How to boost your engineering career by learning the art of management

boost your engineering career

In the US, there are a number of industries and job roles that are predicted to grow exponentially over the next decade or so.

There is a growing need for nurses and healthcare professionals to help contend with an ageing population. At the same time, the demand for renewable energy sources will see those with expertise in manufacturing, installing and maintaining wind turbines, solar panels and other ‘green’ technologies flourish.

Information security and data scientists will also see an uptick in job vacancies as we continue to embrace an increasingly digital world, while the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has also identified architecture and engineers as major growth sectors for the years ahead.

This will create plenty of jobs and new opportunities for engineers, who by their very nature are technically savvy, practical and innovative people. However, not all ‘creatives’ make for great managers and leaders, and with the industry expanding in size, there will be a need for new engineering management figures to step up to the plate.

An engineering manager is, ideally, somebody who has plenty of experience working on a range of projects, and perhaps even has some leadership background as a team leader or foreman. They generally have an unerring eye for detail, are able to spot efficiency gains and create new products or processes, while utilizing the interpersonal skills that all good managers have.

It’s a job role that is ideal for an engineer looking to progress up the career ladder, or who feels that they can improve the company they can currently work for by becoming a respected and inspirational leader.

Not everybody is a born manager, it has to be said. However, there are ways that you can learn the skills and competencies that will help to guide you through your management career.

Changing times

It would be fair to say that the world of engineering is changing at a pace directly correlated with the digital revolution.

Today, engineering projects are embracing new and exciting technological developments, with artificial intelligence and machine learning just two of the modern-day elements that more and more jobs are incorporating.

So, an engineering firm needs to be proactive and adaptive in its approach, and this is something that will typically be instilled by management, whose role it is to ‘future-proof’ working practices to ensure that the company can continue to thrive in this ever-changing landscape.

Adapting to the digital world will likely see a whole new generation of engineers propelled into management roles, as they have been working with new technologies from the ground up – existing managers, of a slightly older vintage, may not have the skill set to lead projects using innovations that are outside of their comfort zone.

So, there will be opportunities for engineers who have considered the possibility of moving their careers on to the next level. Management brings with it greater degrees of pressure, for the most part, as often difficult decisions need to be made.

However, the perks of higher pay and bonuses help to make the move up the ladder worthwhile, while some managers also reveal heightened feelings of job satisfaction when a project goes according to plan and is completed on time and within budget.

Leveling up

So, how can you progress from engineering to engineering management?

You could lobby for a promotion at your current employer, building a case for why your previous experience and competencies make you the ideal candidate to progress into a leadership role.

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However, this assumes that such a position becomes available. What if the current management in your company are doing a good job? What if they are comfortable in their role (i.e., unlikely to leave anytime soon)? What if the firm you work for is looking to make cutbacks at the senior level?

Waiting for a promotion to come along could be time wasted – time that you could have spent preparing yourself for an engineering management position either in the company you work for now or elsewhere.

There are training/education courses available that can help you ascend into a leadership role. The online Master of Engineering Management degree, for example, is just one way that you can learn the skills and abilities of a managerial role without having to study full-time. This Engineering Management program delivers the holistic leadership and communication skills needed to manage other engineers and a cross-disciplinary team.

These courses are designed to work around your schedule, so you can learn, pick up a certified qualification, and show potential employers that you combine all the necessary facets to be a strong leader: you have experience in an engineering role, you understand the processes, and you have a theoretical background in the art of management.

By combining the theoretical with the practical, you can hit the ground running in a leadership role while retaining the respect of your colleagues.

What does an engineering manager do?

Given how complex many engineering projects are, how many people are involved in them, and the number of moving parts that need to be kept on top of, it’s no secret that strong management and leadership are vital to their success.

As an engineer yourself, you may have experienced good or bad management in the past, and these examples will help to feed into your own abilities as a leader if that is the path you wish to go down.

Engineering projects generally require the coordination of several different departments and a number of individual staff members, each bringing their own specialism to the table. For engineering work to be completed on deadline and within budget, a manager needs to oversee all of these different elements and ensure consistency throughout the timeline of a project.

You’ll already have the technical expertise in hand that enables you to add value to the project. You’ll perhaps be involved in the planning and design phase already, and as a manager, this process will be added to by the need for accurate scheduling, budgeting, cost management and delivery.

You may need to hire additional staff, so an idea of basic recruitment and HR principles is key, and those individuals may need to be trained in company rules and also some of the more technical aspects of their job.

Supervision of your team will play a key role in a project going without a hitch, as will effective coordination and quality monitoring – it will be your responsibility to sign off on the different elements of a build, for example, so you will need to be able to keep a calm, focused head under pressure.

As you may have experienced personally, no individual has more of an influence on an engineering job than the manager. The manager has to tie together all of the various elements and ensure that quality and accuracy are maintained throughout.

It’s not easy by any means, but engineering managers can reflect on the immense satisfaction of coordinating a seamless project that results in a job well done.

What benefits does engineering management bring?

