Despite an ever-growing skills shortage affecting engineers of all types globally, engineers who started their careers in the 1990s or earlier could find themselves forced into early retirement or self-employment if they end up between jobs. The economist Fritz Machlup coined the term “half-life of knowledge” in 1962 to describe the time it takes for half of the technical knowledge in a particular domain to be superseded by the next generation.
But can this really be used to put electrical engineers who have been working and learning throughout their careers out of the game once they their expected prime? Sadly, it seems that this is often the case.
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Ageism and Engineers
Ageism is a massive issue in virtually every industry, not just electrical engineering. Not only can having more experience stop you getting a new job in the first place, but if you’re on a higher pay grade, you could easily find yourself first to the chopping block in an economic downturn or company restructuring.
While it varies around the world, in many countries, ageism is just as illegal as sexism or racism. But at the end of the day, your resumé can potentially reveal how old you are by the content – the dates you graduated with your degree(s), when you started your first job, the length of your last employment.
I’ve lost count of the number of highly-skilled technology professionals (not just engineers) who are forced to either go it alone as self-employed consultants, are faced with unexpectedly long gaps between jobs, or end up taking early retirement. While these situations are incredibly far less than ideal, acknowledging that they are a possibility makes being proactive a priority.
Lifelong learning is something that is often touted as essential in pretty much every profession. Yet, employers sometimes seem to forget that anyone who is genuinely excited by engineering as a profession will spend time regularly keeping themselves abreast of new developments, especially in a constantly fluctuating and evolving industry like engineering.
Why are many companies turning towards younger, less experienced engineers in their hiring process? And how do established engineers maintain the value of their skill set when considering the next steps in their career?
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Seasoned Engineers vs. Recent Graduates
Many employers also prefer to fill positions with younger, more newly qualified personnel in a misguided attempt to cut their wage bill — or because they think it’s easier to ‘mould’ younger, less experienced employees.
Some managers feel awkward hiring people who are older and more experienced than they are, and many newer technology companies feel that younger staff present as more ‘with it' and up to date on the latest technologies — and that they contribute to a more involved or progressive company culture.
Fallout from these sorts of attitudes cause a bevy of different problems:
Lack of Practical Experience
Less experienced workers might be cheaper to hire, but they’re often less productive, especially when first qualified. A loss of practical engineering skills — a gradual loss of ‘tricks of the trade’ — can have a disastrous domino effect.
When younger engineers with less practical knowledge design a product, sometimes their design won’t be as easy to manufacture, simply because they don’t have the practical knowledge. They are less likely to realise that assembling something ‘this way’ rather than ‘that way’ takes far less time, ask the right hardware or software questions, or prevent manufacturing errors from occurring at crucial steps.
Employers need to put more resources into training their younger employees, but there is wisdom in hiring experienced employees with decades of knowledge rather than relying on software. Companies might find themselves forced to pay for formal training to teach their workers skills they might just as easily have picked up if there were greater numbers of experienced staff involved.
Soft Skill Shortcomings
A lack of soft skills that can only be learned by experience are a natural shortcoming of freshly graduated engineers. Simple things like project organisation, efficient working practice, and collaborative teamwork come with practice and are best learned through trial and error.
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Strategies for Staying Relevant
So, despite these obvious shortcomings by new engineers, what can older, more established engineers do to make sure they aren’t pushed aside by fresher faces? And what can employers do to avoid the loss of valuable skills from years of experience?
Intentionally Continue Your Professional Development
These days, it’s important to be able to prove that you have knowledge. If you work for yourself or for a smaller firm without much Continuing Professional Development (CPD) provision, it’s important to ask that time and/or funds be set aside to update and refresh engineering knowledge for all staff, no matter how experienced.
It’s estimated that for an electrical engineer to keep their knowledge up to date, they need to invest around 5 hours per week, 48 weeks of the year, to learning. That’s a lot of hours over the course of an average career, but given the cost of hiring inexperienced staff and training them, it still is more beneficial economically than the practice of letting older engineers fall by the wayside.
Silicon Valley is notorious for being full of youthful tech workers, but there’s still a lot of demand for more experienced staff in the right companies. This can be extrapolated to electrical engineers – if you’re between jobs and over 40, it’s likely better to skip applications to brand new start-ups. Instead, concentrate your job-hunting efforts on larger, more established companies that will truly appreciate the time and knowledge you’ve gained over the course of your career.
Keep Your CV Young
At least one US-based senior engineer found out that though this didn’t necessarily get him job offers, shaving a few decades off of his resumé at least got him interviews. At the end of the day, it’s been shown that 100% of job offers are preceded by an interview, so it’s a start. Include any patents you may have, degrees you’ve earned, and your most recent jobs within the last 10-15 years.
The F***-Off Fund
In these uncertain times, it’s advisable for everyone to have a ‘f***-off fund’. This advice isn’t just privy to millennials. If the economy stumbles and you end up between jobs as an older engineer, having the money to move to a new area, update your knowledge, or start your own consultancy could make a significant difference for your lifestyle and your career.
Don't Make Assumptions
If you’re an older engineer looking for work, don't immediately assume that your skills aren't a good fit for a certain position. Conversely, if you’re a hiring manager looking to fill a position that requires the perfect combination of serious leadership and industry skills, don’t rule out an engineer that might seem outdated on paper.
Where to Go From Here
The answer to the original question this article asks is as follows: Yes, older electrical engineers that qualified some time ago could be at a disadvantage when looking for looking for work. Luckily, there are a few simple steps you can take to make this less of an issue. Staying proactive in your professional development and working knowledge is the foundation for remaining relevant in a constantly evolving industry.