Break through to management

The management teams of engineering companies may contain accountants, marketing people and HR specialists - almost everyone but engineers. How can you break through to management?

If you are a student engineer or a recent graduate you probably have only one thing on your mind; getting your first job. But how long will your first job last you? Two years? Three years? Even putting aside today's volatile employment market, there are no jobs for life anymore. Whether you choose to move on, suffer redundancy or get promoted within the same company your first job is just that: your first job of many.

So, the one thing you have on your mind shouldn't be your first job, it should be your last. Where is your career going to finish up? Will you be an entrepreneurial micro manufacturer? How about a senior consultant in a dynamic agency? Or perhaps you will be the manufacturing or engineering director of a larger business?

In order to get any of these jobs, in order to get anywhere, you may need to break through the barriers keeping engineers in their technical ghetto – and you need to know where you’re going.

Focus on your goal

Chris Haigh, 23, a project manager at QinetiQ and chairman of the company’s graduate committee, agrees: “It’s really important to focus on where you want to get to. I knew from a relatively young age I that wanted to work in project management so I took simple but focussed steps to achieve my goal; from subscribing to Project Management Today to joining my local Association of Project Managers group.”

“If you want to be involved in management and are already thinking about it, then that itself is a good first step,” he continues.  “Most people focus on their technical careers first and don’t consider management. But if it is your aspiration, you can get involved earlier than you think. I thought I would need to have been an engineer for several years before taking on the responsibility. But actually enthusiasm is the key thing people look for. They are quite willing to watch you grow and help you learn things,” he concludes.

Don't get too specialised

In fact, it seems that spending too long in a technical engineering role could be a hindrance. Greg Watts, of The Improvement Practice an independent manufacturing consultancy, says: “I believe that the glass ceiling is there; technical people in most businesses are assets that are in short supply. As a result, they tend to get funneled into their technical speciality. Most businesses do not have a formal development process that takes technical specialists out of their specialism and into the wider business field.”

Roy Coldwell, of business process improvement agency PICME, concurs: “Often, scientists or engineers are seen as boffins with no real chance of being put in front of senior clients or colleagues.  They have to work hard to break out of that typecast stereotype.”

However, this barrier to management isn’t common to every company. Chris Pocket, group marketing service manager of Renishaw explains: “With just one exception, all of Renishaw's main board members are engineers”.

Pocket cites his colleague Gareth Hankins as an example of an engineer who has reached a senior management position by working his way up through the ranks. Although not a main board director yet, Hankins has progressed very quickly and seems to have a bright future.

Find out what you need

Hankins has this to say about his early years at Renishaw: “At that time, my sights were set on becoming a senior manager in engineering, but I recognised I needed man-management understanding.”

To obtain this experience he became a team leader in an electronics controller assembly area in 1995, managing up to 10 people.

“I could still get my teeth into engineering problems but had the added responsibility of getting parts out of the door, managing people, cost, quality, and health and safety issues – things that I had been ignorant of before, but which I really enjoyed.”

Break through the barrier

It seems that a can-do attitude is the way to progress, as explained in Churchillian manner by Chris Atkin of Harlow based Total Electrical Training: "Glass ceilings are there for breaking. Let’s remind ourselves that Alan Sugar is an engineer at heart. He is that rare breed of entrepreneur that combines a keen sense of how things work and what the customer is looking for. So my message to those who think they are burdened by the perception of the glass ceiling is get out there, break through the barriers and go out and start building great companies for a Great Britain."

So, while getting through the door barring engineers from the management washroom isn’t always that easy, it is evidently possible. Most spectators are united in the opinion that the key to the task is having the correct attitude; if you get this right you will make your own path to the top easier and, in doing so, help smooth the way for others. Maybe the accountants, marketing people and HR specialists belong on the board as well, but it’s clear that there will always be a place for engineers with the right attitude.

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