The Recession-Proof Engineer

In March of 1970,Chemical & Engineering News(C&EN) presented the concept of a CORElator: certain scientists with the technical background to expand and apply their skill-sets across multiple disciplines. In 2003, then editor-in-chief of C&EN Madeline Jacobs revived the concept in the wake of the dot-com crash. She reintroduced the CORElator in a contemporary context as an individual who,

“related his or her core knowledge to other specialists and to the broad questions facing society. The challenges that faced humanity in 1970 were profound—and they are no less profound today.”

In the present day, scientists and engineers cut from this same CORElator cloth have once again come to the public forefront amidst the backdrop of a shaky (yet slowly recovering) economy. When work process efficiency and making-do with less has become a priority for all sectors of the engineering discipline and, more broadly, the business landscape altogether, this desired knowledge-diverse assemblage of an individual’s capabilities becomes highly sought-after. Such scientists are uniquely positioned to take their specific areas of expertise and relate them to the core of a business, overlapping commonalities that benefit multiple functions simultaneously. When challenged to do “more with less,” the engineering discipline is now rife with opportunity to produce a similar caliber of passionate, cross-functional individuals who grow to become indispensable to their respective organizations and fields of practice.

Are You Indispensable?
In his recent bookLinchpin: Are you Indispensable?, Seth Godin investigates what it takes for an individual to reach a status of becoming indispensable, or a “linchpin”—a person without whom the daily work of a firm or organization cannot afford to do without, oftentimes literally.

As an illustration, Godin shows what a linchpin may look like, using the example of wait-staff in a restaurant. To paraphrase Godin, consider the scenario where there are four wait-staff at a restaurant, all trained equally. Despite all of them being capable in their daily job description duties, one of them in particular also knows how to placate disgruntled customers, has the ability to troubleshoot the credit card system, knows which dishes take more time to prepare, and organizes the orders in a manner that supports the hectic kitchen staff, volunteers to cover colleagues’ scheduling conflicts, and possesses the uncanny memory to address all regular customers by name.

Which one of these four wait-staff has more job stability?

Which one, even in the event of restaurant closure, can take this track record to any other role in the service industry and demonstrate these same skills with the same level of excellence?

That person is Godin’s Linchpin.

When can linchpins, regardless of sectors of employment, really thrive as invaluable resources? Godin argues that that organizations will “reward and embrace someone of extraordinary depth of knowledge,” highlighting that such scenarios are created when knowledge is always needed at a “moment’s notice” or if that specific kind of knowledge is constantly required for the daily business of the firm; additionally, that individual is especially valuable when the alternative cost of bringing in a third-party consultant becomes prohibitively expensive.

This does not necessarily mean that going above and beyond one’s job description is the only key to becoming indispensible. Rather, it’s the consistency and excellence by which seemingly common tasks are performed, ever more strengthened by drawing on a wellspring of knowledge that overlaps other linked functions.

For engineers, this may be pursuing development opportunities beyond one’s traditional area of expertise—not to abandon ones strengths, but rather to supplement one’s role with new sources of strength through the interaction with correlated disciplines. These are individuals who then grow to demonstrate knowledge mastery deeply and broadly, execute thoroughly with detail as needed by the task at hand, work well cross-functionally, and deliver actions in a timely and accountable fashion, regardless if the customer is internal or external.

As Linchpins and CORElators, such performers leverage engineering skills, both technical and managerial ones, unique to their respective disciplines, and look for ways of redeploying them to other fields, customer types, and market segments. As a result, clients become served in a way that cannot be replicated anywhere else.

Such individuals become the most highly demanded instead of the least needed, regardless of economic circumstances.

Published April 19, 2010 by Austin Lin

Filed under: career development,

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