Friday, March 24, 2017

Where Is Your Career Taking You?

Where is your career taking you?  Or have you already reached the top?

I get e-mails from readers, and I cannot answer them all.  Thanks for the feedback, both good and bad.  Some I think are attempts to troll me.   Maybe not.   Hard to tell sometime if people are being sarcastic or trying to bait me.   Either way, they sometimes raise interesting questions and get me to thinking, which of course is always dangerous.

For example, a reader mis-applies what I said about seven steps to getting out of poverty.   He already has a job and a skill as an auto mechanic, so what does he do next?  Move somewhere else?  No, that was what I was saying is helpful if you don't already have a job.

If you already have a job and a career and skills, the thing to do is figure out where it is leading you, whether it has lead you as far as it can, and whether you are content with that - or want something more and are willing to make the effort to get it.

The term "auto mechanic" has a number of meanings and levels of skill and pay.   At the bottom of the ladder are the mechanics working at Wal-Mart mounting tires, changing oil, and installing batteries - or at any one of a number of the chain stores.   Don't get me wrong, they do good work, I use Wal-Mart all the time to mount and balance tires for me.   But of course, the pay isn't the greatest.  People do make a living there, though.

Up from the chain stores are maybe the private auto shops - particularly places that specialize in foreign or unusual cars, or high-performance cars.  These can be some of the highest paying jobs for skilled mechanics, particularly for upper-end performance cars, custom cars, and the like.

Dealerships are a mixed bag.  Many a mechanic has told me that working at a dealership can be demanding and the pay not great, depending on the dealer.  They often work based on shop manual hours.  If there is no work to be done, they starve.   If a job takes more time than the manual says it should, they starve.   If they hump, they can sometimes make money.   And the kind of car dealership makes a big deal as well.  Obviously, working at a KIA dealer might not pay as well as working at a Jaguar or Porsche dealer.

So, even with the job description of "Auto Mechanic" there are tiers of skill and pay, starting at the bottom at a chain store installing batteries, and maybe working up to the top levels at specialty car shops or dealers, particularly for those skilled in things like electronic repairs.   There are lots of "auto mechanics" out there, but many are scared to death of anything with wires on it - in my experience.   A guy who isn't afraid to learn how to diagnose problems with modern electronic controls would be in higher demand than someone who merely can do mechanical work.

There are so many different skills that fall under "Auto Mechanic" from grease monkey, to auto-body tech, to painter, to suspension specialist, to engine rebuilder, transmission specialist, machinist, auto upholstery, etc. etc. etc.   The term "mechanic" could encompass any of these, or like a GP doctor, be a generalist doing some of each.   It is a very broad field.   And it spills over into boats, ATVs, motorcycles, and even small engine repair.  And heavy truck repair, diesel mechanic, construction equipment repair, hydraulic specialist, agricultural equipment, and.... well you get the idea.

But of course, within these levels of skill and specialty, there are different levels of achievement.  You can start out mounting tires at Wal-Mart and eventually be promoted to supervisor.   Maybe it isn't the greatest paying job, but it is a promotion.   Similarly, you may start out as a mechanic at a dealer and end up running the service department or as a service writer, or run the parts department.  Heck, you might even make the jump to sales, although that is a different skill set.

But of course, for every dozen Indians there can only be one Chief - not all of us are slated to be at the top of the heap.   For example in my career, I was never a "head partner" at a big firm making big bucks.   At my peak I maybe made in the six figures.   Some of these top guys make in the seven figures, particularly litigators.   Why didn't I make that kind of dough?   I don't have the talent necessary, and not everyone is cut out to be in charge.

And it pays to know this about yourself, or as Clint Eastwood once said, "A man has got to know his limitations!"

I realized early on that I was not cut out to be a top litigator, but my skill level was in drafting Patent applications.   So I stuck with that.   No shame in saying you are not the best and brightest in the world.  In fact, it is better to figure this out than go through life resentful of people with better skills and more ambition.  I was content with the choice I made, and did well with it, not making as much as some, but more than most.

My boss who made all that money?  The most miserable person I ever met in life.   I am not jealous, seriously.  There is more to life than money - you can live better on less, which is the mantra of this blog.

But there are other places you can apply your skills.   For a skilled mechanic with some business smarts, opening your own shop is always an option - a risky, difficult, and expensive option, to be sure.   And not one I recommend, either!  After trying to run my own business, I realized that employing people takes a special talent and temperament, and again, it was not something in my toolbox.  So I let it go.

But I've known many mechanics who run their own shops, and probably make more money than a mechanic working for someone else.   Or not.  If you specialize in a particular marque, it helps.   Specialized tools and knowledge are key, of course, and many companies are making this harder and harder to come by.

