For Young Professionals, Mentors (and Fun) Are the Key
Thursday, 16 January 2014
By Duane Hyland, posted at 2:55 p.m EST
The Thursday morning plenary panel highlighted the vital importance of continuing education and professional development to career progress. Moderated the panel was Alton Romig, vice president, engineering and advanced systems, and “chief skunk,” Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. Also participating were Ed Hoffman, chief knowledge officer and director of APPEL, the Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership at NASA; Leland Nicolai, emeritus member, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics; David Radcliffe, head of engineering education and epistemology, and professor of engineering education, Purdue University; and Kate Stambaugh, space systems engineer, Johns Hopkins University/ Applied Physics Lab.
Panelists discussed the difficulties of keeping young professionals engaged in the aerospace profession, and of attracting students to it. “If you look at this larger issue of how onto attract talent,” said Romig, “in the last 20 years we have made tremendous efforts on K-12 and how you end up being able to track more kids going into engineering. More recently we have made efforts to make sure that the kids who start engineering, finish. But one area has gotten little attention, he said: “If you look at the stats…[the number of students who] finish engineering school and then start jobs and leave after five years is quite high. In my case, I don’t care if they leave Lockheed or go to Boeing…or Intel. But when…people leave the field and become financial advisors, run a restaurant, [or] give up on engineering, [that’s when] I care.” That trend, he said “is highest among females and minorities – and those are the fields that people will have to come from in coming years.”
For Hoffman, the keys to retaining young talent are found in “the four A’s: ability, attitude, assignment, alliances.” Several questions should be asked, he said: “Are you matching the person with the right abilities to the right jobs? Do those people make the necessary alliances – finding a mentor, bonding with peers, and so on - to help them move along? Are they seeking out assignments that challenge them? And do they have the right attitude about work – are they willing to listen, learn, take criticism professionally?” If you pay attention to those things, said Hoffman, you can ensure that the young person is on a track for success, with co-workers and mentors to help them along the way
For Nicolai, it all came down to fun. “If they are having fun they won’t leave; they leave when it’s not challenging, exciting or fun,” he said. “They will tell you they don’t respect management – this is a cop-out….If they are having fun, they are developing, they will give you 120 hours a week, they will think about it nonstop – but it hinges on [their] having fun.”
Stambaugh, the panel’s lone young professional, talked about the transformative power of a mentor, relating a story from her earliest days at Johns Hopkins: “The first time we met, he asked what I wanted to be when I grow up – he stopped my rote answer…and re-asked me ,‘What do you want to be when YOU grow up?’ He cared about me, not my goals, and I went off about other things. What do you want out of your career? That question made me know that I was the priority. And knowing that he cared about the career, our relationship became strong, and a real bond of trust developed.”
Hoffman told young professionals, “If you don’t like what’s going on and you think there’s something we need to be doing better – e-mail us, call us, but communicate with us what needs to change.” All of the panelists agreed that mentors can really make a young professional’s entry into and progress through a career field a lot less painful than it would be otherwise.
Stambaugh also counseled young professionals, especially women, to “make sure you sit at the table; you know, you enter a room and you see a center table with chairs, and then a bunch of chairs on the outside fringe. Be sure you are sitting at the table, do not be one of those on the fringe. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions; there are no stupid ones, and it shows you are engaged and eager to do and learn more.”
Romig urged companies to set aside small portions of funds for encouraging employees to dream up products for needs that might not yet be met. In doing so, he said, “you engage the employee and can help them better understand the entrepreneurial spirit of the American workplace.” Nicolai echoed Romig, stating “Go to the business developers, they always have money – let them know you want to develop something, see if they’ll give you a few hundred dollars for analysis or a demonstration – and then make what you want to make and see where it ends up.”
Each of the panelists ended the discussion by underlining the importance of mentors to career development; the need for younger workers to have fun; challenging and meaningful project experiences; and the need for management to find out what their younger employers need to thrive in their environment – only when these things happen, the panelists agreed, will the U.S. engineering pipeline be truly leak free.