A blueprint for life

April 1, 2000
In the late 1970s, while working as a co-op student at a steel mill, I met a man who gave me some valuable advice

In the late 1970s, while working as a co-op student at a steel mill, I met a man who gave me some valuable advice.

He was a draftsman, probably in his early 70s, and just one day away from retiring. We talked only a few minutes, but what he said still echoes in my mind some 20 years later.

As he packed his humble belongings in a cardboard box, he told me he had been with the company his entire career. Then he looked at me and in a fatherly sort of way said, “Don't you do that.”

When I was your age, he explained, we were told to stay with one company and, in turn, the company would take care of us. We were afraid to change jobs because we thought we’d end up with nothing. Well this is what I ended up with, he said, as he motioned to the box he’d been filling with worn-out drafting tools and sentimental trinkets. We both laughed.

If you want to get ahead, he continued, you have to move around. You have to change jobs at least four or five times, or you’re going to get stuck in a rut like me. With that we exchanged pleasantries, shook hands, and I was on my way. I never saw him again.

What got me thinking about him was something I read the other day. It was a paper recently published by the National Society of Professional Engineers, and it offered the following advice:

“In addition to developing personal attributes which will help them grow, engineers must expect that upward mobility, or in some cases even continued employment, will require job changes, job retraining, or even career changes. As employers assume a less paternalistic role, engineers must begin early in their careers to prepare for a future which entails half a dozen or more internal or external job changes.”

Sound familiar? It’s the same thing the draftsman told me the day before he retired. And whether you’re hearing it for the first time or the hundredth time, it’s something you need to seriously consider.

Unfortunately, for many of us, the notion of a job or career change can be so unsettling that we’d rather not think about it. So we go on with what we’re doing, sinking further into the rut. Meanwhile, we grow more unsatisfied, lowering our self-worth to that determined by circumstances beyond our control.

If you find yourself on this path, remember the advice of the draftsman. If that doesn’t prompt you into action, put your head in the sand and wait about 20 years. Then go find a young, impressionable engineer and tell him what you wish you would have done when you were his age. I promise he’ll be forever grateful.

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