By: Leslie Stevens-Huffman
Once you master the basic techniques, concepts and equipment in your niche, it’s natural for engineers to want to learn new things. However, snagging an assignment that ventures beyond your current knowledge or skill level can be tricky, especially for contractors who are experiencing strong demand for their expertise.
Alas, you may be so good at what you do in your niche, an engineering manager won’t even consider you for a different project. Don’t despair. Here are five strategies to help you secure a career-enhancing contract engineering assignment.
1. Learn Complementary Skills
Acquiring complementary skills and knowledge can extend your market reach and broaden your appeal, even if you lack hands-on experience.
For instance, an electrical engineer who wants to venture into RF planning or power electronics design should consider taking an online course or attending a boot camp to acquire a baseline proficiency. If you’d like a shot at project consulting or interim management, acquiring a mini-MBA can build your business acumen and affirm your sincere desire to try your hand at management.
In fact, professional or peer training, combined with side projects, can help an experienced engineer segue into a new subset as this post about career transitions illustrates.
Find a learning partner at user groups, meetups or conferences, and offer to exchange technical know-how in your spare time. Then, add your side projects to your portfolio and resume to position yourself for your inaugural stretch assignment.
2. Leverage Your Network
Instead of trying to convince a perfect stranger to give you a shot at a project that’s a bit outside your wheelhouse, target engineering firms and managers where you’ve established a track record of success. Being a proven performer gives you instant credibility. You might also ask your learning partner for an endorsement. After all, who better to vouch for your newly acquired abilities than your trainer?
Finally, as Nicole Williams points out, be on the lookout for opportunities to create your own stretch assignment. For instance, are there other project teams in your current firm that could use your help or expertise? Once you’ve identified a potential opportunity, present a brief win-win proposal to the engineering manager. Framing your request as a viable solution to a pressing problem makes it a lot easier for an engineering manager to grant your request for a mutually beneficial stretch assignment.
3. Start Small
Small firms are often more flexible when it comes to hiring. So, share your goals with recruiters who specialize in placing candidates with small companies. And instead of trying to land a project that’s more of a leap than a stretch, ease in by volunteering to take on some additional responsibilities. Short stretches are a great way to see if you’re capable of handling a new role or duties. According to an article on HBR Blog Network, “Positioning Yourself for a Stretch Assignment,” the best stretch assignments have a 50% to 70% chance of success. Taking small bites initially can benefit both parties.
4. Update Your Image
If your professional brand, online profile and resume focus on your previous accomplishments and work history, you may get pigeonholed. Give your image a makeover to reflect the contract assignments and projects that empower your next-level objectives.
Start by creating a forward-looking resume that reads like a proposal instead of a regurgitation of yesterday’s news. List relevant boot camps, conferences or training courses near the top. And remember to prioritize achievements that emphasize your qualifications for a career-enhancing assignment.
5. Find a Career Sponsor
Like a good recruiter, a sponsor doesn’t just offer encouragement or guidance, they direct you toward appropriate growth opportunities such as stretch assignments. They assess your strengths and weaknesses, help you establish appropriate goals, and land the best assignment to meet them. In other words, a career sponsor advocates on your behalf and helps you forge critical connections.
According to the HBR Blog Network article “The Real Benefit of Finding a Sponsor,” without a sponsor only 43% of men and 36% of women will ask a manager for a stretch assignment; with sponsor support, the numbers rise, respectively, to 56% and 44%.
Most importantly, having a powerful advocate in your court may give you the courage to pursue and conquer a career-changing stretch assignment. If you don’t know where to start, consider asking your recruiter for a reference to someone with a current or past assignment within the company where you are currently working.
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