How to navigate opportunities and advancements in your engineering career
According to projections by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, engineering jobs are expected to grow by 4% by 2031, with more than 91,000 new jobs within different fields in the profession, and more than 200,000 job openings annually.
If you are properly qualified, one of these jobs will be yours. Even as you start your career, it is important to think about how you will navigate the job landscape and the opportunities that come your way.
We are inundated with advice on how to advance in our careers. We are advised to think about where we want to be in five or ten years. Young people are told to be careful about who they make friends with at work, sticking to those who can help get promotions. Numerous self-help books outline steps to take for those who want to succeed.
Even as young people try to absorb all this advice, the workplace is changing. The COVID-19 pandemic ensured that it was no longer business as usual. Millions lost their jobs, and those who were lucky enough to hold onto theirs found that the work dynamic had changed. Working remotely has become the norm for many companies and employment uncertainty remains high.
Whether you are just about to enroll in an engineering course, have just attained a degree, or are in the middle of your career there are many factors to consider as you navigate the jobs landscape.
The field is evolving, and with it, the jobs that are available to those who are qualified. An American engineer in the 1950s or 1960s was almost certain on where they would end up.
Jobs were a little more permanent than they are today, and periods between employment were short. If one chose to change jobs, they didn’t have to wait for long before a new one came along.
That has changed. Engineering is a well-paying career, but it is also competitive. How can you make sure that you have a long and satisfying career?
Top career advice for today’s engineers
So long as you have an engineering degree, you shouldn’t worry too much about securing employment. As we’ve mentioned above, there are plenty of opportunities in the coming decade.
This doesn’t mean that you should sit on your laurels. Those who have a plan tend to come out on top, so it is important to actively map out your career rather than wait for whatever comes your way. The tips below will help you advance in your chosen field:
- Get the right qualifications
This may seem rather obvious, but many fail to get anywhere because they don’t have the qualifications that employers are looking for.
Certain engineering fields are in demand, and it is these that you should be looking at. If you choose civil engineering, for example, you can expect to work in land development and infrastructure, and there are plenty of jobs in this area.
Aerospace engineering, industrial engineering, agricultural engineering and environmental engineering are also good fields to specialize in because there are plenty of jobs on offer. Electrical and auto engineering are also good specialties, hiring thousands of professionals every year.
After you choose a specialty you can make yourself even more marketable by getting one or two additional qualifications in a complementary field.
Engineers who have an MBA, for example, often find themselves rising to top management, leading teams and running businesses.
An online master’s degree in operations management makes you specially qualified to manage projects. The course at Kettering University Online covers topics like management science, enterprise information systems, managing people and marketing management. You also learn operations and financial management as well as strategy for enterprises. All course material is online, and dedicated students can graduate in a little under two years.
The idea is to show employers that you have the knowledge and skills it takes to be an exceptional engineer.
Many young people assume that having one degree is enough to get them through their career life cycle, but as jobs become more competitive it has become necessary for people to gain additional education if they want to get to the top of their fields.
- Get into a field that excites you
Being passionate about your job is important. If you like seeing new buildings come to life, a job in civil engineering may be the right fit for you.
If you enjoy working on circuits and have an in-depth understanding of how to install lighting and heating, you may be suited to a career as an electrical engineer.
Passion pushes you to do your best, and your work stands out. You do not rest until you achieve your goal, and things don’t get tedious. This is the kind of employee that is treasured wherever they work.
- Be intentional
Indeed, life often doesn’t work out the way we thought it would. Ten years ago, you probably thought you would be in a different place from where you are now.
This doesn’t mean that you should sit back and let it happen. Those who plan often get closer to their goals than those who don’t. It can be hard to plan your career as a young person because you have no idea how life will unfold.
Having a mentor is a good idea. Seek someone mature and reliable within the same field and talk to them about what you should be aiming for and how you can get there.
- Let your boss know about your aspirations
Maybe you have annual or biannual assessments with your boss but you have never let them know what plans you have in mind for career advancement. If they don’t know, they can’t help you get there.
Sometimes we are afraid of speaking out loud because we may be misunderstood. You may think, for example, that if you let your boss know that you want to move up he may think you are angling for his job.
Be smart about it. You don’t have to threaten your superior’s job to move up the ladder. Opportunities abound if you care to look for them. You may choose, for example, to move to another department with a higher job. Or you can make a lateral move that gives you a different type of experience.
- Take advantage of your best qualities
You are a qualified engineer but you possess one other skill; you are an excellent orator, and you can do presentations very well. You could expand your role by letting your boss know that you don’t mind accompanying him when he has to pitch to investors or clients.
If you do the job well, you soon become a valued member of the team. You also become visible, and when opportunities arise there is a good chance that you’ll be offered the chance to advance.
- Be valuable but not critical
It is exciting to be described as critical to a project, a department or a company, but the price people pay is hardly worth it. When you are critical, it means that things cannot move if you aren’t there.
Critical employees often find themselves working when they shouldn’t, and they soon get burned out and overwhelmed.
It is best to be valuable; it means you are not the failure point. Your colleagues can manage without you, and you get time to rest and recuperate. The best managers organize teams that can function without them.
