Are your skills obsolete?

DN Staff

March 20, 2000

4 Min Read
Are your skills obsolete?

How can you establish professional goals that are compatible with and support your life goals?

Three basic options. Try these ideas to help you evaluate how to proceed with your career. You could choose to (1) be a technical guru who continually works at the forefront of technology, (2) begin in a technical area, become more of a generalist and eventually move into project management, then into top management or start your own business, or (3) use a basic engineering education as a springboard to another field. You could then move into small business ownership, writing, law, medicine, contracts consulting, music, sales, or another field of your choice.

Before you decide which path to follow however, consider how you will overcome technological obsolescence. It is a serious problem for engineers and managers in our advanced technological environment. Although engineers 20 years ago could expect their early knowledge and skills would last for the duration of their careers, now it is no longer possible for minimal additional education to carry an engineer through his or her working life to retirement, especially if he or she expects to remain at the forefront of technological change.

The "half-life" of an engineering education can be less than five years. For engineers graduating in 2000...obsolete around 2005. Half of what they will need to know will be information that they never received in college. Of that body of knowledge, valid theories will usually enjoy a longer life than practical applications.

Are your skills obsolete? Sadly, individuals can be totally unaware that their education and skills are becoming obsolete. When we suspect this may be so, it is hard enough to admit it to ourselves, much less to anyone else. We may recognize the symptoms, but not know what to do about them.

Solutions to this problem are not easy. However, you must act. Like the new car that depreciates the moment you take delivery, your career begins the obsolescence process immediately.

I am reminded of the story about the mice that lived and played in a beautiful cornfield. They had plenty of food, water, and shelter and lived very happily. Even though the corn grew more mature each day, the mice thought nothing about tomorrow. They couldn't conceive that conditions might change drastically. Then one day, the corn was picked, and the corn stalks were plowed under...and so were the mice.

Resolve to hamper the obsolescence process. Keep up with the state-of-the-art in your chosen field and perhaps in related fields as well. When you choose your professional goal option, consider the strong implications for other areas of your life. This is extremely critical for those of you who choose to be technical gurus.

Assess the life expectancy of your chosen field. Industry will not clamor for the skills of an expert in an irrelevant field. For example, what if another energy conversion system made the automobile's conventional internal combustion engine obsolete? If this happens, the engineers who have ignored structures, thermal design, materials, and mechanics might find themselves as obsolete as their field of expertise.

Q: What other market considerations should any practicing engineer be aware of?

A: The law of supply and demand will have a significant influence throughout everyone's career. When people with a particular skill are in short supply, candidates with those skills find it easier to change jobs, earn higher salaries and accumulate better benefits, such as stock options and signing bonuses. Students usually choose their specialty based on the industry demands at that time, but they do not graduate until two to four years later. As a result, their engineering education can be out of phase with market demand from the beginning of their careers. They emerge from school with skills for a market demand that is two or more years old. The problem for engineering students is that if they concentrate on receiving a good engineering foundation, they rarely have the opportunity to develop leadership, communication, relationship-building, consulting, and sales and marketing skills. These lateral business skills are crucial for them to fashion long-term careers relevant to the competitive needs of today's dynamic business environment.

Q: Aren't the risks of obsolescence obvious to everyone?

A: Not always. Engineers often view business skills and activities as non-essential soft stuff. When assigned to a cross-functional project team, some participants wrongly limit their activities to their own specific area of expertise and do not try to interact with or learn from other team members. These team participants help improve efficiency and productivity, but don't really try to understand the business issues that the organization faces. For today's engineers, this tunnel vision could seriously hamper their careers.

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