on the rise. As a result, the contract engineer type has
developed into yet another career type — the skilled or
global engineer. More and more, employers are hiring skills
rather than people. This trend suggests that companies today
are finding it more valuable to hire contract engineers, rather
than full-time employees.
technology means a constant stream of new products and accompanying
new business techniques. As a result, the need for expensive
skills to match the more complex technical environment is constant.
Salaries have spiraled and companies are offering what at least
appears to be more permanent employment for those who possess
the right skills. The current economic downturn has slowed this
process a little, but the trend is still happening, and will
likely accelerate again as the economy rebounds.
But a problem
remains. Skyrocketing salaries bring with them the expectation
that employees deliver exactly what employers need, and they
provide justification for laying off employees who don't produce
at appropriate levels, or don't have the skills to match the
next generation of products. So, some employers have shied away
from offering contracts to ensure being able to hire engineers
with new skills when they need them. And, they have begun using
layoffs as a management tool, of sorts. Economists refer to
this growing industry practice as churning: hiring employees
with one set of job skills, while firing those with another.
have also become more global in reach. Some have their headquarters
in the United States, but have more employees outside the country
than within. At the same time, many Pacific Rim and European
corporations now have U.S.-based plants. Although many corporations
are managed outside the country, they employ U.S. citizens.
In other cases, U.S. and foreign corporations have merged, making
it nearly impossible to determine whether they are domestic
or foreign firms. They are both, and they are neither; they
are truly global.
Why are so many
companies going global? They do it to ensure a marketplace for
their products — and to find highly skilled labor at the
lowest possible cost.
the 21st Century
What can we
learn from this "evolution" of the engineering profession?
Need to be Independent Learners
engineers need to be independent learning professionals who
can determine gaps in their learning, plan career and education
activities, and proceed independently. Over the past half-century,
engineers have migrated from being working professionals with
structured careers focused on corporate success, to being independent
learning professionals with careers focused on personal success.
Many were not ready for the career changes that happened to
them, nor were they trained in the skills needed to cope with
these changes. However, change is always present in all career
fields. As universities are starting to offer asynchronous master’s
degrees directed at practicing engineers, education is becoming
available when and where it's necessary to support engineers’
needs in remaining technically vital.
Planning is Key
to develop strategic career skills, and become experts in career
planning and job searching skills. Plenty of good jobs with
good pay exist for technically current engineers who have valued
skills, are flexible enough to adapt, and have strategic career
plans firmly in place.
to take charge of retirement planning activities, so they can
ensure their own long-term security.
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R. Johnson is Associate Dean of Engineering at the University
of Arizona in Tucson, and is IEEE-USA's Career Activities
Editor. This article is adapted from materials in his book,
Becoming a Technical Professional (Casas Adobes Publishing,
Tucson, Ariz., 2000). For more information, go to http://www.dakotacom.net/~capublish.