- Be careful about moving into a management role
Depending on your employer, a shift into management might mean that your roles are revised completely, and you end up doing things that you don’t enjoy.
An engineer might work very hard, obtain an online master’s degree in operations management and get a promotion to be a manager only to realize that they don’t like it.
Rather than be out in the field where the action is, they may be required to deal with mundane tasks like writing and balancing budgets, hiring and firing, attending meetings and other routine tasks that are undertaken by managers.
Unless you enjoy this kind of work it can be rather off-putting. As you plan your way to the top think about the route you’d like to take and what you may encounter along the way.
- Learn how to weather storms
Change is inevitable. Whether you work in a small engineering firm or are employed by the government there are bound to be upheavals from time to time. Your employer may have a hard time attracting new business or competitors may make it hard to get new contracts.
Those who stick around through hard times are often rewarded when things get better. If you are the type of person who runs at the slightest sign of trouble you may not go very far in your career.
Keep your ear to the ground.
What is happening within your industry? Are there job opportunities that could get you where you want to go? Are there new technologies that can help you get further in your career?
Keep up with change as it occurs. Not only does it make you more competent and adaptable, but it also allows you to take advantage of opportunities in your industry.
- Collaborate with others
Most engineering work requires teams. Groups are put together, handed a project, and are expected to hit certain milestones within a set time limit. To do well, they have to put any differences they may have aside and work together.
Being a team player is one of the best ways to advance your career. It isn’t unusual to hear of a manager who gets hired to a new job and takes his whole team with him. He knows that they get along well and achieve whatever goals are set for them.
A team player is a good communicator and an excellent listener. They know how to follow instructions, and they allow others to contribute. They also take their responsibilities seriously and they appreciate that their actions impact others.
- Accept failure
It happens to all of us; we make mistakes that have significant consequences. In engineering, mistakes can be especially critical because they often affect big projects.
Some people deal with mistakes head-on, acknowledging that they occurred, learning from them and moving on. Others, unfortunately, get caught up, and all they can think about is what they did wrong.
If you want to enjoy your career you should accept that mistakes occur, but they shouldn’t hold you back. Rather than wallow, acknowledge errors and use them as learning opportunities.
- Take on new responsibilities
New responsibilities help you showcase your skills to your employers. If you feel that your role doesn’t give you enough to do there’s no harm in asking your employer to expand it so that you can contribute more to the company.
- Don’t sacrifice happiness
You may have a job doing something that you love but in an extremely toxic environment that is riddled with politics. Despite enjoying what you do, you’ll soon find yourself quite unhappy, and it will affect your performance.
You may also love where you work but not enjoy the job itself. The result is the same. Before long you’ll find yourself dreading going to work.
Some people stay in jobs they hate because they like the money and end up living pretty miserable lives.
If you want to have a balanced career that satisfies you it is best to find a job doing something that you live in an environment that makes you happy.
- Be good to those around you
Some people call it paying it forward, while others say to practice good karma. Whatever you call it, it is all about being kind and helpful to those around you. It can result in promotion and recommendations, and you will be entrusted with important tasks that require tact.
As you move up the career ladder don’t forget to lift those who are around you. They will not forget your good deeds, and you never know how they may contribute to your career in the future.
Career tips for those transitioning into engineering
There’s a lot of advice for young people who are just starting engineering careers, but not nearly as much for those who are transitioning into engineering from another specialty.
Transitioning from one career to another isn’t unusual these days. Many professionals only realize that they are in the wrong career after working for several years, but by then they have settled into a lifestyle and are worried about what a change would mean.
It is normal to change careers. According to some, the average working professional should aim to change careers several times in their lifetime. The best thing about it is that you have experience from previous jobs, and you will avoid making the same mistakes. If you plan well and get the right training you can excel in your new field.
Be prepared because inevitable changes that are bound to happen. It may mean a relocation, a longer commute or even moving out of the United States to work abroad.
The first thing to do is make sure you get the right training. If you already have a bachelor’s degree in another field, look for related disciplines that allow you to do a master’s. It saves time.
If, for example, you have a bachelor’s degree in architecture but would rather be doing civil engineering, you don’t have to start from scratch. Your current credentials allow you to go for a master’s in civil engineering.
Take stock, and don’t be rash. Making hurried decisions may land you in another career that doesn’t satisfy you. Make sure that you transition into something that you enjoy doing. It should pay well enough for you to maintain or improve your current lifestyle.
Think about how the change will affect those around you especially if you have a family. How will they manage as you go back to school and then settle into a new job?
Finances are important. How much will it cost to go back to school, and how will you manage? Is it possible to stay in your current job as you study? It minimizes upheavals and ensures that you don’t have to worry about unpaid bills.
Even as you enroll in a course you should think about what job opportunities will be available after you graduate. Ideally, you should get hired right out of school into a job that pays you well and allows opportunities for advancement.
As we saw earlier, job prospects for engineers in the United States are good for the coming decade. However, you should choose a field that has plenty of employment opportunities.
Planning a career is not easy, especially for young people. They don’t have life experience to draw on and may make mistakes that are difficult to recover from. The best way to start an engineering career is to get the right training from an accredited institution. Keep learning; it opens up new career opportunities and allows you to climb the career ladder.