Despite a red-hot job market and an incredibly low unemployment rate in the engineering sector, engineers are not immune to faltering or stalled career paths. Personal issues, comfort with their current role, underdeveloped soft skills, and a lack of advancement opportunities can all contribute to a stagnating career.
If you’re ready to take your career to the next level, the best thing to do is to create a well-defined plan for advancement. That plan should include:
- Defining and setting your career goals;
- Assessing and improving your skills;
- Polishing your resume and optimizing your LinkedIn profile;
- Building a professional network;
- Finding a mentor;
- Seeking out challenging assignments;
- Continuing learning; and
- Keeping in touch with a trusted recruitment professional.
Clearly, this is not an overnight process; in fact, it will likely require considerable time and effort. However, setting well-defined overarching career goals, along with smaller tasks or targets to help get you there, can lead to fantastic opportunities throughout the entire span of your career.
Define And Set Your Career Goals
Engineering is an exciting field with many opportunities for change and advancement. A civil engineer could move sideways into a role in aerospace engineering, for example, or they could climb the ladder in their current specialty, to become a senior engineer, supervisor, or manager.
But without a clear idea of your career goals, you may find it difficult to grasp an opportunity when it arises much less go searching for one.
Although any job in the engineering field requires attention to detail, logic, and structure, many engineers don’t apply that meticulousness to their careers. If you haven’t set career goals yet, that needs to be your very first step. In a piece at Engineering Design News, Jacob Beningo advises that:
A critical step to any engineering career is to set time aside at least twice a year if not once per quarter to reflect and [ponder] where you want your career to go. What is the end target that results in a successful career? It is impossible to plan and hit targets if the destination is unknown or to tell if you’ve taken a wrong turn! Don’t forget to ask the who, what, when, where and why! Taking just a few hours each quarter to revisit these questions and plan out the path can help identify what needs to be done and how to get there.
As Beningo suggests, examine the small details – the who, what, when, where, and why – to identify the steps you need to take to achieve your overarching goals. You may find it helpful to set targets to encourage and track your progress.
Improve Your (Soft) Skills
To become an engineer in your specialty, you must possess the required hard skills. Further training may be required to keep up with technological advancements or to move into another specialty or sub-specialty. If your hard skills need improvement, seek out courses, training programs, and certifications.
However, to advance your career to a supervisory or managerial level, it’s more likely that your focus should be on soft skills. As we explained in a past blog, soft skills are difficult to define. However, many of them can be classed as “people skills” since they impact how we interact with others. These types of skills include social and communication skills such as empathy, adaptability, conflict management, teamwork, and leadership. But there are other types of soft skills as well, and these affect how we approach our daily tasks, including time management, decision-making, critical thinking, and resourcefulness. Taken together, it’s clear that soft skills are critical for effective people leaders.
It can be difficult to teach soft skills; many are best learned through observation and practice. To start, ask for feedback from your peers and your people leaders. Which of your soft skills are already strong? Which could use some improvement? Once you know, identify people who exhibit excellence in those soft skills that you need to hone and then observe and model the behaviors of those people. Additionally, soft skills can be improved by:
- Taking advantage of opportunities to improve your communication skills, be it speaking up more often in meetings, taking more care than usual when crafting your emails, or volunteering to lead presentations.
- Engaging in opportunities where teamwork is essential, such as sharing a daily task with a colleague or collaborating on a project.
- Working on your conflict resolution skills. Conflict is stressful for many people and we may struggle with the best way to approach it in the workplace.
- Taking on leadership roles wherever possible, whether while collaborating with colleagues on a project, assuming leadership duties when your manager is away, or volunteering externally.
For many engineers, the only way to advance their careers is by moving into supervisory or managerial roles. If that is the case for you, target your soft skills so that you’re ready for any opportunities that come your way.
Polish Your Resume & Optimize Your LinkedIn Profile
It’s ideal to always have your resume up-to-date, formatted to current standards, and polished to help you stand out. That way, you can pull it out the moment opportunity calls. Because, let’s face it, you probably won’t stay with the same employer for your entire career. But, even if you did, to apply internally, you would likely have to follow the usual application and interview process to be considered.
When it comes to resumes for professionals, particularly in the engineering field, traditional is best. We have a blog post that offers tips on how to best prepare your resume, but in short:
- Use standard/traditional resume templates;
- Create lists with bullet points to be as concise as possible;
- Tailor your resume to each job that you apply for, being sure to use keywords from the job posting;
- Use active, quantitative language; and
- Highlight your soft skills.
