With rapidly changing technology and shifting organizational needs, how can engineers and technology professionals be prepared for a long and successful career? This question led IEEE-USA’s Employment and Career Services Committee to organize a “Future Skills Forum,” featuring panels of engineering professors and employers, to gain their insights about how to prepare for an uncertain future. Following are some of the insights from the Forum.
Pay Attention to the Fundamentals
As one professor (and IEEE fellow) put it, “You can’t know too much math.” Whether you want to work in academia or industry, you must be fully skilled in the fundamentals. Once armed with these math and physics fundamentals, you can learn to look at the same thing (or the same problems) from different perspectives. What changes is how you implement the fundamentals as you work on different problems or tackle new technologies.
Traditional roles in many organizations are disappearing, and everyone is expected to do whatever is needed at that time to get the job done. Engineers and engineering schools get into trouble by compartmentalizing disciplines. Especially so in start-ups or in rapidly changing organizations, but almost everywhere now the focus must be on accomplishing the goal, not on what an individual prefers to do.
Everyone is responsible for developing the habit of lifelong learning. Remaining curious about everything that is around you can feed this need to learn. “I wonder” and “what if” might lead to your most valuable insights. Also, remember to talk with your customers. Everyone has customers, even if you do not actually come into contact with those who are purchasing the goods and services offered by your employer. Your customer is the next person down the line who uses what you are working on. Hearing from customers provides a healthy focus and direction for learning. Foster your own curiosity. As one professor expressed it, “you can teach factoring, but not curiosity.”
Skepticism is Often a Gift
Questioning why something works, why it is done a certain way, or what would be the impact if some aspect of the project or product were changed might seem daunting. Yet, being skeptical can offer tangible rewards in productivity and quality. Skepticism differs from negativity because it involves questioning openly, rather than judging.
Strike a Balance between Breadth and Depth
At some point, every professional must make a decision between breadth and depth of skills and knowledge. There is no magic formula, but each engineer will find that his or her passion and the unique circumstances will formulate an answer. Obviously, a Ph.D. researcher will have more depth, while a Chief Technology Officer or an entrepreneur may benefit from having more breadth. Most technical jobs are somewhere between these extremes, so many options exist for varying degrees of technical breadth versus depth.
Pay Attention to Personal Characteristics and Qualities, Not Just Skills
Whether it is in graduate school or working at a start-up or an established firm, being a self-starter is important. Knowing yourself and what motivates you can help smooth difficult times on the job, and guide you to more rewarding moments. Taking inventory of your personal capabilities is an excellent exercise to promote this self-knowledge. Still, being motivated and knowing yourself are only part of the equation. Accountability is another important element. Accountability begins with being accountable to yourself, then to others. Tenacity is a fourth quality that is important in developing a successful career. If you are too easily discouraged, you may find that you settle for a spot that is comfortable for a while, but lacks longer-term fulfillment.
Sometimes the Most Important Skills Are Not Technical Skills
“Soft” or “career” skills are soft in the sense that they are good interpersonal skills, but they are hard skills in that they are often more difficult to master than many technical abilities. If you consider the analogy of career skills to what is needed for building a house, the technical skills provide the fundamentals – the foundation, infrastructure and frame – while “soft” skills provide the interior design for floors, closets, cabinets, colors, appliances, and fixtures. Gaining and refining skills in giving presentations, influencing, decision making, and conflict management may help tremendously as you pursue your career goals. Basic communication skills – verbal and non-verbal – enhance any other abilities an engineer may have.
Education and Industry Representatives See Ways to Work More Effectively Together
With closer collaboration between educators and industry, it is possible to better match students and internships, match students with jobs, and prepare students with job skills such as understanding profits and loss (P&L) and other related metrics. Other important business skills include being able to read a balance sheet, project management, and recognizing the importance of organizational culture.
Panelists offered some final tips for maintaining successful and rewarding careers:
- Pay attention to what and how you communicate
- Find one area to improve and work on that
- Do not avoid the “boring” aspects of work
- Be determined
- Have fun – think of things (especially challenges) as a game
- Maintain a sense of curiosity
- Network – maintain contacts from school and work, and stay in touch
Thank you to Dr. Sylvia Thomas for her work in organizing the Futures Forum and to panelists: Dr. K. C. Chen, Dr. Selcuk Kose, Dr. Ralph Fehr, Dr. Ashwin Parthasarathy, Dr. Yasin Yilmaz, Al Ramirez, and Paul Kostek.
Peggy G. Hutcheson, Ph.D., has reinvented herself from being a working journalist, to corporate manager, and then entrepreneur and academic. Dr. Hutcheson is best known for her expertise in connecting employees to changing work roles through organizational and individual career development. In her work she consults, trains and manages large and small client projects for businesses, non-profits and government agencies. She has published numerous articles, e-books and essays on career development topics including Restoring Career Development: Developing and Managing Talent, and many others. She is currently on the faculty at Kennesaw State University. Dr. Hutcheson has served in a number of volunteer roles in IEEE-USA. Currently she is a member of the IEEE-USA Communications Committee and the IEEE-USA Employment and Career Services Committee, where she is a past committee chair.