Q: I'm in my early 40's. I spent the first few years of my career in various technical positions and eventually, through job changes, progressed to middle management. While nothing is wrong with my current job, and in this economy I feel lucky to be employed, I have absolutely no opportunity for advancement. Because of this, I'd like to try changing careers so I can move higher on the corporate ladder. However, given that these days people are accepting positions below their qualifications just to have a job, is my goal of moving up even possible? How is it possible to get ahead in today's job market?
A: It sounds like you're caught in the "pig in the python" dilemma, where older workers are hanging on to their jobs because their 401Ks and other retirement resources have been decimated. Add to that widespread job cuts causing increased numbers of 30 - 45-year-olds to compete for fewer open positions, and the prospect of "climbing the corporate ladder" today looks bleak indeed.
But while all this may sound depressing, the truth is that there are still plenty of options for people who want to advance their careers. If you're willing to apply hard work and political savvy to outshine your competition, here are some suggestions that can get your career moving again:
- Look for a new project that will increase productivity, save money, uncover a new market, improve your performance, etc.
Taking on responsibility beyond your job description offers a learning experience and increases your visibility with upper-level management. Choose a project that excites you and has genuine benefit for the firm. Be sure to write a report summarizing your results and recommendations, and, if possible, present it orally to your vice president or the executive committee.
- Consider enrolling in continuing education courses or studying for an advanced degree.
Engineers are encouraged to keep up with state-of-the-art advances in their specialties. A masters degree in your company's field might give you the expertise required to move ahead of your fellow mid-managers.
- While an M.B.A. doesn't guarantee advancement, an engineering background and business degree continue to be a great combination for getting ahead.
If your supervisory experience has been in technical departments, some business courses could broaden your perspective and encourage your superiors to see you as someone who understands both the technical and bottom-line aspects of the business.
- If a promotion isn't possible in the near future, consider a lateral move.
Supervising another department can rekindle your enthusiasm, spark new learning, add valuable contacts and increase your management expertise. Japanese firms structure lateral moves into their training for top positions. For them, breadth of experience is as important as depth.
- If your company rejects an official lateral move, try creating a new job for yourself instead.
This can be a logical extension of the special project discussed earlier. Or, if you examine your company's structure, you may uncover a need that you can fulfill by developing a new department. Taking the lead on your own can pay dividends in the long run.
- Expand networks within your organization and industry.
This is an excellent technique for gaining visibility and discovering new opportunities. Increasing your in-house contacts can also improve your current job performance, since you can build cross-functional teams with other department heads. Industry contacts, professional organizations and networking sites such as LinkedIn can you access to openings outside your firm, and provide valuable information about how competitors are managing their business.
Of course, despite these efforts, you may find that your path to the top is still blocked. In this case, it's probably time to look for a job at a new company. Now is certainly not the best time to be in the market for a new job, but remember that since you're currently employed, you can afford to wait for the "right" position to come along. When conducting your job search, try targeting small to midsize companies – these are the most likely to offer you "room to grow" and solid advancement opportunities.