Improving your career prospects

Materials World magazine
4 Nov 2014

Simon Frost speaks to three senior professionals for advice on how to build a CV that opens all the right doors.

It’s a given that over the course of your career, your CV will boast more experience with time. But the scope and scale of this development varies wildly depending on what you do apart from simply turning up – the question is, how can you best boost your credentials?  


A foot in the door

Even industry first-timers can get a head start, as Neil Glover, Chief of Materials at Rolls-Royce, explains. ‘We get a huge number of applicants, so something that makes a CV stand out is critical. We want a good level of educational background from the start, but on top of that, we want people to display proven enthusiasm and commitment, which could be demonstrated by relevant work experience, project work, awards, publications and community activities.’

Sarah Woodward, Senior Engineering Manager at Honeywell Aerospace, was Vice President of the Michigan Materials Society while at university. ‘Through that society,’ she says, ‘I was linked with the University of Michigan alumni, who helped provide recommendations for my first job after graduation. This foot in the door to the aerospace industry was incredibly important in broadening my experience and preparing me for more challenging roles.’

Part of a team

Mike Hicks, Head of Materials Engineering at Rolls-Royce, points out another consideration of the hiring process at his company. ‘We like to see some evidence of teamwork, because working in a company is a team activity and having interpersonal skills is vital. Being involved in sports or something like Scouts, for example, is a great way for young people to demonstrate experience in a team.’

Woodward recognises that building team relationships has been an essential aspect of her own career development. ‘I can’t overstate the value of building working relationships. Whenever I enter a new role, I try to do some strategic stakeholder mapping and determine who my key contacts should be, and then develop a good relationship with them. This type of thinking should be part of anyone’s plan and it can be useful at any time as a sanity check to see where you can improve,’ she says.

Voluntary work experience and internships are another way to separate candidates from the competition. Hicks explains, ‘A lot of the younger applicants who are successful have worked in various businesses doing things such as summer internships. That differentiates them, because it shows that rather than just having three or four years of academic experience, they’ve actually done something in an industrial setting.’

First steps

So, what should employees do once they’ve made it onto the first rung of the ladder? Hicks believes that the initial years of a career are all about building your standing as a professional. ‘Something we encourage all our new staff to do is to get a very good grounding. I would urge anybody to stay in his or her particular discipline for the first three or four years to gain credibility among their peer group and have a solid platform on which to build. The majority of people who rise to more senior positions start off by building that very stable foundation.’
Glover views these initial years as a unique period of learning. ‘You have to take maximum advantage of all the learning that is offered to you in those early years.’ He advises, ‘Ask questions about the work you’re doing – rather than just executing the element of the task you’ve been assigned, make sure you take the time to understand the context in which that task is being done. Why does it matter? How is the data going to be used? The opportunities that you encounter in this period to expand your knowledge won’t necessarily reoccur.’

Chartered territory

There are a number of ways you can use your institute as a means of improving your CV – and chartership, Hicks explains, is something companies value highly. ‘We take development towards chartership extremely seriously at Rolls-Royce, through all relevant institutes. It’s so important, that we pay our employees’ fees. It’s great in terms of broadening the individual by covering a portfolio of skills leading up to chartership. It’s an integral part of our staff development.’ Glover adds, ‘We encourage all of our employees to be active institute members centrally and also to participate in local societies. It’s invaluable to take part in committees, conferences and events to engage with the wider community and also gain experience in organising events.’

Widen out or home in

Mike Hicks believes that engineers have a choice after their initial grounding period of whether to develop further as either a specialist or a generalist. ‘It’s important that you make the right career choice based on which route you want to follow and then equip yourself to challenge for those roles. Think about the requirements of the roles you want to move towards, and seek training and experience to equip yourself to challenge for them in the future. If you want to go down a specialist route, you have to start going deeper into a particular subject to develop your expertise through special training and research conferences. The generalist route will require you to broaden out your expertise much more significantly and gain general management skills.’

The big job

When it comes to the senior positions, Woodward, Hicks and Glover all agree that a range of experience is essential. ‘You don’t become a senior leader by taking a stovepipe path,’ says Hicks, ‘you have to move around different roles within a section.’

Glover’s current position is a heavily technical management role, delivering strategies for Rolls-Royce’s R&D programme. His varied career at the company has seen him move into diverse roles throughout the product lifecycle, which have equipped him with both an extensive practical understanding and experience of how the business works. ‘From my career point of view, building a broad base both technically and in a range of roles in the materials group has been critical.’

Sarah Woodward similarly emphasises her wide familiarity in the industry, ‘When I apply for roles now, I highlight my broad experiences. I have worked everywhere from a small company where I was often helping on the shop floor and very close to the manufacturing process, to design work where I was able to work with cross-functional and global teams on design issues, to running my own business, where I was able to travel the world and work in complete autonomy.’

Above and beyond

It all boils down to something quite simple. Hicks says, ‘We might say to our staff that there’s an opportunity to be secretary of a particular technical board that will give you a wider knowledge of the technology we’re working on in the company. It’s the person that comes forward for those opportunities that will stand out. Everyone does their day job – be willing to take on additional responsibilities.’