I have had an interesting, colorful, and prosperous career as an engineer. Very little has been planned in my life; however, I have been very lucky that I have nearly always stumbled in the right direction, allowing my career to blossom.
I grew up in small towns in Ireland, and career guidance was non-existent. Even when I went to a boarding school, there was nothing in place to steer me in any one direction. Fate was a major factor. We now live in a world where career guidance is a lot more accessible, career days at school and research on the internet opens up doors of understanding.
At an early age, engineers show the signs of technical inclination, but when reaching a point where they choose a specific type of engineering to pursue, there appears to be some randomness. My conversations with up and coming engineers indicates the initial choice may be “what sounds cool”. In other words, young engineers may not get it right the first time. Stumbling around to find one’s way to a fulfilling career is still the norm.
Looking back into my past, I remember living in a small town in Ireland called Rathdowney. There was a one room schoolhouse where the teacher taught all grades, and whose first task in the morning was to light the coal fire to keep the room warm. The schoolhouse had outside shack-like toilets. Fast forward a couple of years, and I am studying at an engineering college in Glasgow, Scotland, and I had been sponsored by a British shipping company called the Bank Line, and they were paying for all college fees, accommodation, food and even travel back to Ireland for vacation. On top of that, they paid me a small wage.
At the age of 20, I flew out to Bombay, India, as an engineer cadet on a cargo ship. About eight years later, I was wearing four gold and purple stripes on the cuffs of my engineering officer uniform, indicating that not only had I reached the top qualification as a chief engineer officer, I was also working at that rank. By the time I was 25 years old, I had traveled around the world seven times, and by the time I finished this 14 year career, I had been to 75 countries. This career ended literally the day I got married. Four years earlier, I had met a Canadian girl in Darwin, Australia, while we were both working on a square rig sailing ship. I was on the sail training ship for a year traveling from Australia to the Caribbean via the Indian Ocean, around South Africa and up the South Atlantic.
When I moved to Canada, I transitioned into a career as a machinery loss prevention specialist for the property insurance industry and stayed at that for 6 years. That career transitioned into a Corporate Principal Risk Engineer Career in Dallas, Texas, working for a chemical corporation.
While working for the chemical corporation in Dallas, the company would sponsor high school kids to come to our department as interns. They were high school kids who were just getting the inkling of wanting to become an engineer, and my company was providing them with a unique opportunity to explore this further. It fascinated me to learn that when I asked the question, “Why did you choose to become an engineer and what prompted you to decide to pursue a certain type of engineering?”, the frequent answer I got was, “I was good at math and science and my teacher suggested that I become an engineer. The reason I chose a particular specialty in engineering was because it sounded cool!!!” Based on this feedback, it looks like career choice still has some “randomness” and there is still a need for stepping stones to allow young engineers to stumble in the right direction.
At my kid’s middle school, I do keynote speeches to educate the students on success strategies, and do educational sessions to help them decide if an engineering career would be a good fit or not. I talk about how I had continuously built my foundation with a passion for learning, and this had allowed me to change careers and each time reaching greater fulfillment.
TEN THINGS YOUNG ENGINEERS CAN DO TO GET NOTICED AND PROMOTED
1) Understand your passions and find a career that might be a good fit
2) Choose a job that will be valued by the organization (you will lose energy if you do not have this vital component)
3) Develop a passion to learn, expand your knowledge and skill set to the limit
4) Use you time well, pursue a routine of learning by listening to personal and professional development material while exercising or driving to and from work. Develop skills in communication, negotiation, conflict management, listening, management, leadership and presentation skills etc.
5) Find a career where a company recognizes and supports the importance of professional and personal development (ask if they have an audio library etc.)
6) Supercharge your learning ability by having mentors. Many experienced engineers are thrilled to be asked to help someone out by sharing knowledge and experiences (ask!).
7) Find a company that will provide you with a structured career path
8) Ask for uncompromised honest feedback during performance reviews
9) Develop a positive “can do” attitude. Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer – get yourself noticed.
10) As your career progresses, determine what aspects of your job excite and energize you and what aspects you dislike. Develop a plan to move your career in a direction where you do more of what you like and less of what you dislike.