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Take Charge

Dec. 1, 2003
Your Career Is Your Biggest Investment, so Plan It!

Most people handle their careers the same way they treat their 401K: They invest their resources, pay as little attention as possible to progress, and hope theyll have lots of money and satisfaction when its time to retire. And like lackadaisical retirement plans, their career strategies can set them up for big surprises and major disappointments at a very inconvenient time in their lives.

Most workers saw their 401K investments sink as the stock market bubble popped in the late 90s, and many are seeing their careers tank as the demand for what they have done all their working lives moves offshore.

If you are twenty-something and this happens to you, it may not be nearly as damaging as it is if you are 62. If you become surplus as you are nearing retirement, you might as well get that blue vest with the orange piping and start welcoming people to Wal-Mart.

"I worked for Rockwell for 32 years," one laid-off engineer wrote some time ago, "and Ive never worked for anybody else. I dont have a resume, I dont know how to begin a job search, and Im 59 years old. Can you tell me what to do?"

His choices are limited. He bought into what once was an implied contract between employee and employer, and he didnt pay attention when that contract was abrogated in the 1980s. That contract was the one that said that if you did your job the very best you could, your employer would protect you and keep you employed. That contract is no longer in effect.

Nothing Personal

It may help to remember that this isnt a personal attack by corporate hierarchies on engineers and technical professionals. For some companies, it has been a matter of survival. "The name of the game is staying competitive by reducing costs," says Tom Nelson, vice-president of new business development for flowmeter conglomerate Racine Federated (www.racinefederated.com). "Prices have remained essentially the same for years, while costs have been going up. Some companies have no choice."So what can you do? Jack Bolicks advice (see sidebar) is worth reading, and acting upon. If your job evaporates, you have several options. You can try to be retrained. If you have been diligent about your savings and your pension or 401K/IRA, you can retire. If you want to work, and you want to stay in automation, your best choice may be to talk to the systems integrators youve been working with all these years, and see if your skills have a market there. Or you can look for work outside of automation. In any case, you are likely to see a significant income decrease.And if you havent reached that very sad point yet, you need to start working now on a defense against tanking your career.The Value-Added YouYou can begin to take charge of your career. No matter where you are in your job and your life, the steps are the same. If you have been through the financial planning process with a professional investment advisor, the procedures are incredibly similar.First, you inventory your assets. These are your education, skills, preferences, and experience. Then you decide where you want to wind up in your career, exactly as you would decide when you want to retire and how much money you will need.Then you plan backward from the end of your career to the current time, for example, "In order to retire as CEO of Dow Chemical I have to be a vice president, and before that a division manager, and before that¦" The reason you plan this way is that planning forward involves too many choice points, and you give up in frustration. This works whether you want to be a vice president or simply a good engineer or technician.At each step of the process, you have to think about what additional skills and experiences you will need to move to the next step, even if the next step is just keeping your present job. As weve all found out, job requirements change.One of the things that is very important to continued career success is how you view yourself. Who are you?You are not a steel industry engineer or a power engineer; you are a control systems engineer. And your abilities are not limited to engineering. You have done many more things than simple engineering, and the skill set you have developed can be expanded to operations management, project management, and business development. For example, Charlie Gifford, an engineer who has become an expert on enterprise integration, has moved from plant floor integration projects for people like Micron and Hewlett-Packard to producing white papers for MESA to business development for a major system integration firm. Technicians can follow similar paths. Loren Jones, author of "Shifting Sands of Time [CONTROL,Oct. 03, p18] has moved from being an electronics tech in the Navy nuclear program to a Certified Control Systems Technician with responsibility for a major production facility.
Your domain and process knowledge, coupled with an in-depth awareness of available products and services, cannot be easily matched by third-world counterparts. Rockwell Automation employs tens of thousands of automation engineers worldwide. According to John McDermott, senior vice president of global manufacturing solutions, North American engineers excel at combining domain and product knowledge to generate solutions that solve client business problems.McDermott says third-world engineers typically have a first-rate education, but limited real-world manufacturing experience, and this hinders their ability to architect control and information systems.If your company and industry have shrunk over the past five years, you should be looking for another job. If you can do all of your work remotely by computer and if such work is purely technical in nature, then you are at risk. If someone in another part of the world can perform all of your job functions for a fraction of your salary, you need to improve your competitive position. Whether you want to or not, you need to make the time to learn new skills that are in more demand. Safety, security, and communications skills are good bets for process automation professionals in the near future.If you are the manager of the control systems group in a steel company, for example, you would be wise to make a move to an industry with better growth prospects, even if such a move would mean temporary cuts in pay and benefits. You might have to go back to engineering instead of managing, or move to a different management track.Ride the WaveAll engineers need a measure of flexibility as an absolute prerequisite for survival. It has only been in the past 50 years that engineers were able to be permanently employed. Previously, for hundreds of years, engineers and their predecessors, master masons, were itinerant. That is, they moved from location to location, project to project, all their working lives. It is likely that the new paradigm that is developing will include a certain amount of this.Individuals who choose to stay in one place and ignore global market forces will be at risk. Those who instead identify trends and ride the waves of change will maximize chances for success.

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