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VIEWPOINT: What people entering the workforce need to know about career shaping

Jason Thomas //June 20, 2024//

VIEWPOINT: What people entering the workforce need to know about career shaping

Jason Thomas //June 20, 2024//

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Twenty years ago I graduated from North Carolina State University with a bachelor’s degree in textile engineering and a minor in industrial engineering. I loved engineering and quickly found a job as a product & process engineer in manufacturing.

While I had plenty of knowledge about engineering, processes, and manufacturing, I knew little about the system of career advancement. Even worse, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

This year marks my 10th year in my second career, professional recruitment for industrial sectors: manufacturers, capital equipment suppliers, and service providers into the industrial sectors (construction, hvac, power generation). Through the past two decades I’ve learned how the business of work works. Below are five nuggets of career-shaping intel I could have used as I headed out to work right out of the dorm room.

1) Company size affects nearly everything about the shape of your career, and there are positives and negatives in large and small companies.

Small companies and privately held companies are generally more flexible. At a small company you will wear more hats and be exposed to more of the business, because there are fewer silos and divisions. Small companies also are typically flatter in hierarchy. At the same time there are fewer rungs for advancement.

Large companies have more corporate infrastructure and less flexibility to deviate outside of that infrastructure. One area where that more limited flexibility is demonstrated is in compensation. Typically there are salary bands for each position and bonus structures, with very little flexibility to deviate outside of those ranges regardless of how exceptional your work is. Often your salary range is constrained by the number of years you have worked with the same company. You are paid based less on how stellar your performance is and more on your tenure.

Generally you will move up rapidly if you bring exceptional value, but your pay will not always align with the value that you bring to an organization.

On the other hand, there are more rungs in the ladder of a large company and you can climb that ladder if you work hard and competently. In my work at a large company, I was in a new position every eight months or so, and the experience I gained from that was invaluable. It’s a good practice to ask about a company’s philosophy of cross-functional promotion from within. For example can you move from engineering to supply chain to quality, or do you have to remain within a narrow band of work options?

2) The region of the country where you work makes a difference in your potential salary. Typically more rural areas will pay less and companies will say that the better cost of living compensates for less pay. While that’s true, I sometimes think that certain regions are so challenging to recruit for that companies should pay more in order to attract better candidates.

3) The industry you work in matters for compensation, even if you are doing the same type of work, because different industries have different economies of scale and profit margins, and thus different salary possibilities. For instance, if you are a process engineer in the oil and gas industry, your compensation will probably be higher than if you were doing the same kind of work, with the same experience level, in the chemical industry.

Even within the same industry there are sectors in those industries that offer different compensation bands. For instance, in automotive manufacturing, the closer you are in the supply chain to the OEM assembly line the higher the risk you have of shutting it down — resulting in a more intense work environment and higher pay.

Within a vertically integrated company or supply chain, the segment where the most value is created or that has the highest margin is typically the segment that allows higher compensation. Where you are placed in the supply chain of a manufactured product affects your compensation. For example, in the textile industry the most value added to the product is in the dying and finishing process compared to, for instance, fabric or yarn formation. Where the highest value is added, there is often higher compensation.

4) As you review potential jobs, use varied resources to research industry, region, sector, company size, and even the part of the manufacturing process of a product that you are considering.

Interview knowledgeable people within industries, regions, sectors, companies, and supply chains. Mentors, industry and trade associations, current employees, and yes even recruiters can offer valuable intel so that you can have as much opportunity to shape your career choices as possible.

5) Sometimes the heart wants what it wants. As Pascal said “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

Leave some room for serendipity. Not all decisions should be based on money, prestige, or advancement. Ask the questions about what matters most — family, work-life balance, your purpose, or any other personal value.

At some point you’ve got to move forward and sometimes it may not seem as if you’ve ended up in the ideal job for you. Perhaps it’s not your dream job or your forever job — and that’s okay. Accidents or mistakes can lead you towards the most fruitful, joyful careers. Losing my job and a cancer diagnosis 10 years ago led me to the career I have now — and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

After graduating with his degree in textile engineering from NC State, Ben Talbert spent the first 10 years of his career in engineering with stints at Milliken and O’Neal Inc., an EPC company that designs and builds manufacturing operations. For the past 10 years, he has been recruiting for the same industries where he had worked through his company, Better Than Found, a full-service professional and executive recruitment firm. Connect with Ben at