Finding the right job in the chemical sciences and engineering is more complex than ever. On the industry side — pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, advanced materials — global mergers and outsourcing have forced seekers to look globally for opportunities. On the academic side, resources for young professors remain thin on the ground. If you feel like you need help sorting it all out, you’re not alone. Alan Kearns proclaims himself ‘Canada’s Career Coach’ and is the founder of CareerJoy, a career management firm with offices across the country. ACCN spoke with Kearns about how chemists and chemical engineers on the job hunt can leverage their skills.

You call yourself ‘Canada’s Career Coach’: what does that mean?

Just as a financial planner helps you get a better return on your money, a career coach aims to provide perspective and tools to help professionals get a better return on their careers. I used to run a technology recruiting firm, and I had many clients who were struggling with the ‘what’s next’ in their career. So I started a career leadership coaching company internally and then spun it out. About 25 per cent of our clients are young professionals, and 75 per cent of our clients are mid-career professionals looking to figure out what’s next.

Do the same principles apply to both young and mid-career professionals?

I think the same principles apply, but for different reasons. The key thing about managing your career is this: you have to be able to figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are, and make decisions based upon what the right fit is for you. What kind of environments are ones that you thrive in? What are your goals, financially and professionally? How are you changing and evolving? Whether it’s at the beginning, the mid-point or the mature phase of your career, those are the questions you’re asking in order to make the best decisions.

How has job hunting changed in the last ten years?

The number one change is globalization, which has impacted every single sector. This has created a host of new opportunities, but also poured in millions of new graduates every year into chemistry, engineering and all kinds of sectors, creating competition like we’ve never had before. Another important change is that the world is less predictable economically than it once was. Economic turbulence means that companies come and go, and there are a lot more mergers and acquisitions, consolidation, start-ups, et cetera.

Going along with that, you have a shift from traditional long-term employment to a model that’s much more like the entertainment industry. Instead of spending your whole career with one company, people now work on a project-by-project basis, with terms lasting as little as a year or even six months. Finally, developments in technology mean that work can be done anywhere, anytime: there’s the option of working remotely or from home, and new challengesand opportunities arise that way. In general, it’s a very interesting but challenging time, and people are going to be going through change on a constant basis. Because of this, you have to think about managing your career the way an actor manages his or her brand, because you’re going to be working for multiple organizations and doing lots of different things.

Is this trend toward short-term employment a good thing?

I think what’s most important is that you’re in the right situation, whatever that means for you. Nobody wants to be constantly quitting jobs, or ultimately without a job, but I think more and more people are saying: “Hold on a second here, what is the right situation for me?” The younger generation, 22 to 30 years old, is a bit more comfortable making those kinds of decisions than the mid-point career generation who are 35 to 45 years old. But in general I think people are really trying to honour who they are and find the right situation for themselves, which is really the ultimate goal.

You mentioned technology: what is the role of social media in the job search?

I think social media is both an old and a new idea. People talk about the challenge of summing up an idea in 140 characters on Twitter. Well, tombstones have been summing up a life in 140 characters for a long time. Or you can think back to the Eaton’s catalogue that we used to share with our friends and family at Christmastime; that’s a great example of social media. People have been writing on walls since the stone age, so I think it’s a myth that it’s a new idea. Instead, it’s just a different set of tools that we’re using to tell stories.

I like to talk about the 3-D branding principle, and the example here is the movie Avatar. That was an old story, but James Cameron used 3-D technology to tell it in a new, engaging way, and to enable us to get closer to it. I think it’s the same thing with social media like Twitter, Facebook and particularly LinkedIn. They are a way of taking the two-dimensional world of the resume and bringing it to a three-dimensional world. On your LinkedIn profile I can look at reviews, see about how people rate you, look at your skill set, read a PowerPoint presentation you made, look at the books you like. If I’m a recruiter, an HR person or the director of a chemical company, I can get a much richer sense of who you are than by looking at a two-dimensional vehicle like a resume.

Chemists and chemical engineers are all about innovation and finding ways to use existing tools. I think it’s the same with technology: don’t be intimidated by it, but also don’t ignore it. And finally, don’t make it bigger than what it is. People often think: “I’ve created a LinkedIn profile; now the world is my oyster.”It’s more complex than that.

Are there job-hunting challenges that are specific to chemists and chemical engineers?

I think a lot of themes are cross-sector; whether a person is in health care, marketing, law or chemical engineering, people want to do work that’s interesting to them. But one thing I could say about scientists and engineers is that they tend to be practical: they want to know return on investment very precisely.

What about the stereotype that technical-minded people lack “soft skills”?

It’s true that engineers get a knock for not having them, but I would point out that lots of engineers have gone on to lead multi-billion-dollar companies and hundred-billion-dollar projects. I think they have those skills; it’s just a matter of figuring out how to use them more effectively. We work with lots of organizations on leadership development for new managers, helping them to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and understanding what they need to focus on as a leader. I think that engineers have a skill set that’s in demand and growing, but I think they have to pay attention to these other nuances, so that they can leverage their experience. That can make the difference between having a good career and a great career.

What if you don’t have the resources to hire a career coach or take leadership training?

That’s where it’s really important to get mentors — people in your life that you trust and can get perspective from — to guide you in decision making. We don’t have all the answers ourselves, so building those connections early on is very important. I always say that your network is your net worth. The bigger it is, the more opportunities will come your way.

That said, you shouldn’t think of your network as an artificial thing. Networking is something that’s natural for all of us as social beings. But it is important to be intentional about that network, not to let it become too loose. For example, consider your alumni or professional associations. There’s a big difference between going to the conference and volunteering to be part of the committee. It may take a bit more effort, but people that do it end up in better situations in the long term, because they have a much more rigorous and strong network.

How soon should you start planning your career?

I always say that it’s never too soon and it’s never too late. That said, the sooner you start evaluating options, the better it’s going to be. You want to be thinking about your options right from undergrad: where you take your co-op, choosing the right courses, joining the right organizations. People in the applied sciences tend to look for very linear answers, and I think career management is very non-linear, so you have to look at it from that perspective. That means different companies, but also start-ups, patent organizations, etc. That’s the paradox of the time we live in: it’s not lack of choice but abundance of choice, and struggling to make the right one.

What about geography: do you have to move to get the career you want?

I think it’s more true than ever, particularly in academics. Universities and research institutions are hiring at a global scale, not just looking at University of Toronto versus University of British Columbia grads. Likewise, you as a person should think globally about the places you need to go to have the widest variety of opportunity. It varies from person to person, but again you have to be thinking much more strategically because we live in a more competitive environment.

When is your job as a coach done?

It isn’t! Coaching is an ongoing relationship. It’s not just getting someone a job, it’s guiding them through different phases of their career. A good career coach is that person you touch base with every time you go to make a major move or have a challenge at work: someone you can turn to for perspective. And you don’t want just one: think of it as a personal board of directors. You want to have a variety of people, from a career coach, to somebody at a university, a former employer, someone outside your industry. They will all have different perspectives and advice, and you want to use that.

What’s the most important advice you give?

I think that most people let circumstances determine what’s next, and they don’t know themselves as well as they think they do. Really successful people are true to themselves and intentional about managing their own opportunities.

Can you sum that up in a tweet?

Manage your career, don’t let your career manage you.