Some of the most effective managers in any sector are those who have worked on the ‘shop floor’ – that is to say, those who have hands-on experience of what the average day is in the field of engineering.

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The least effective managers, by contrast, are those who have been brought in from different industries who don’t have the knowledge of the hardships and challenges facing engineers. And managers brought in straight from a college degree tend to have the hardest time of all in convincing their employees that they have the requisite competencies and understanding to create positive change within an organization.

So, the benefits of promoting from within speak for themselves, as do the advantages for you, as an individual, of learning management theories and principles that you can use as a signpost of your ambition and skill set.

Let’s stop to think about just some of the aspects of management you may be faced with. These include operations management, motivating and managing people, dealing with supply chain issues, irate clients, coming up with strategies and marketing ideas, keeping a close eye on your company’s books and financial records, and so on.

And that isn’t the complete list by any means. So, you can see how wide-ranging and complex the job of a manager is, and why learning some theoretical background – rather than being thrown straight in at the deep end – is an ideal starting point for prospective leaders.

By taking that step, you will be an asset to your firm immediately and bring your engineering expertise to the table combined with your managerial nous. You will be able to introduce efficiency gains, solve problems, think ‘leaner’ and ‘smarter’, and bring about a culture of positive change – all while considering the need for greener, more sustainable ways of working.

Having worked as an engineer, you may have already established relationships with your clients and customers, and understand how the supply chain in engineering works – being able to proactively pre-empt where there might be a kink or metaphorical fork in the road ahead.

You may have ideas on how your company can expand or diversify, and – all things considered – be better placed than anyone else to lead the engineering firm through choppy waters and into a brighter future.

When you think about it like that, the benefits of engineering management to a business in the sector are manifold and simply too important to miss out on.

What kind of manager will you be?

There’s so much research and writing out there about the different styles of management, with theories as to which is ‘best’ routinely available.

Perhaps the truth is that you should be true to yourself, and act naturally as a manager based upon your personality and a style you feel comfortable with. However, if you do want to explore different management styles, you’ll first want to decide where on the democratic vs autocratic spectrum you’ll sit.

Democratic managers are those who take the views of their colleagues on board, who open up the floor to new ideas and perspectives, and who lead as a nominated individual within the team, rather than as a domineering individual.

Autocratic managers, on the other hand, are individualistic in nature and take control of most (if not all) decision-making processes, without consulting with their team. This leadership style is for those who believe that they have the experience and aptitude to make the right calls, and who feel that taking on board the opinions of others can cloud their own judgment.

These are not two absolutes, and you can happily exist as a manager somewhere in between the two – at different times, you can utilize democratic and autocratic management depending on the situation.

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Your management style will dictate how much autonomy you hand to employees to make their own decisions on best practices. The strategist will create an overarching set of goals for their team, but leave it up to the individuals to determine how they set about achieving them. The autocrat, on the other hand, will impose strict rules and processes to ensure that their perception of ‘best practice’ is delivered.

Generally speaking, your employees will react better to the former style – they will feel empowered to do their job, and inspired to think outside of the box to deliver efficiency gains. However, some individuals enjoy working within the stricter parameters set out by the autocrat – many of us are ‘task orientated’, and are happy enough to do as we’re told.

Many engineers are by their very nature, innovative, inquisitive and ingenious, and as a manager, you will need to decide if you want to foster that spirit in your team, or ensure that individuals remain focused on the job in hand. Transformative managers are those who embrace change and try to push the envelope, creating gains for their firm by researching and experimenting with new processes and ideas.

Generally, employees thrive best when in these transformative environments as they feel motivated to think more broadly about their jobs and how to improve, but it’s worth remembering that attempts to innovate that fail can be costly mistakes – both in the time and money spent on them.

A key function that managers perform is interacting with their staff, trying to inspire them to work to the best of their abilities beyond simply offering them an economic reward, such as a pay rise. How can you convince your team of engineers to deliver their finest work day in, and day out?

The autocratic approach is something akin to the carrot-and-stick approach that you are perhaps already familiar with. Autocrats are often considered to be firm but fair, and they are willing to punish or reward their team where necessary.

A more laissez-faire approach essentially lets staff get on with their jobs with minimal input or interaction from their manager. It’s a risky strategy – if you give some people an inch, they take a mile, as the old adage goes. However, the psychology is that the vast majority of employees will act upon their innate sense of duty and work hard without their manager resorting to excessive motivational measures.

The transactional manager, meanwhile, essentially tries to ‘persuade’ their team to reach new heights by offering them the possibility of incentives when certain targets are met. These rewards can range from paid-for social evenings to bonus schemes and stock options, and these tangible outcomes for hard work and success are designed to spur on employees.

However, research suggests that the positive effect of transactional management can wear off over time, and eventually workers will want more, or greater, incentives simply to do their job.

This is simply a quick guide to some of the managerial styles and concepts that are out there, and if you are interested in learning more, there’s a lot of reading to be done on the subject.

For now, if there’s any point to be taken away from this section, it’s that you will need to create your own persona as a manager – your experience will help to dictate which style will get the best from the team of engineers at your disposal.

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