#58 Is It Just Old Age?

by Steven Cerri on May 27, 2008

Do all engineers either become managers or get pushed aside?

Hello everyone!

Over the years, I’ve been asked by many clients, the following question:

“As engineers, what is it that drives us to become either less successful over time in our engineering organizations or pushes us into management as we age? It seems we are doomed to not be able to be successful just doing our engineering. What’s going on?”

I’ve been asked this flavor of question by senior engineers; by engineers who felt compelled and pressured to become managers; by young engineers who were surrounded by much older engineers doing the same work as they were doing; and on and on. It seems that companies want something different, over time, from their engineers. And I keep getting asked what it is and why it is so.

* Is it that we get older?

* Is it that the company wants something different from us as we age and gain experience?

* Is it that our salary gets too high?

* Is it that technology leaves us behind?

* Is it that things are changing so rapidly that we can’t keep up?

* Is it that there is no where else to be promoted to?

Do any or all of these factors “force us” into the management ranks or make us stumble as we get older as engineers?

What does it take for us to be successful throughout our careers as engineers and what is it that seems to relentlessly push us toward engineering management?

The answers to these questions all fall into the same bucket and yet seem quite different and somewhat complicated.

It’s not just a one-line answer. It’s a complicated process and it’s a combination of several factors.

The situation I’m describing probably develops for 80% to 90% of engineers to some degree. It’s starts early in your careers by the small steps taken but doesn’t often show up until 10+ years in the business.

Lets look at some of the more important factors one by one.

Factor #1: First, as time goes by and you get older and get more experience, if you remain a technical professional, an engineer, your salary increases in comparison to those who are graduating from school. The new graduates can do the technical work you are doing just as well as you, or nearly so, and at a much lower salary. Not withstanding the “experience” you have gained in your years as an engineer, unless you have “important” experience, the young people coming out of school can do what you do. And, as I’ve stated, at a much lower salary.

When I joined Rockwell International in 1969, right out of college something hit me like a ton of bricks the first day on the job. There were people there twice my age (and more) who were doing the exact same work I was. No doubt they had more experience than me, but in most cases and on most tasks, we were doing the same work, and their salaries were twice mine. At some point, this doesn’t make good business sense. And as the Apollo program began to ramp down, most of the expensive people who were doing the same work I was doing were laid off. I was kept because I could do the work and I wasn’t as expensive as others. It wasn’t a pleasant time in our aerospace history, but it was driven by business considerations. It is also what drove me to get two more advanced degrees in broader areas of discipline. I didn’t want to end up like my older colleagues competing with the college graduates for tasks.

So, from the company’s point of view, the goal is to make that increased salary pay for something that is not obtainable from someone just out of school.

And what is it? It’s Judgment! Experience doesn’t always equal judgment, but judgment requires experience.

Companies are willing to pay for judgment; that intangible element that comes from experience and yet is difficult to quantify. Turn your experience into an ability to see what others do not see, into an ability to predict outcomes that can’t be calculated and you become valuable.

Factor #2: Technology is changing very rapidly and the speed of technical change is increasing. If an engineer is to keep up with technology, he or she must constantly be learning the latest in technological knowhow.

The bottom line is that if you want to stay an engineer, if you want to stay out of management, then you must stay abreast of technological knowhow.

This is difficult to do. Because even if you stay abreast of technology, your salary creeps higher and higher. Without developing judgment, the young people just out of school will still have an edge.

Factor #3: Most organizations believe that as an engineer ages, they are acquiring something that is not taught in college. Most companies believe that the work environment will teach you how to communicate effectively with others, how to work on teams, how to work with and lead teams, and how to work with people all round the world.

Unfortunately, that is not what is taught to employees. Many of the best engineers don’t learn how to communicate while at work. They don’t learn how to work on teams either and most engineers don’t realize this is missing from their resume until they reach a certain age. And then they hit the “wall”. Their careers slow down. Their manager complains to them about their inability to communicate effectively with others. Their manager tells them that they ought to be promoted but they just don’t have the people skills necessary to make the next transition.

Managers and company organizations actually believe that the appropriate people skills, the effective communication skills, the team building skills can be taught “on the job”. It just doesn’t happen that way. Actually, the WRONG behaviors are taught “on the job”. And often, these people skills are the most important of the three factors I’ve discussed so far. Master the people skills, and the other two factors often come along.

These are the three top factors driving the typical engineer into a career corner. There are other factors, certainly, that depend on specific situations. But generally speaking, these three factors are driving engineers either into management, or into frustration, or out the door… in the long term. And if you are going to adjust any of these parameters in order to strengthen your career, you must adjust all three of them, in the following priority. Number 1, master communication and people skills. Number 2, translate your experience into “judgment”. And Number 3, keep up with technology as best you can.

Even if you don’t want to become a manager, adjusting these three factors, will go a long way in securing a long-lived, engineering career.

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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