Learning Where the Jobs Are

Communications, defense, and bioengineering are leading industries

5 min read

Whether you are a freshly minted graduate or a seasoned engineer with a career at full throttle, knowing the hot areas in technology and engineering is vital. Beyond just helping you sort out jobs in the classifieds, this knowledge will guide you in choosing the continuing education courses to take and the journals to read. It may even help you decide if it's time for a major career change.

Fortunately, after some tough years, things are looking up economically. Globally, the latest report from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development notes that economic momentum is "already strong in North America and most of Asia" and is now "well established in Japan," with Europe "progressively recovering." This improvement translates into jobs. In the United States, for example, despite concerns about outsourcing, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports: "Opportunity is expected to be good for most engineering occupations over the next 10 years because the number of engineering degrees awarded is not expected to grow while the number of people retiring is expected to be quite high."

For computer science in particular, the need for workers will far outstrip the available talent. The bureau notes that most of the demand for technology professionals will spring from communications, consumer, and defense-related products as business and other organizations seek new technologies to increase efficiency and productivity.

The IEEE has also identified several emerging technologies that promise growth: digital rights management, display technologies, fingerprinting, organic electronics, alternative fuels and the hydrogen economy, and Wi-Fi. To learn more about these areas, the IEEE maintains a portal that briefly describes each technology and what the future might hold for it at http://www.ieee.org/portal/site/emergingtech/index.jsp?pageID=emerging_home.

Now that you know the hot areas, wouldn't it be nice if all you had to do was to pick one, get a great job, and work happily ever after in your career? Yes, it would be nice, but the real world is not a fairy tale.

For starters, what if I had written this article 10 years ago, and you had taken the advice to get a job in the then-exploding dot-com or telecommunications industry? Perhaps some of you did. I visited Lucent Technologies Inc.'s Murray Hill, N.J., headquarters a few years ago and saw the expanse of empty cubicles clogging the building's magnificent atrium, the workspaces of engineers who were let go only months after the frantic hiring that ended so suddenly. There are no "sure things."

If you want to be happier in your work, keep your eyes open, make sure your skills are up to date, and be alert to opportunities in your field

So as well as giving you a fish for today--that list of hot areas--I'd like to teach you how to fish--that is, show you ways to stay on top of your industry so that you'll always have an idea of what's hot and what's not and you'll learn how to make decisions even when the future is cloudy.

One way to stay on top of things is to subscribe to publications that regularly have technology reviews. These are often easily available on the Internet and, don't forget, in libraries. Apart from--of course!--IEEE Spectrum, these include industry and trade publications, newsweekly magazines like The Economist, and weekly newspaper sections like Circuits and Science Times in The New York Times. I try to read the tables of contents in publications to flag items of interest and page through the publication before filing or discarding it--apart from the articles, useful information can even be found in, yes, the advertisements!

Professional societies are another fertile source. Check out their publications, committee reports, journals, and other messages. Think of conference programs as windows on movements in the field and note the topics being presented. If you can't go to a conference, contact the speakers of interest and request a copy of their papers or presentations; this may also lead to someone you can network with for future career opportunities.

A useful IEEE site to keep tabs on is the one maintained by the New Technology Directions Committee. Its task is to keep an eye on technologies not currently covered by one of the specialized IEEE societies. Its Web site is at http://www.ieee.org/portal/pages/tab/meetings/ntdc/index.html.

Currently, the committee is eyeing biotechnology and bioengineering, distributed intelligent networks and systems, digital intellectual property, future power and alternative energy technologies, biometrics and security, organic electronics, portable information devices, and earth observations.

Competitors in your field or industry can also give you clues to new directions. Read their TV and print ads, look at their Web sites, and monitor their business strategies and their investments in research and development. Determine if they are getting into areas that you'd like to pursue.

By continually upgrading your technical skills--through additional degrees, continuing education programs, short courses, and workshops--or by getting new certifications, you'll be ensuring that you will stay on the leading edge of technology. Some of you may already be on a management track, and would benefit from, for example, a new certification program for engineering managers called Engineering Management Certification International. The program, offered by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, focuses on experience gained in managing engineering projects.

The point of all this effort is to help you actively and continually manage your career from graduation to retirement. Recently, I spoke at the ASME Young Engineers Forum about the importance of managing one's career from the outset. In technology, things change rapidly, so at any given time you can look ahead at best only three to five years to have a useful window on what options to pursue. And, in my career, I have been guided by the saying, "Follow your interests; don't follow the dollar."

In any case, as you manage your career, you always have three options:

Stay and grow in your current position and company.

Make a lateral move into another part of your company or into another company in your same field.

Find an opportunity in a different technical field or, in the extreme, make a career change.

There is always an opportunity to grow in your position, even if you're not satisfied with some conditions there, by learning new skills and by seeking greater work responsibilities. Don't look down on making a lateral move--even though some advise against it--because it can be a great opportunity to find a greener pasture of more interesting work.

Considering a midcareer change is the most difficult option, but it may be the right one for you if you feel very dissatisfied with your current track, if you find something much more interesting and appealing, and--the biggest if--if you have the qualifications and ability to succeed in the other field. This means that you must have, or get, the appropriate education, certification, and experience and have sufficient transferable skills (like the ability to work well with people and processes) to carry you through.

No one says that managing your career will be easy--certainly not in the fast-changing technology world. But if you want to be happier in your work, keep your eyes open, make sure your skills are up to date, be alert to opportunities in your field, and anticipate the need to make a move. And then take action!

About the Author

Consulting editor CARL SELINGER, an aviation and transportation engineering consultant in Bloomfield, N.J., has given his seminar on the soft, nontechnical skills, "Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School," throughout the United States. His book by the same title has been published by Wiley/IEEE Press. For more information, go to http://www.carlselinger.com.

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