So you can see, there are plenty of paths a career in something as simple as "auto mechanic" can take.  Or take "HVAC tech" - there are again tiers of employment, from working for a small independent shop doing service, to working for a big dealer doing installs, to commercial work (which could pay union wages) installing heavy machinery, to running your own HVAC repair business.   The latter could range from being a guy with a van and a set of manifold gauges, to a guy owing multiple dealerships and making millions of dollars.   I've known both.

The thing is, to figure out where your career path is likely to go among these various paths.  If you are an auto mechanic and doing tire installs, it may pay to go back to school and learn more esoteric repairs and get ASE certification for one or more specialties and maybe get a better paying job - if that is what you want out of life.   Again, you actually have to want that.  It ain't gonna happen on auto-pilot.

And it's OK if you don't.  You just can't complain about getting a raw deal in life and be jealous of those that do try to get ahead.  One has to be content with one's own level of effort.  I have no sympathy for slackers who complain about successful people "taking all their money" as you have to have money in order for someone to take it from you in the first place.

If you don't see your career going anywhere, you basically have two choices, either accept where it has gone and make the best of where you are, or change careers entirely.   The latter, of course, is very risky and can backfire in a big way.

For example, I was working as an HVAC tech for Carrier, on experimental air conditioning systems.   If I had stayed in that job and the plant had not closed (which it eventually did), I probably would have topped out as a "senior tech" and made a decent comfortable living, but not get very wealthy over time.  If I put money into my 401(k) plan, down the road I could have retired with some modest comfort.  I doubt I would have ended up as a supervisor, like my boss - or wanted to, as he had a tough job and he had the temperament for it - something I lack.  It's OK to acknowledge that, too!  In fact, it is very constructive.

But as a technician, that is about as far as I would get.  So I finished my Engineering degree.  Now, Engineers can make a lot of money, compared to some professions.  The top EE's working on semiconductor designs or CE's working on software can command good salaries, but often have to live in expensive areas.  They do well over time, if they bank a good portion of their salary instead of blowing it on eye-candy.   And again, a very few may make the jump into Engineering Management and make real bucks running a company, with stock options and all.  Few Engineers make that jump, again because of the Indians/Chiefs ratio and the fact that nerdy Engineers have shitty social skills (consider the CEO of Uber, for example).

But of course, there are EE degrees and there are EE degrees.  And since I had spent nearly a decade in heavy industry (GM, Carrier) no semiconductor company was interested in hiring me.  I did get a lot of interest from HVAC companies who wanted someone to design control circuits.  I thought about this, and I realized that I would probably plateau as a medium-range salary circuit designer, without a lot of job security.

The offer from the Patent Office was an interesting one - and a chance to change careers.   So I took the leap.   Again, this could have backfired in a very big way.   The Patent business is all about pushing papers around - you leave your Engineering degree at the door.  And many folks make this leap and regret it - and find it hard to make their way back to circuit design, particularly if they stay more than a few years.

The rest, I have recounted above.  I moved up but eventually found my new plateau.   But it wasn't a bad plateau.  Did I make as much money as some of my friends working at the "big firms"?  Hell, no.  They make more in a few years than I made in a lifetime.   Funny thing, though, they call me and tell me how "lucky" I am not to be working 60-hour weeks for those big paychecks. 

Sometimes, being an underachiever works out.  If you can live within your paycheck, spend a penny less than you make, preferably a dollar, preferably more than just a dollar.  Invest some, work for a few decades, and you're pretty set for life, if you play your cards right.

What doesn't work out?   Constantly wanting more than you can afford, and borrowing money to do it.  Being unhappy with your situation but doing nothing to change it.   Either accept your station in life, or change it.   Either is a good option, and you often have to do both.   And really, there is no third choice.

There is no "trick" to wealth, no shortcut, no special insights or secrets.   You already have all you need to know inside - pretty much everything I have said here is what people call common sense and stuff you have already thought of before, either consciously or subconsciously.

But please don't take any of this as advice.   I am not freaking Dear Abby or her sister Ann Landers.  People have to make their own choices in life, and it never ceases to amaze me how people in this world will ask advice from others and rather than consider whether the advice was any good or appropriate to their situation instead blindly follow it - often with disastrous consequences.

What you choose to do is up to you.  You know your situation better than anyone else. You know your career field better than I do.  You know your own self-limitations better than anyone as well.   Although, bear in mind, if you had asked me when I was a stoner technician at the labs at Carrier whether I would one day be an attorney, I would have said, "Sure buddy, and you're the Pope!"

So we do underestimate ourselves sometimes, particularly when on drugs or when hanging out with people on drugs (same thing, really).  And this is important.   Folks who smoke pot will run down your dreams as unrealistic and actually try to derail them, so they can feel better about themselves.  Success is often a solo journey.  One of the most important things I had to do, as painful as it was, was say goodbye to my drug-addled friends and move on with my life.  Self-preservation is more important that the brotherhood of the bong.

FWIW, your mileage may vary.  No warranty expressed or implied!