If you want to move into business from engineering, or if you dream of launching your own engineering start-up, what steps should you be taking to make it happen? Gone are the days when everybody grew up, learned a trade and stuck with it for life. New educational opportunities have combined with a new approach to self-development to create a world in which switching careers is a real possibility, and one that often leads to success. Lots of people make this particular jump every year, and you might be surprised by just how well some of them do as a result.
Moving into business isn’t easy, and there are a lot of things that you will need to consider. You may have to add to your education, and you may need to spend a lot of time building up contacts, but don’t let that deter you. It all begins with little things that you can start doing today: identifying the opportunities that are out there, getting your own priorities in order and working out what you can bring to the table.
Discover the business opportunities within engineering
Many engineers who find themselves drawn to the world of business fail to recognize how many opportunities there are to undertake this type of work while remaining within the engineering field. Every engineering company needs administrators and people to look after tasks like financial management and human resources management. It’s difficult to work in sales or marketing for engineering projects without having in-depth knowledge of the sector, especially where the target customers are other companies, so there are opportunities in these areas as well.
Even if you’re keen to move out of the sector, looking for a position like this can be a good idea in the first instance, because it gives you an opportunity to build up your business acumen – and your résumé – while still playing you your strengths. It means that when you are ready to make your next move, it won’t be as much of a leap, and you’ll already have the experience to demonstrate that you know what you’re doing.
There is also, of course, the option of starting up your own business within the engineering sector, and again, this can be advantageous as either a short-term or long-term move, though you may not be able to tell which it will be at the outset. If you choose to take this route, your local city hall can let you know about the support services that may be available to you, which often include locally based short training courses to help you get going, along with networking sessions and various forms of financial assistance.
Explore your wider options
Looking beyond engineering, it’s worth thinking about the sectors in which your background is most likely to make a positive impression – and these are more diverse than you might realize. For instance, few people see a direct connection between engineering and finance, yet engineers often do very well in that sector. As a result, finance companies see a background in engineering as a potential asset, increasing the chances of you being welcomed into a role that you will ultimately find very fulfilling.
Other sectors are more obvious – there are always opportunities within architecture and construction, for instance, as they require a lot of the same types of knowledge and ways of thinking. Sectors like fashion and pharmaceuticals may seem less likely but make use of a lot of the same principles that underlie specific engineering disciplines. You can also consider moving into an area of business, where you can make an immediate good impression by bringing your past experience to bear.
In establishing the area you should move into, it’s also important to think about the wider circumstances of your employment and how well that fits with what you want out of life. For instance, if your ambitions are driven by a desire to get to the top and make a good deal of money, it’s most likely that the private sector will be the place for you. If job security is particularly important or if you have a strong commitment to your country or local area, the public sector or a public-private partnership might be a better fit. If you’ve already been successful in your engineering career and now feel that it’s time to give something back, there are always opportunities in the non-profit sector.
Be clear on your long-term goals
Before you settle on the direction of your job search, it’s a good idea to take some time to think about what’s really important to you in the long term. This is particularly important if you’re seeking to leave engineering because you’re unhappy there, because that sort of feeling can lead to impulsive decision making that won’t necessarily leave you any happier. It’s easy to end up in the wrong place if you’re not looking further than the next five years.
Part of this is about valuing yourself. If you’re making a mid-career switch, you might initially feel quite lost in your new field and be grateful for any offer you can get. Employers in that field, however, are likely to be looking at you rather differently, recognizing that you’re an experienced professional and seeing a lot of positive potential in the knowledge and skills that you can bring from your previous role. This means that you don’t have to accept the first position to come your way but can look for something that genuinely suits you.
Long-term considerations are likely to include things like the level of seniority you can reach, the salary you could earn and the hours you will likely to be expected to work. You might also consider what’s likely to happen if you want to move from that employer to another one, or if you would ultimately like to set up your own business or work as a consultant. Finally, you’ll need to factor in personal considerations such as whether or not you plan to have children and how that could impact your schedule, and whether or not you are likely to need to care for your parents when they get old.
Recognise your strengths
The great thing about moving from engineering into business is that the two disciplines require many of the same personal qualities. Indeed, this is why businesses often make it a matter of policy to recruit engineering graduates. At the core of both fields is a need to be a highly organized, systematic thinker. You will need to be focused and diligent, always checking your work carefully to avoid mistakes. You’ll also need to be a good problem solver. Finding enjoyment in solving puzzles is a characteristic that makes both these areas of work a lot more fun.
While most businesses have relatively little difficulty in finding staff who can handle administrative and communications-focused tasks, finding people who are fully numerate and confident about tasks involving numbers is a lot more challenging – but if you work in engineering, that’s an area where you will have to know your stuff. It doesn’t just make you appealing to finance departments. It’s something that matters in any area where numerical data need to be analysed, such as market research. It also means that employers will be more confident about trusting you to take on complex tasks with computers.
