Improve your job security

Professional development courses can give you an edge

By Cecil L. Smith, Cecil L. Smith, Inc.

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Job security means having an expertise to sell that which someone wants to buy. You’re offering your capability to do something. Prospective purchasers are either your current employer or a future employer with a need for what you’re capable of doing.

Yes, we’re all selling! Unfortunately, this concept doesn’t come easily to engineers. Most of us went into engineering expecting a good paying job for life. Those days are gone, maybe forever. The art of selling isn’t taught in engineering school. And in selling, rejection is inevitable — you kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. But given their nature, most engineers don’t handle rejection very well.

Encouraging you to change jobs isn’t my objective. Engineers aren’t like some business types, who switch jobs whenever they can get a bit more money. But you always should be prepared to change. Maybe you’re very happy where you are — but rightsizing, acquisitions and mergers, site closures, bankruptcy, etc., can quickly alter the situation. So, you should develop some expertise that makes you more valuable to your current employer. This increases the chances of retaining your current job during rightsizing and mergers; this same expertise is the ticket to your next job when faced with a plant closure or company bankruptcy.

Work experience inevitably leads to specialization. The specific area of specialization reflects an accommodation between the needs of the employer and the interests of the employee. Engineers traditionally have been very obliging to the interests of the employer. But in today’s environment, you must put self-interest first. Take the worst-case scenario – you’re terminated today. You now have to sell yourself; a major selling point is your expertise. What is the market, that is, what other employers need this expertise? Who’s the competition? Developing expertise in something that at some point can be outsourced to India may be good for your employer but clearly not for you.

Prepare yourself
Before you can realistically assess what you should be doing, develop and write down:

  1. a statement of your specific field of expertise;
  2. an explanation of how this expertise benefits your current employer (especially if you expect the company to provide any support); and
  3. a strategy for becoming one of the best in this field — i.e., your plan for professional development.
    At one time many companies provided in-house programs for professional development; a few still do. But most firms now view developing a plan for professional development as the responsibility of the employee.

Unfortunately, corporate-level policies that encourage professional development don’t count for much. When times are bad, companies have no money for courses. But when times are good, they can’t spare the time for their people. Too often professional development never gets done.

It’s one expense that’s easy to defer because the short-term impact is minimal. There’s one exception: when you have a specific problem to solve. This creates an opportunity — use such problems to justify pursuing professional development. Look at the problems before you; look at your plan for professional development. If you can tie the two together you’ve got a win-win for you and your employer.

On-the-job experience always is a major component of developing expertise. However, to become truly proficient, you need to acquire ideas and talents from all available sources. So, pursue every opportunity for additional education. Note that I say “education” not “training.” There truly is a distinction. You can train someone to disassemble a control valve and replace the trims — you go through a fixed sequence of steps to accomplish the task, usually with little or no thought. But you can’t train someone to develop a Process and Instrumentation Diagram (P&ID) — that requires an understanding of the process.

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