Choose Your Next Position Wisely

Jan. 20, 2009
Finding your dream job takes a bit of soul searching and answering some tough questions.

“Is that the salary you really expect to pay for this position?” I asked in disbelief. The job definitely was interesting — it involved designing and building an oil recycling process. Her look of disdain told me it was a lost cause. So I decided to end the discussion. “Look, your pay range isn’t realistic for the position, especially in Los Angeles.” It was the only time in my life I was ever escorted off a property by a security guard.

Too often we hear the advice: never talk about money. This seems like bad advice to me. Ask for as much as you can get; chances are, it will be your biggest raise. This month, I hope I can provide some good advice on job hunting based on almost 30 years of experience in our industry.

When I was young I knew it was crucial to build a resumé. The worst thing you can do is go into production — no matter how much the company offers. Such an assignment involves mostly paperwork and babysitting operators. Try for work that will expose you to design and commissioning; an engineering firm usually is ideal, although sometimes you might do too many paper studies. There’re other suitable choices. My first job after the Air Force was as a process engineer at a small, remote plant owned by Anheuser-Busch. I was the only degreed engineer at that plant: I did everything and it was very hands-on.

As I get older, I prefer to stay in the same area. I think you want a nexus — like Houston or Chicago — where chemical engineering is in demand. When a recruiter called about a job in Scranton, Pa., I said no.
Finding the right job involves getting answers to some tough questions during the interview process. For instance: What’s the environment like? How did people respond to the person taking you around? What will your office be like? Is there an accurate job description? Did you meet the boss?

Believe it or not, I’ve taken two positions where I didn’t meet the boss during the interview — this usually is a bad omen. The first time it was because people didn’t want to scare me off; the owner of the company was an ogre. Fortunately the job worked out. In the second case, the firm didn’t even have a job description or specific position. After a few weeks, I was assigned to Rodney, a manager who ruled his domain with fear and intimidation. His experience trying to hire a new maintenance engineer was a running joke: three candidates interviewed for the position but all turned it down after meeting Rodney — one reportedly from his cell phone in the parking lot outside the plant.

Now, let’s consider the three questions that test the integrity of the recruiter: If I accept this position, where do you see me in three-to-five years? What’s the pay range? And, what happened to the last person who filled this position? Ask these questions during the phone interview, to see if it’s worth taking time off to visit the company. Then, ask them again during the on-site interview and compare the results. If you’re good at poker, this is where you read their cards in their faces.

Unless you like new scenery every few years, avoid positions with an expiration date — except where you can learn something valuable.

Another point to consider is the commute to work. This can be a show stopper. Start looking into where you will stay once you’ve got an offer but ask a few questions during the interviews. I turned down a job as the process engineer on the Delta rocket because of a 90-mile commute and the high cost of apartments in San Jose, Calif., and took a job paying less at Anheuser-Busch. It made more sense to peddle my bike a mile down the road to that plant.

Often, you don’t really know what a job is like until you’re actually doing it. But once you’re working in the position don’t let a trapped feeling overwhelm you. Until the moving van shows up, you still have a few options left. I took a job in Charlotte, N.C., that didn’t work out. The company rushed my decision. It was during a recession; I couldn’t wait for the hiring process to finish for the dream job I also had applied for. So I moved to a hotel in Charlotte. Every day brought a new revelation. The job involved fixing some environmental problems without a budget, which usually ends badly for the engineer. After three weeks, I returned to the hotel to find a message waiting for me. My dream job had come through. It was a Friday. I wrote my resignation letter, tossed my keys on my desk and drove back to my old apartment in Cincinnati. I never looked back.

Looking for a new job today is easier, thanks to the Internet (see, for instance, the new online job resource at, but still is an adventure. By answering a few questions you can make it a pleasant one.

Dirk Willard is a contributing editor to Chemical Processing. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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