Are you in good hands?

By Diane Dierking

Remember the days when you went to a travel agent to help you plan a trip? You could use their experience to help you make the right travel choices.

These days consumers are more likely to head straight to the Internet when planning a trip. Now there is an abundance of Web sites, all of which offer the "lowest" rates and you are left with the task of sorting through them.

Not unlike the travel industry, an engineer's career development has taken a turn toward self-direction.

Gone are the days when you asked your manager or mentor to help you plan your career. After all, these higher-ups were in a position to observe your performance and know how you best fit into the organization. They had been around long enough to envision the course you should take to get where you wanted to go.

These days you are more likely to browse your company's intranet when planning your career. Now there are a number of available positions, only a fraction for which you may be qualified, and you are left with the task of sorting through them.

Although some of us worry more about career development than others, we all seem to agree that it's either not being managed well , or at all , by our employers. Unless you have an innate sense of how to develop your career, you may be woefully underqualified to do it.

Dow Chemical, Midland, Mich., a company that put a lot of effort into developing a mentoring program in the 1990s, states on its Web site, "We will give you the freedom and power to manage your own career and chart your own course."

But how many of us really have a knack for charting our own courses?

Promotions are a part of any engineer's career development plan, but it is equally important to move laterally to expand your knowledge of other areas of your company's business. Many companies post available jobs on a company intranet or other internal system. Anyone who is interested in a position fills out a self-nomination form and submits it to the human resources (HR) department.

Some companies also provide career development opportunities during the annual performance review process when a development plan is formed. This plan lists actions the employee can take to improve areas of lower proficiency. The development plan may require an engineer to assume additional responsibilities or advise him to take a training course.

Many of us have ideas about the direction we would like our careers to take, but do we really know how to get there , or whether we'll succeed when we do?

Many engineers don't seem to think so. One confessed, "I have done a relatively poor job of career planning." Another says his company has no formal system, which creates the perception that managers choose their "favorites" to fill positions.

Other engineers say the internal posting procedure has many flaws. One common complaint is that it often seems that posted jobs really aren't available. Either the manager already knows who will be hired, but is required to post the position, or the job has been posted outside the company and the manager already has been interviewing candidates.

Such practices can make employees think they have little opportunity for career development, let alone advancement. This may discourage employees from seeking new positions within their companies, so instead they look for opportunities elsewhere.

The development plans certainly have the potential to help engineers build up their careers if companies are willing to commit the resources required to complete the plans. Although these plans may help an engineer develop professionally, they provide no guarantee of future advancement.

An HR manager I spoke with says that a self-directed approach really is the best one. Employees can't expect to sit back and wait for someone to tell them it's time to move to another position. Although it's beneficial that a manager take an interest in helping an engineer develop and be successful in the organization, this won't replace any initiative the employee takes on his own.

And herein lies the problem. When is the last time someone took an interest in your career development? Or, like so many others, is the course of your career solely in your hands?

Diane Dierking is senior editor of Chemical Processing magazine. E-mail her at


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