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SPIE Professional July 2007

Two-Pronged Challenge

Early career professionals seek the right workplace, while employers strive to retain valuable employees. Here's helpful advice for both sides of this challenge.

By Nancy Martin

Part One: Advice for Early Career Professionals

So, here you are, finally in the workforce. You went to school for more than four years to get your perfect technical job, and now you’re asking yourself, “Is this the job for me?” You start looking at jobs that are familiar to you, and you buy books on the LSAT, MCAT, and GMAT.

There were never any TV shows about engineers when you were growing up, so it isn’t clear how to navigate all of the possibilities. The most straightforward thing to do is follow paths with which you are familiar; for example, going back into academia as a teacher; yet there are many options beyond familiar paths.

Some people know exactly what they want in their career, but for the rest of you, here are some tips for getting closer to your ideal job.

Map out the best possible career for yourself by finding the intersection of a few important things: know where your talents lie, what people will pay you to do, and what matters to you. It is much easier to start examining the individual pieces of the career puzzle, rather than solving the entire puzzle at one time. You aren’t looking for the job that you will do for the rest of your life, or even the perfect next job. You are just looking for a job that gets you closer to something you will enjoy.

People in their twenties will have many jobs over their career, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Just put the next piece in place instead of trying to solve the whole puzzle at once.

Create a Love/Hate List

Write a love/hate list on paper so you can see it for yourself. You will learn the most from your extreme emotions. If you just like something or slightly dislike it, you have found neither your passion nor something to stay away from. Strong emotions can lead us to make the most important changes in our life. This will help you determine things to go after or avoid in your next job.

Make sure to include things beyond the job, too, like the people, environment, and culture in which you work. Here’s an example of just such a list:

1. I love working with customers: meeting new people excites me.

2. I love giving presentations: the visibility is stimulating.

3. I hate sitting behind my desk, modeling 3D objects: there is no one to talk to during the day.

4. I love working in the lab: hands-on work is rewarding, and I feel like I accomplished something at the end of the day.

5. I hate being micromanaged.

6. I love a flexible work schedule: independence is important so I can do other things besides work.

7. I love a structure with deadlines and rewards: I know what the expectations are and can challenge myself to meet the target. The pressure is invigorating!

Nighttime Reading

If you are having trouble figuring out what you are passionate about, try taking a look at your bed stand. If you are reading technical journals, you are probably in the right field.

You may need to look at how much interaction with people you have or how much time you have to do hands-on work or other variables that will give you more job satisfaction. Over the years you will want to re-invent yourself to stretch into other technical disciplines in order to keep your position interesting.

If you are reading business books or psychology books, perhaps you may be best suited for the leadership job that is opening up. What you do in your free time tends to lead to interesting self-discoveries about what you really love to do.

Another question to consider is what do people come and ask you about? Clues to what we are really good at are often apparent to those around us. There is the person that you ask for help on the latest software, and there is the person who you go to with your personal problems—rarely are those two people interchangeable.

It turns out that we have some natural skills that appear early in life. They can be the seeds of greatness in your future, so don’t ignore what others already know.

Planning Your Next Move

Although job changes can take a while to make, start putting a plan together to assure that you can get to where you are going. Early in a career, managers can be open to career switches, so hard work, enthusiasm, and a can-do attitude can go a long way. Just be careful not to oversell yourself. You need to know where you are prepared and where you are not.

Once again, list both the hard and soft skills that you need to get the job.

What skills do you have right now? You are already partially there with the talents you have developed over a lifetime, so make sure you can articulate how you got them, how you demonstrate them, and why they are important to the job you are trying to get.What competencies are you missing and how are you going to get them? Although you can get these skills outside of work, you are much better off putting in the extra hours on the job to get these skills. This way the people making the decisions can see you in action.Have you networked enough? Knowing the decision makers and showing them you can do the job before you even get it gives you a huge advantage when the job opens up.
Part Two: Advice for Employers

Now we need to look at the flip side as an employer: keeping those valuable employees in your company and in your organization.

As an employer, you have spent a good deal of time culling through resumes, going to campus, bringing candidates on-site, and hiring the best you can find in the marketplace. You know you have the best to offer in a technology career, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. The challenging work isn’t keeping your employees satisfied. What else is missing?

Take a look at your scientist’s day. What is her experience? The day-to-day encounters matter in her life, and if you think it is just the work, you’re wrong. Much of the responsibility for employee retention and productivity relies on her immediate manager. Here are just some of the things employees want in addition to good technical work, and what a manager has to do to create a better working environment.

People Want to Feel Valued

There needs to be a connection between what your employees do each day, and a final product or solution that matters to them. Your first-line managers and supervisors should be connecting the dots with a simple vision. Better yet, show them how what you do makes a difference in the world.

Solve Conflicts Early

Conflicts are normal and even a good, healthy debate is necessary for excellence, but if it starts to get personal, then it affects the whole team. Don’t expect clashes to go away without intervention. Hoping things work out creates morale problems, while solving them builds trust in the organization.

If your teams aren’t functioning properly, people will start looking elsewhere. Once again, your leader needs to step in and handle the conflicts quickly and constructively.

Role Models and Retention

Everyone is different, so make sure they have access to all types of positive role models. They will need to find someone to whom they can ask honest questions and get open feedback.

Often leaders try to pair people up because they think it will be “good for them.” Pairings of opposites, whether in personality or job function, however, rarely work in practice.

Many managers are tempted to lead people into the same career path as they went through, and why not? You are successful! But what if you loved analysis, and the person you are talking to loves hands-on work? This conversation will leave them very discouraged. Unless they go and talk to someone that has a career path in, let’s say, lab research, they may come away from that experience thinking they need to get their hands-on experience at a different company or even career.

Career planning for the employee, and retention for the leader, is a time-consuming activity that requires a great deal of effort. Begin working on it a little at a time, starting right now.


Nancy Martin
Nancy Martin is Manager, Technical Development, for GE's technologists around the globe. She leads an entry-level program that provides technical and business training for 550 new employees. In addition, she develops and delivers corporate classes that enhance the technical career path for engineers and scientists for all levels of experience. Martin has held 17, mostly management, positions in four locations over her 24 years with the company.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200707.03

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