Like your resume, your LinkedIn profile should always be kept up-to-date. Further, it should be optimized so that it stands out to recruiters. Some of the best ways to optimize it include using a professional headshot for your profile photo, completing all the sections, customizing your URL, and adjusting your settings to show that you are open to new opportunities.
Build A Professional Network
Networking is critical for all professionals, and especially for engineers. As Nader Mowlaee explains in a blog post, studies show that almost one-third of engineers landed their current roles through networking.
Even if you aren’t actively working on advancing your career or seeking new job opportunities, it’s important to keep developing and strengthening your network. Besides job postings, your contacts can provide guidance, referrals, and access to valuable resources. Networking also provides you with the opportunity to build and promote your personal brand.
There are definite advantages to in-person networking. Industry events, expos, conferences, and professional organizations all provide opportunities to meet fellow engineers in person. As pointed out in a blog piece, when it comes to in-person networking, “We benefit from clear emotions, body language, and the mirror effect. Also, there are more opportunities for spontaneous conversations that result in leads we might not get online.” While in-person networking takes effort, it’s the best way to achieve results. Online networking may not allow you to develop the same kind of connections but it can be useful too, particularly in removing geographic restrictions.
To get the most out of networking, keep the following tips in mind:
- Reach out to people who you knew in the past, including your college instructors, college alumni, and former employers and colleagues;
- Identify and contact those people who are influential in your specialty;
- Build long-term relationships by offering services, knowledge, and assistance in return to those who help you;
- Be the first to reach out to engineers to who you can offer help; and
- Help others build their networks by being a connector and introducing your contacts to each other.
Find a Mentor
Mentors can be a tremendous help when it comes to career advancement. A mentor should be able to go above and beyond job search tips. They should be willing to discuss their own career path and give you insight into why they made the decisions they did and how they overcame challenges along the way.
Mentors also act as a sort of “third party viewer” to your career. They are able to view your path from a different perspective which may allow them to pinpoint issues that you yourself haven’t picked up on and finetune the suggestions that they have for you. They may also be able to ask hard questions, to help you dig deep and make the changes that you need to make to stay steady on your path.
Seek Out Challenging Assignments
Difficult assignments challenge both your hard and soft skills and demonstrate your willingness to tackle tough jobs. When you go out of your comfort zone, it becomes easier to pinpoint where skill improvements are needed and the assignments themselves provide a hands-on opportunity to work on those skills. All in all, challenging assignments are an excellent way to prepare for levelling up in your career.
Whether you pursue additional certifications or a graduate degree, education and learning always add value. And learning is particularly important in engineering, where techniques and technologies are always improving and changing. When you pursue educational opportunities, you:
- Keep your knowledge fresh and current;
- Demonstrate your willingness to take initiative;
- Attest to your ability to solve difficult problems and handle extra responsibilities;
- Confirm your work experience, since certifications, in particular, require extensive hands-on experience;
- Open up more career opportunities; and
- Increase your earning potential.
There are several certifications hiring managers look for on an engineering resume. We take a deep dive into the best ones to complete in a blog post, but in summary, these certifications will help accelerate your career:
- Certified Quality Engineer (CQE), offered by the ASQ (American Society for Quality);
- Project Management Professional (PMP), offered through the Project Management Institute;
- Certified Scrum Master (CSM), offered by Scrum Alliance;
- Certified Six Sigma Black Belt, and Certified Six Sigma Green Belt, offered by the Six Sigma Global Institute; and
- Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and Lean Six Sigma Green Belt, also offered by the Six Sigma Global Institute.
Other certifications are available, many of which are specific to certain specialties or sub-specialties within engineering. If necessary, do some research to find out which certifications and certifying bodies are most highly regarded in your field.
Keep In Touch With A Trusted Recruitment Agency
If you are struggling to jumpstart your career, you may want to consider approaching a recruitment agency. In addition to keeping you top of mind for suitable open roles, an agency will likely be able to provide some career guidance and offer assistance with certain aspects of the application and interview process, such as polishing your resume and improving your interview skills.
Engineers are in high demand and opportunities are plentiful. Even so, there may be times when your career seems to be stalled. If you are proactive about setting goals and keeping on top of the targets needed to achieve those goals, you should be able to keep your career moving briskly down your chosen path.