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New Directions: Is your maintenance career at the crossroads?


In a recent PEM reader panel survey, almost two-thirds of respondents told us they would like new jobs. Thirty-nine percent said they like their jobs, but are always looking for new opportunities. Seventeen percent want to improve their careers, but just can’t find the time to make it happen. Six percent of you said you don’t like your jobs at all.

Well, this issue of PEM is for those of you who are looking for a way to "re-engineer" your career. In the next few pages, we’ll give you some practical advice on how to climb that career ladder and make it all the way to the top.

So, you want to take the next step in your career. Maybe you’ve spent time in a plant as an engineer or working in maintenance and want a promotion. Or, perhaps you’re already a maintenance manager, but want to move into operations. Or maybe you’d like to try out a whole different field, such as marketing. What do you do? How do you get promoted or hired for one of those jobs? Many maintenance professionals find themselves at a dead end when it comes to getting ahead in their careers, and don’t know how to get started.

There are a lot of theories on personal and professional development. Sometimes, it might seem like the advice is endless, and it’s difficult to decide which advice you should follow.

Before you begin, it’s important to understand the direction your profession is going in. One emerging trend is for companies to outsource their maintenance needs. Outsourcing comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, but two of the most common practices are to outsource only things outside of the internal staff’s competencies, or to outsource the entire maintenance staff. In the first case, management decides on the staff’s core competency, such as maintaining production equipment in a manufacturing plant or material handling equipment in a warehouse or distribution center, and the rest is outsourced to one or many service contractors. In the latter case, all maintenance activities are turned over to a service contractor.

These types of arrangements are most popular in commercial operations, educational institutions and medical operations, but are quickly spreading to industrial operations.

Whether you work for a company or for an outsourcing firm, you will still need to gain broad exposure to all facets of operations.
Today’s maintenance organizations are mini-businesses, dealing with accounting, project management, security, safety, environmental issues, and human resources. The lean and mean organization does not have the support staff in place anymore. The plant professional needs to do it all.

Of course, a number of organizations are letting attrition or reductions in staff force their maintenance people to do more with less. Some companies eliminate the maintenance department altogether, delegating the various functions to other departments. On top of everything else, the maintenance professional must be adaptable, flexible and ready to act fast.

All of these changes in the profession mean you need to determine where you want to go before making any sort of career decision. First, you need to take stock of your career. What have you done during your career to meet the requirements of the next position? Is education required? Have you had previous experience, even in a temporary assignment, or outside of your current position? Is certification or a license required? And, finally, when do you want to be in a new position? Is this move going to be accomplished quickly, within six months to one year, or will it take more planning and execution? Once you’ve answered these questions, you’re ready to begin your search.

Experience preferred
One of the most significant pieces of career development, especially in the maintenance field, is experience. While experience comes in many forms and qualities, today’s companies are looking for people with broad-based experience, meaning a person has been exposed to many tasks within an organization. This gives the person exposure to the most departments and varieties of personnel possible.

To capitalize on a wide variety of job experience, you should remember to highlight your unique abilities. For example, an ability to train others, or develop training, can be very valuable. Discussing any successful projects, managed to rigid time and budget requirements, will also help you. Most importantly, a track record of reducing costs is a proven winner. There is nothing like showing a quick payback on the investment in your salary to make a potential employer take notice.

It’s also a good idea to broaden your experience by looking outside maintenance. Taking on projects, or working with task forces related to safety, environment and computers can be rewarding in many ways. In the short-term, working on such a project can break up the monotony of your current job. The project allows you to see new ideas and different processes. In the long run, a new project can help provide you a new career direction.

Making the grade
Another piece of the development puzzle is education. There are fewer and fewer jobs where an individual without a degree can advance. Many companies require two-year associate programs for their skilled technicians, and even more education for managers. Taking advantage of available schooling in your area is one way to beef up your education. The Internet provides opportunities for online learning as well. Many companies offer tuition reimbursement as long as the degree or course work relates to your job or a future job. For anyone seeking a position in higher levels of management, taking courses at the MBA level is a good idea. Similarly, enrolling in seminars or conferences to develop management skills is a great way to gain exposure to new techniques.

Management is learned two ways: in class, and in the real world. Most managers would say that the real world is the only true way management is learned, but exposure to a variety of tools in the classroom never hurts.

Certification or licensing may be required for some positions, or preferred for others. Many outsourcing companies are using certification to prove the competency of their staff. A number of certification courses require study or classwork up front, so there is a lot of exposure to new ideas during the process as well.

Having the certification can open doors not available to non-degreed individuals, since certification often takes into account your life experience as well as a college education. There are a number of excellent certification programs available through professional organizations, as well as the professional engineer license.

If you’ve got it, flaunt it
Don’t forget to highlight any professional recognition you might have received. This can take many forms, including bonuses, certificates and plaques. These can be from inside or outside your company. There is also personal recognition, which you can develop by benchmarking your group’s progress against peers. Benchmarking will also demonstrate your and your group’s capabilities to those interested in advancing your career.

Finally, remember to do a bit of self-promotion. Many maintenance people forget to be proud of what they do. The best way to give yourself some credit is to regularly document the results of your work objectively and highlight the positive. If you are a manager, remember to spread the praise and recognize all the individuals who helped. You don’t want to lose the respect of those who work for you by ignoring their achievements as part of your team.

Practice makes perfect
This piece of career development has a certain degree of risk, but can be highly effective: interview for another job. It can be either inside or outside your company. The interview process forces you to look at your strengths and weaknesses, and helps develop confidence. Interviewing outside of your organization will allow you to see that your experience is valuable. If you’ve made a commitment to interview, then you have committed to change. If nothing else, an interview might allow you to see how other companies operate, which can generate new ideas even if that job is not right for you.

Which career options will work best if you want a new job as soon as possible? Self-promotion, seminars, and internal programs and projects all work well to increase your speed. On the other hand, if you have a bit more time, investigate and pursue college education, certification, and even lateral promotions. Lateral moves provide you exposure to other parts of the operation while you await the big opportunity to move up.

There is always an element of risk involved when trying to make a career change, but then again, a maintenance professional is constantly working in a changing environment. Make the most of your current job, and it will be your best tool in gaining a professional advantage.


Brian Varley is the vice president of operations at Site Objectives, Inc., a facilities maintenance and consulting firm in Chicago.