How to steer your career towards its peak

women interacting with her colleagues at meeting

By Jane Lowney, Associate Director, Engineering & Infrastructure at Robert Walters

In the hustle and bustle of architecture, construction, engineering and property jobs, it’s hard to step back and reflect on your own career. Deadlines loom. Projects demand attention. But if you don’t pause and think about where your career is heading, you may wake up one day to find yourself unsure of what to do next.

A new decade is a good prompt for us all to take stock of our careers and plan ahead. Many professionals who I work with find it helpful to think about their career in stages. To get the most out of each stage, it’s worthwhile to ask yourself some specific questions.

According to demographer Bernard Salt, Australians’ careers generally peak in their mid-40s. Census figures back that up, at least financially, showing that salaries typically rise during peoples’ 20s and 30s and peak around the age of 45. So, what should professionals in their first and second decade consider when career planning?

Planning the first decade of your career

After graduating, the initial years of your career are an information gathering opportunity. Your focus should be on finding out as much as you can about your industry, your profession and – importantly – yourself. Throughout the first few years, set time aside in your diary to think about what you like (and don’t like) about each job, and seek feedback from colleagues to clarify where your strengths lie. Your future career is likely to be a happy one when you find the sweet spot where your likes and your strengths overlap.

When you’re starting out, it’s easy to find yourself led down a certain career path by your employer. That can be a great thing, but don’t limit your field of vision to the place where you work, make sure you also see beyond the four walls of your employer’s workplace too. Seek out a mentor from another organisation and keep in regular contact with alumni from your university course to ask them what their jobs are like. Also attend events where you can learn about projects/developments in your profession and meet industry peers.

Additionally, I recommend you get into the habit of maintaining your external profile. The further you go in your career, the more your personal brand will count. You can make a good start by writing regular articles on LinkedIn about your professional learnings and observations. Also, get into the habit of connecting on LinkedIn after you meet industry peers at work and at events.

Planning the second decade of your career

Once you hit your mid-thirties you should be preparing for one of the most important decades of your entire career. Like it or not, you will hit your forties quickly. And that’s the age that Bernard Salt describes as being, “right slap bang in the middle of the toughest part of life, in many respects: peak career, peak kids, peak mortgage”. 

In the second decade of your career, your focus should be on readying your career for this challenging – yet productive – time in your life. This is usually when professionals in architecture, construction, engineering or property decide to either devote themselves to a technical specialism – or plot a path to senior management roles. Either way, my advice is to be bold and imagine your best-case scenario, then back yourself to make it a reality.

The good news for those who want to remain technical specialists is that, if you have 10+ years’ experience, you are a very valuable resource for employers. We receive lots of enquiries from hiring managers eager to hire seasoned professionals in various niche specialisms and salary growth can be a genuine prospect. If you want to pursue a career as a specialist, standing still is not an option. Find employers who will invest in your development and expose you to cutting edge projects. Be proactive about staying up-to-date on industry news and innovations; and keep tabs on your market value through a trusted recruitment consultant.

On the other hand, if you want to secure senior management (or even c-suite) roles in future, you can take several proactive steps to improve your chances. Start by considering the types of management roles that interest you. Look at the required skills – identify the gaps in your own knowledge – and make it your mission to close those gaps.

You could start by speaking with your line manager and expressing a willingness to move sideways, contribute to projects, accept secondments, or cover maternity leave in roles that will give you hands-on exposure to the management skills you haven’t yet mastered. You can also seek opportunities to build relationships with corporate leaders in your organisation; perhaps arranging a periodical catch up with the CFO, COO or CIO, to gain a better appreciation of the strategic issues they face. If you make yourself visible in this way, you’re much more likely to be tapped on the shoulder when management opportunities open up.

Managing your career

In a future Sourceable article, we’ll explore how to successfully steer your career in the mid-to-latter stages. In particular, we’ll focus on portfolio careers (an increasingly common path for seasoned professionals) as well as opportunities and challenges for those approaching the final decade of their working lives.

Contributed by: Jane Lowney is Associate Director, Engineering & Infrastructure at Robert Walters. She is a degree-qualified civil/structural engineer with industry and recruitment experience within the engineering sector. Passionate about diversity and inclusion in the engineering sector, Jane is an active participant in industry working groups and events to improve diversity and to encourage participation in STEM. She is also an active member of the Diversity In Infrastructure industry working group. In 2018 she was named Recruiter Of The Year in Australia’s RCSA Awards. Contact Jane via LinkedIn.