Engineer to Leader
"Imagine engineers and technical managers who are as effective with people as they are with technology."

STCerri International E-zine/Newsletter

#23: February 9, 2009

The Young Are Restless!

I just returned from teaching a management, leadership, and communication class at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the Engineering Department's Technology Management Program.  It was a great class.  Even fantastic!

Some discussions occurred in the class this weekend that have been running around in my head since then and I think I've finally sorted them out. 

I felt a little conflicted about what was said and what I said in return and I think now I know what I would have said if I had had more time to think about it.

Read on if you're curious.

Enjoy and be well,

Steven Cerri

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"Young People Want Everything Now!"
Is it a bad rap?
Over the course of the last several years of consulting, coaching, and training, I've heard managers and training departments in corporations complain about how young people don't want to wait for their career advancement.

They want to get pay raises after 6 months.  They want to be managers 1 year after graduating from college.  They don't want to work 5, 6, or 7 years in one position to earn the "right" to be promoted to the next career level.

I've not only heard this complaint from managers and executives in corporations, I've also read it in magazines and in books.  And I've heard it in my coaching sessions with the young engineers that I coach.

This last weekend, in my class I heard it again.  One young person said that after joining a company, they found that they were given more and more work, and working longer and longer hours.  They were also doing the same work as others who were getting paid much more and who had been with the company many more years.

When this person asked for a raise, the manager said "No".  The person subsequently left the company.

Another young person told me that even though they had not yet graduated from college (they would soon) and even though they had been an intern with a large company for several summers, they wanted to be a manager upon graduation.  They didn't want to wait the seemingly standard period before promotion to management...7 years as an engineer.

I recently coached a young engineer who had been out of college three years and was tired of doing "boring engineering".  This person wanted to be promoted to management and wanted me to suggest the right approach to make it happen... now!

Equal pay for equal work.
For most of my career I have believed that equal pay should be given for equal work.  Although, during my career, I was usually focused on equal pay for women who were doing work equivalent to that of men, my first response to young people who want equal pay for equal work has been to agree with the young people.

And yet, this weekend, when I heard my students talking about their perceptions, their expectations, and their experiences, while I initially responded that it was reasonable to expect equal pay for equal work, on the way home, what I had said just didn't seem to sit well with me.

Did I really believe that equal pay for equal work was always the correct yard-stick?  My head said "yes", but my gut said "no".  I felt that it was more complicated than that.

Here's my story and I'm sticking to it!
Here is the conclusion I've come to.  If you are a manager I'm going to give you some suggestions regarding how to talk to your young engineers.  If you are a young engineer I'm going to give you a new way of thinking about your career.  And if you are in my class at UCSB, this is an expanded answer to what I said in class.

It all began a few decades back, when the baby boomers had children. 

You see, when the baby boomers began their careers, most of them began as "employees" of companies.  They even expected to stay employees for most of their career.  They expected to get health benefits, paid vacations, and even fixed benefit retirement plans.  AND they expected to "work their way" up the organization.

You see, "in those days", when an organization hired an employee there was an unwritten agreement that the company would do it's best to keep the employee.  That might mean that you might be moved around a little and that you'd do jobs you might not be perfect for, but in return, you'd do the work, you'd gain experience and that experience would actually come in handy over the long haul because you'd be even more flexible and capable of doing other jobs.

This experience was valuable because you got to "see" all the different things the company could do with you and all the things you could do for the company.

Ultimately, you knew so much about what the company and employees could do that you were given the position of "manager".  There was indeed value to spending "time in the trenches".  Experience counted for something.

And then along came... technology.
The last generation to feel this way and to have this unspoken agreement with the company was the baby boomer generation.

With their children everything began to change.  And it wasn't due to the baby boomers and it wasn't due to their children.  The catalyst for the next big change came from technology.

You see, technology began to put a lot of the "organization" into the hands of individuals.  For baby boomers there were secretaries who wrote memos.  For their children, they wrote their own memos.

For baby boomers there were finance people who made spreadsheets, by hand, but the children of baby boomers made their own spreadsheets on their computers.

And so it went, on and on.

The upshot of this gigantic shift was that work became something that could be "packaged" into much smaller and smaller, quantifiable packets.

With the emergence of the global economy this trend only accelerated. Now we could "farm out" tasks to anybody who had a computer or a terminal or whatever equipment was needed.

Tasks and work became something that people anywhere in the world, site unseen, could do.

At this point, equal pay for equal work took on a very new meaning.  If I could pack my task into a tight, neat package, and define it well enough, I could send it to a variety of workers and now experience wouldn't matter.  The only question that mattered would be, "Can they do the job?".

