Make Yourself Indispensable!

Engineers should accept responsibility for their careers

7 June 2012

When I was a senior at the University of Illinois, an alumnus returned to campus to give a talk about his work. While he was being introduced, he walked to the blackboard and wrote two words—“initiative” and “tenacity”—in the upper left corner. He didn’t mention them during his talk, and no one asked about them in the Q&A session that followed. But as he left the stage, he pointed to the board and said, “By the way, if you don’t remember me or anything else I’ve said today [unfortunately, I don’t], try to remember and apply those two words. If you do, you’ll have a successful career.”

A few years later, I joined the National Bureau of Standards, in Boulder, Colo., as a postdoctoral fellow. It didn’t take long to figure out that NBS was a great place to work and Boulder was a great place to live. One day, while talking to my boss, I asked about the chances of a permanent position. He responded, “Make yourself indispensable!” and abruptly ended the conversation.

A few weeks later, he invited me to join the highest-profile project in his group, a project that would eventually have a major impact on fundamental metrology, and a team that included a future Nobel Prize winner. Whether he thought my skills would be useful, or was giving me a chance to learn some new things, or wanted to see what I could do, I’ll never know. I’d like to think it was all three.

Photo: IEEE

I’ve always been grateful for those three gifts: good advice, an impossible challenge, and an exceptional opportunity. The collective message to a young engineer was that I should accept responsibility for my career. If I wanted to advance, I should find ways to become more valuable to my employer. When an opportunity to contribute and grow was offered, I should grab it.

Much has changed in the working world over the past few decades, and that message is even more important now than when it was delivered to me years ago.

Today’s graduates should not expect to do the same work for 40 years. Workforce experts tell us that they will probably change jobs 8 to 10 times. Technology is progressing at an accelerating rate. Those who fail to keep their skills fresh will find job transitions difficult and will need to learn how to navigate successfully through periods of midcareer unemployment and the challenges of reentering the workforce.

Today, engineering labor is often treated like a commodity, to be purchased as needed. By choice or necessity, consulting and contracting are becoming more common career paths. This is not necessarily a bad thing—supporting a broad clientele is common in other professions, including law and medicine. However, it increases the need for career-long skills development, not only in technology but also in aspects of business, customer relations, marketing, accounting, intellectual property, and other nontechnical areas.

The former CEO of a large international technology company was recently quoted as saying, “You need to have the advanced skills that the future requires. You need to move to the future from a skills perspective.” But then he added, “We do a lot of retraining every year, and we still find ourselves in the situation where people can’t move up the skill ladder. So we have to replace them with current skills.”

He may be correct that some members of our profession have not moved up the skill ladder, but I reject the idea that they can’t. Engineers may lose the currency of their knowledge, but they don’t lose their talents or their basic understanding of physical principles. Technologists of all ages must commit to a lifelong expansion of their skills.

Help with that is one of the greatest benefits of belonging to a professional society. A professional society is about knowledge, nurturing its creation and—through its dissemination—helping technologists thrive, and helping innovators innovate. It’s also about the nontechnical aspects of being a professional—about building nontechnical skills through education and gaining experience as a volunteer. It’s a source of advice and information about career management. And all of that happens through a supportive community of peers and friends.

That is what IEEE has done for me and is doing for more than 415 000 members all around the globe, helping us “move up the skill ladder,” a bit closer to the elusive goal of becoming indispensable.

gday Gordon W. Day
IEEE President and CEO
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