Improve your job security

June 1, 2008
Professional development courses can give you an edge

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.

You attend engineering college to learn the basic principles and theory necessary for a life-time career. Most of the practical aspects you’ll pick up on-the-job. Some will come from fellow employees, suppliers, consultants, etc., some via independent study, and some from your successes and failures. Unfortunately, much of this is ad hoc — you make it up as you go. To climb the learning curve more rapidly, consider taking a professional development course, either in-person or online. (For the pros and cons of each approach, see the sidebar.)

Look for a course that focuses on practice. It’s not always easy to gauge whether an offering really has a practical orientation. Does the course outline cover not just what to do (training), but why do that way (education)? Does the organization sponsoring the course have a reputation for balancing basic concepts and practice? What are the course materials, and are they of any real utility after the course? Who is the lecturer and what is that person’s background? Avoid programs that have a stable of lecturers, one of whom will teach a given offering.

The pressures in today’s workplace favor a two-day course over a five-day one. Yes, time is money — but in the end you get what you pay for. You won’t learn in two days what realistically requires five. Although the outlines may be similar, a longer course will provide a deeper understanding and more likely some practice sessions.

Take an educated approach
Devoting the appropriate time to pursue professional development usually proves as difficult as finding the money. Value your time highly — never seek such education on the cheap. Know what you are buying and make quality the primary component of the decision process.

Sidebar: In-person versus Internet courses

Professional societies, media companies, product manufacturers, universities, etc. offer courses. But industry’s focus on the short-term has greatly reduced the demand. In the 1970s, AIChE’s continuing education catalog listed over 100 courses, with its Houston sessions routinely attracting more than 1,000 registrants. The AIChE catalog is no more; what’s left of the continuing education program (about a dozen courses) has been outsourced to ASME.

To some, live presentations such as offered by the AIChE are “old school.” The “new school” is distance learning via the Internet. Web-based courses do have some advantages over live presentations:

When you need it (just-in-time). If you have a problem, you’re after a solution now. You can take Internet courses when you want instead of waiting weeks or months for a live presentation.

Where you need it. You can access Web-based courses from your office or home, avoiding the inconvenience and expense of travel.

What you need. Unlike a live presentation where the lecturer determines the sequence in which topics are presented, many online courses allow the user to select the sequence, skipping those topics of little or no interest.

However, interacting with a computer doesn’t compare with interacting with other individuals. A major advantage of a live presentation is the opportunity to talk with lecturers who are knowledgeable in the field. You also can learn from the fellow attendees. They likely face the same problem you have or a similar one. While you must be careful to protect proprietary technology, discussions with other participants can be very informative. Providers of Internet offerings compensate with e-mail, electronic bulletin boards, etc., but it’s just not the same.

The fixed schedule of a live presentation can be a big plus — you can reserve the time to actually attend it! Today, every engineer in industry has more than enough to do. What actually gets done depends on the priorities. If you pursue professional development over the Web, can you keep its priority sufficiently high? Perhaps you can, but most find this very difficult to do.

The difference between education and training definitely pertains to Internet offerings. To date, most online courses fall into the realm of training. “Talking heads” (presenters who basically read from a script) can deliver training; similarly, developers who know nothing about the subject can convert traditional training materials into Web-based offerings.

However, education requires the intimate involvement of someone knowledgeable on the subject in developing the Internet offering. That individual also should understand web presentation technology and be sufficiently creative to devise ways to use that technology to teach someone to think. Merely repackaging a traditional course for Web-based delivery falls far short. The advantages of the medium should be used to enhance the presentation.

We must get away from an either/or mindset — either a live presentation or an online offering. What about a live presentation that utilizes Web-based materials in lieu of traditional course notes? The live presentation retains the personal interaction while the materials on the Internet ideally suit subsequent study and reference (especially if a good search engine is available). The usual standard for course notes is to support the lecture; let’s raise the standard so that the notes are designed for independent study later. This will result in truly a quality offering.

Cecil Smith is president of Cecil L. Smith, Inc., Baton Rouge, La. E-mail him at [email protected].

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