Your questions answered: How to thrive in the ‘nontraditional’ engineering work world

Engineers' jobs and workplaces are rapidly changing. Take this advice to ease the transition.

By John Suzukida, Lanex Consulting, Minneapolis August 28, 2015

Transitioning to a new position, retirement, telecommuting—they’re all questions that will come up in an engineer’s career. John Suzukida responds to several unanswered questions from the Aug. 21 Career Smart webcast

Question: When moving to independence, what resources are available for learning to marketing? 

John Suzukida: Rather than a book or website, advice that I recommend is within each person—think hard about what it is that you can provide of value and to whom you can provide that value. “Walk a mile in their moccasins” as the old Indian saying goes, to give you a perspective on what is possibly of greatest need. That empathy and understanding matched with your skills and ability to help them solve their needs is perhaps the greatest marketing that can be done. It’s genuine, it’s based on truly understanding the need, and it potentially enables you to speak in a way that resonates with your perspective clients. What any client needs most is someone who thoroughly understands their position and needs and meets those. 

Question: Would you use a contract house to find work? 

John Suzukida: Any possibilities such as a contract house would be good to try, but make sure you understand any terms/conditions of such work so those don’t restrict you from working in other ways or for other clients. If you go this route, I would recommend you “keep the pedal to the metal” and keep open other paths, not waiting for this alone to generate business for you. 

Question: What are the hard and soft benefits of allowing flexible schedules as a policy? How do you change corporate culture to make flexible policies more acceptable? How do you convince your boss if you’re employed in a traditional setting?

John Suzukida: Several ways:

  • Usually, good performers who request flexibility are so grateful to have it, that they do more than if they’d been in the office full-time.
  • If a specific corporate culture has not accepted such changes, it may be best to just try it and fly under the radar screen with a great person—kind of a “Jackie Robinson” type who you know will make it work. If that person is you, think through what the company needs to make it work, not just what you need. That may help convince them to give it a try. I did this with a young engineer who was a new mom 30 years ago who wanted to work part-time. We talked with and convinced human resources (HR) that it could work and we did it quietly. The result was a win for that engineer, a win for the company, and a win for my department.
  • For an individual boss, honestly evaluate who has more leverage—you or the company. If the answer is you, it gives you solid ground because the company is motivated to keep you happy. If the answer is that the company has more leverage than you (jobs are less plentiful than the number of available people who do what you do), look for a “what’s in it for him/her” as your boss. What problem does he or she have that may be solved by changing from a traditional setting? 

Question: What is the best arrangement for a person who is backing off a bit at a mature age, but has had very high level of responsibilities?

John Suzukida: A couple of things to think about here:

  • This situation aligns well with my story, reviewed earlier. Your value is probably less in the “doing of tasks” than in seeing a bigger picture and having experienced organizational challenges. As a result, you may be better-suited to “coaching,” advising-type roles.
  • You may also have broader appeal across different industries because your experience is more people-oriented and less specific to a particular technology. That is what I found—a common reaction in organizations that were far different from my experience was that I understood what they were facing, even though it was in a different field.

Question: Is it OK to seek additional work while at part-time with an employer?

John Suzukida: It depends on your contract or other understanding with your part-time employer, but generally, yes, as long as it’s not working for a direct competitor.

Question: With regard to marketable skills, how do you deal with always having more to do than time allows?

John Suzukida: Obviously this is a nice problem; decide what you like to do best, what contributes most to sustaining your independence or career objective, for which clients you can more easily turn down assignments—then just say no to balance your time with the work needed to be done. 

Question: What works best to market a work-at-home engineer?

John Suzukida: From my experience:

  • The old marketing phrase of “find a need and fill it” is so applicable here. Companies across industries absolutely need particular skills and will be very accommodating to people who have those.
  • Look critically at yourself to determine if you have such skills and develop relationships through associations, professional societies and current/past work contacts to get your name and availability out there.
  • Obviously, a Web page and LinkedIn are great tools with which you can obtain visibility.
  • Much of the work I’ve gotten into is covered under nondisclosure agreements so I do not have a Web page, but I’ve benefitted from not having to pursue companies. All of my work has come through past colleagues and references asking, “Can you help us with this?”

Question: What tools or skills are important for people with only 5 years left in their career? What’s the best way to keep current with industry trends and new technologies?

John Suzukida: I suggest:

  • Reading a lot, association and society memberships, and networking your contacts are critical because you’ve had many years in your career.
  • Communication skills, in particular listening skills, are critical. If you’re going independent or pursuing a nontraditional path, being applicable to the “buyer” is critical. In answer to the question, “Can you help us with this?” I commonly answer that I don’t know. But we proceed to talk, I ask questions and listen closely to what they are facing and what they may need to move forward and it soon becomes clear what needs to be done.
  • To keep current with industry trends and new technologies, it’s important to go beyond your industry to see what is happening elsewhere that may be applicable. For example, what is Uber’s impact on other industries? Some areas of the country are using Uber type business models for HVAC technicians—it may or may not work, but being aware of it is key to keeping you relevant and not outdated.
  • Listen and observe what young people are doing and try to understand why they are doing it, rather than telling them how it was based on your experience “back in the day.” Sometimes, there are timeless lessons that apply and are of great value to people younger than you. But often, it’s a turn-off to those younger to hear someone with 5 years left in their career wax on about things not relevant to them.

A final thought to add in response to all the questions: When relationships with a client go well, ask for a note from them that you can use as a reference for other clients. Strike while the iron is hot and don’t wait a long time—when they’ve forgotten or lose the passion of being thankful for your help.