Depending on the area of engineering in which you have worked, you are also likely to have additional talents, such as an ability to think easily in three dimensions (useful for other types of data modeling) and a good instinct for where it is and isn’t wise to take short cuts. All of these are qualities that can contribute to getting you a long way in the business world.
Identify transferable skills
Along with your talents, you are likely to possess a number of skills that can transfer very well to other disciplines and be a significant asset in business. Again, it’s worth taking the time to think about what these are and how you can pitch them so that if potential employers are uncertain, you won’t have to hesitate before explaining exactly how advantageous taking you on could be.
One skill for which engineers tend to be particularly sought after is project management. The chances are that if you’ve reached a stage where you’re ready to change careers, you’ve already been in charge of quite a few projects, whether working independently or (better still) with a team. You’ll have had to deal with budgeting, time allocation and human resources management within this context, and you may also have been involved in client negotiation and either developed pitches or identified ways of working from them. Experience of this sort is extremely valuable in business, so make sure that you mention examples of it when you start sending out applications to potential employers.
Most engineers also have experience in research and data analysis, which can be incredibly useful in business. Financial savvy is one thing, but being comfortable with spreadsheets and databases, especially at an advanced level, is very attractive to employers. Make sure that you’re in a position to explain not only which systems and tools you are familiar with but also how your background makes it easy for you to adapt to new ones.
Build up your qualifications
No matter what you’ve learned during your earlier career, it is obviously much easier to find well paid employment in business if you also have relevant qualifications. The Kettering online MBA is a great way to get all the basics covered in one package. Most importantly, it gives you the breadth of understanding that will make it possible for you to hit the ground running in any business administration role.
Online education in business is particularly helpful when you hope to transfer from an established career, because it means that you won’t need to leave your present job or even renegotiate your hours in order to find the time for study. If you prefer to, you can keep your new career plans entirely secret until you’re ready to make the leap. You will need to make a serious commitment to your program and be willing to work hard, but with most such courses, you will be free to arrange your hours around your existing commitments.
If you choose to pursue a business career within engineering, you may be able to persuade your employer – or a new employer – to give you paid time off or even help you finance your course. This will usually be in exchange for an agreement to continue working for them (potentially in a different role) for an agreed period of time so that they get to reap the benefits of your growing skill set.
Build up your contacts
The biggest disadvantage that mid-life career changers face lies not in a lack or relevant ability or skill but, rather, in a lack of contacts. As everyone says, who you know is at least as important as what you know, so it’s never too early to start expanding your networks and forging connections with successful individuals in the business world.
The great thing about this is that these days, networking is easier than ever. Using platforms like LinkedIn, you can quickly identify the people you already know who might have useful connections and start asking for introductions. Look out for situations in which influential business people might benefit from your expertise and be ready to give them a little something for free in order to make a positive impression. Casually swap details and don’t push too hard straight away, but stick around on the periphery of their circles so that they become familiar with who you are – then don’t be shy about pitching to them at the point where they might be useful.
Even where you don’t have a shared contact, you can arrange to bump into people by attending the same events. A lot of prominent business people do philanthropic work, so look for opportunities to attend charity events or similar gatherings where they will be present. Even if you don’t get a good opportunity to speak to them, you are likely to make other useful contacts there. Don’t be shy about putting yourself forward, and if it feels awkward to begin with, keep in mind that it will get easier with practice. Most importantly, try to take a genuine interest in the people you speak to and give them the chance to talk about themselves – it’s often a more effective way of forging a bond than simply focusing the conversation on who you are and what you can offer.
Identify job opportunities
Once you’ve established how you want to move forward, honed your skills and qualifications and built up contacts who can help you, the next step is looking out for opportunities to make the leap into your new career. There are a number of ways you can go about this. The first and most obvious, setting up your own business, is too large a topic to go into in depth in this article (though everything covered here will help you with it), but suffice to say that just like looking for employment, it’s something that you can’t afford to do haphazardly. You will need to choose the right angle and the right moment and have all your ducks in a row before starting your own business. Don’t hesitate forever and get stuck, but do exercise caution.
If you’re looking for the opportunity to work for someone else, you can ask your contacts to make you aware of suitable opportunities that may be available, you can look through the relevant job boards or journals or you can turn to professional recruitment agencies and let them know what sort of roles you’re looking for. You can also attend job fairs or apply for recruitment schemes with big companies that like to recruit and train large numbers of staff at once. You may be most familiar with these as they apply to graduates, but they exist at senior levels as well.
Bear in mind that however you approach sourcing you new role, you will have something unusual to bring to it, and that will intrigue people. Many employers are drawn to the idea of bringing in people from different career backgrounds because they understand that you’re looking for the opportunity to do something that really inspires you, and they can see your commitment from the effort with which you’ve made to get there. For that reason, you should never downplay your engineering background or feel shy about not having known that you wanted a business career from the outset.
Businesses thrive on creativity and new ideas, so if everybody came into them through the same routes, they would struggle. Coming from engineering, you will find yourself with no shortage of opportunities. The question is, do you have the impetus to pursue them? If the answer is yes, why not begin your journey today?