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career longevity and/or forgetting what you know

Milpool

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For those of us that are "technical experts" of some sort (engineers, scientists, etc) there is a concept in the sciences, known as "lab hands" or "bench hands".

The idea is that once you leave the lab and stop doing the technical stuff on a day to day basis, those skills atrophy and after a few years, you probably can't go back to doing it at the same level. This is for a few reasons, one is you just forget things over time and another is that technology advances and you get left behind.

This has become a very real scenario for a lot of people due to the economy and the long lived unemployment trend. This seemed to hit those of us in the sciences very hard due to large corps cutting the research side of R&D HEAVILY. When I was unemployed I went to some scientific career fairs, and there were folks with MS degrees out of work for nearly a year.

But, it could bite you another way... and that is moving into management. After a handful of years managing a lab or the equivalent in your discipline, with little to no hands on work anymore, those technical skills soften and atrophy. This particular economic crash was not favorable to MBAs. I know of many companies that slashed and burned their MBA level employees at the start of the recession.

Naturally, the folks with an MBA and a technical background tried to go back to the lab only to face the reality that they no longer had the skills and experience necessary to hit the ground running. They are damaged goods. The management jobs they had are no longer available as companies trimmed management and squeezed out higher productivity from everyone else.

This has been a topic of discussion a lot amongst my friends and colleagues. I know people trying to go back for their PhD now in order to get their "lab hands" back after their unemployment or management (or both) hiatus from the lab.

That seems to be about the only solution to becoming a valuable worker again. Many companies are still actively ignoring the long term unemployed. It seems a shame to waste such highly skilled talent, yet as each day goes by, that talent gets weaker and weaker.
 

saiyar1

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Yes, unfortunately this is a reality people need to deal with.

We just need to ride out the ups and down, which have happened many time before. In my opinion, all we can do is hope that we are in that age where one can go back to school to bounce back hard. Unless your approaching 40 or older, it is possible to get a masters, MBA, etc. It can really make all the difference (new job opportunities, a reason to "wait out the storm").

The problem is it is very hard psychologically to go back to school the longer you've been out. I have seen people go back to school, tough it out, and go through hell, and it made a huge difference vs. those you kept trying to find employment with little hope.
 

MasterOfReality

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I work in the mining industry as a mining and geotech engineer, and have worked in research and on-site.

The guys in research, if they stay too long, very quickly loose the ability to work on site as an engineer.

The guys on site start to loose the more technical aspects, as the focus is on production scheduling and planning. Most of the in depth technical stuff is farmed out to consultants.

I work in consulting now, which is a nice mix of challenging technical work, site work and it keeps you up to date with the latest developments. Most guys here have a masters of phd combined with proper industry experience.
 

MinnMD

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I'm a specialist in a medical field. Here's what I do to stay current. Get the best standard textbook in the field. Read a chapter each week, especially those chapters dealing with problems or interesting cases that I've seen recently. After a year, if there are any chapters left in the textbook, read those. This is in addition to the usual journal articles, daily and weekly meetings (where I work at a university), and annual national meetings.

MinnMD
 

The Mitchelli

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I agree and there is a saying in the industry I work in "If you don't use it, you lose it"

I have moved from being a technical specialist to managing technical specialists and recently considered moving companies. I realised I am not as marketable in my core trade - because I am rusty with those skills. I do however, realise I accepted the management role to advance myself. There are a lot more management jobs out there - you can even take those skills to another sector or industry, so the future should still be bright..

I appreciate it doesn't help those who were just 'out of work', but would hope it is easier to keep your skills relevant in those circumstances, without other work distractions.
 

Milpool

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I believe strongly in staying current by reading the industry/society journals, picking up new textbooks, etc.

However, many disciplines are nearly impossible to truly stay current on your own unless you have pretty significant resources (and perhaps licenses and permits).

For example: how does a chemist stay current on laboratory technique without fume hoods, chemicals, glassware, etc?

Personally, it has been years since I used an oscilloscope. I probably would struggle to find the power switch were I to need one today.

And so these skills disappear and make it hard (to nearly impossible) for someone to get back into the work force after a long break. It seems wasteful to me.

How about maternity leave? That is another potential long break that can cause skills to degrade.
 

ennui

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I'm a first-line manager at one of the biggest tech companies. I recently moved into this role from being a software engineer. I do have this worry in the back of my mind. I try to stay rather hands-on, but with all the additional responsibilities of being a manager, I can barely keep up with the code reviews, the design specs, etc. I am taking a wait-and-see attitude right now, but will probably have to make a decision of which path to pursue soon - technical or mgmt.
 

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