Experience didn't really matter.  Knowing who was doing the work didn't even matter.  Do the job; get paid. 

It didn't matter if the person doing the work was a 12-year-old kid working in her bedroom after her parents thought she was asleep.  It didn't matter if the person was a struggling mother in Bulgaria who wrote code while her husband worked in the factories.  And it didn't matter if the person was a 100-year-old man in the mountains bidding on software projects.

Experience just didn't matter... only competence at doing the job at hand.

Thus emerged the profound and newly defined category of "contract worker".

But not the contract worker of old.  But the contract worker who was proud to be a contract worker.  The contract worker who was told they could be "independent of the man" (i.e., the corporate boss).

The flip side of course is that if you are not beholding to the corporation, then the corporation doesn't owe the contract worker anything in return.  So health benefits don't exist for the contract worker.  Nor does retirement funding.  Nor does a 60-day notification of termination.

So where do we go from here?
So where does this lead us?  Here is what has happened.  Corporations and baby boomers and older employees still accept that companies hire "employees" and when you are an employee, experience matters.  Time in the "trenches" is worth something.

The children of baby boomers and all those children right up to those born today, have been raised, without any of us or them realizing it, to believe that contract labor is the way all people are being judged.

A baseball player who is really good gets paid millions regardless of age.  A college or even high school basketball player doesn't have to finish college to get millions in salary.  A college football player doesn't have to finish college to get millions in salary as well.

Everywhere in our environment there are examples that speak to the idea that experience doesn't matter, only performance matters.

Here comes the class!
So now we've got young people who have been raised on "performance matters".  Experience doesn't matter.  Time in the trenches doesn't matter.

These young people are entering a "corporate" and business structure (in most, but not all, cases) where performance is only part of the equation of success.  Flexibility is also important.  Experience is also important.  Time in the trenches is important.  The ability to understand "history" of the organization is important.

Is it any wonder that we have a clash?  Not from where I sit.

So what is the answer.
Here is what I would tell managers and what I would tell young engineers who are impatient.

To the managers:  Stop thinking that young people are arrogant.  You, we, were the ones who created the environment they grew up in.  And it is that environment that conditioned them to believe that only performance determines what is important.  It is us who created an environment that taught them that we can pay $15,000,000 per year to an athlete who has no more than two years of college... just because his performance is exceptional.

So talk to your young direct reports.  Get their opinions.  Talk to them about the people around them, and what they have contributed to the organization over the years they have worked their way up the organizational ladder.  They'll listen if you talk to them in a way that makes sense.  They won't listen to you, (nor would I) if you call them arrogant.

To the young engineers:  Understand that there is a contradiction in your expectations (driven by your upbringing) and the environment in which you expect to achieve those expectations (the corporate world).

The corporate world isn't going to change to accommodate your expectations.  Get that loud and clear.  So you have three choices.

Choice #1:  If you stay in the corporate world, make your desires known, respectfully, be patient, do good work, and work your way up the organization.  That's it.  If you stay in the corporate world, you are going to have to play by the corporate rules... until you get to the top and then you can change the rules.  Until then, you'll be playing by someone else's rules.... get over it.

Choice #2:  Migrate to smaller businesses or maybe even start-ups.  Small businesses and start-ups haven't got the luxury of "time in the trenches".  They pay for performance, NOW.  So one choice is to work for a small company where they can promote you rapidly because they have to.

Choice #3:  Be a contract employee/consultant.  You can come and go as you please.  You'll get paid for performance and you'll be flying without a safety net... but these days the safety net is pretty ragged anyway.

The key to which of these you choose is... don't listen to anyone when you make the choice.  This is a choice about your life.  It must match your personality.  Don't let anyone tell you "Oh working for yourself is just fantastic.  You can work all day in your pajamas and you have no one telling you what to do!"  That works well if you like being in your pajamas all day.  But if you'd rather dress for work and meet with people all day, and have meetings and tasks and high-fives in the hall way, then pick Choice 1 or 2.

The point is, be sure this is a decision that matches your personality and not one that matches that of someone else.

There you have it.  I invite comments and questions.

Be well,

"Imagine engineers and technical managers who are as effective with people as they are with technology?"

Steven trains, coaches, and facilitates engineers and technical managers to BE the answer to this question.  Steven is unique because he has made this transition himself.  Get Steven's latest thoughts at:

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Copyrightę2008 STCerri International and Steven Cerri.  You are free to pass this information on to others and to reproduce it.  If you reproduce sections in whole or part please give attribution to Steven Cerri.  Thank you.

Be well,

Steven Cerri
STCerri International

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