Volume 6 Issue 1 - October 10, 2008
Derailment of Engineering Managers during Managerial Transition
Quey-Jen Yeh


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Engineers in certain organizations, in which technical upward movement is prematurely truncated and thus career success means a series of moves up the narrowing organization into management, often must move into management positions to attain continued upward career mobility. This transition proves difficult both for those who make it and for those who do not. The managerial skills required for the change differ significantly from the technically oriented education and training of engineers, as well as from their initial technical and professional objectives. Organizations may either move average or below-average technical personnel into management positions to keep the best technical people in technical jobs or motivate good engineers to become possibly mediocre managers to maintain their salary growth levels. Either choice implies an inefficient use of the engineering workforce by organizations. Human resource (HR) literature shows that engineers tend to become better managers, while they may become derailed managers at any authority level. Together, these controversies suggest that further research is needed to examine the career development of engineers when moving to management is one of their primary career concerns.

Assuming a career track ends at the top of the corporation, derailment refers to the troubling phenomenon when a promising manager fails to meet a set of organizational expectations during a stage in this career development. It generally occurs when managers move from low- to higher levels of management, a stage when careerists are mostly middle-aged or older. Derailed managers typically view themselves as failures, take narrower perspectives on problems, and lack some or all of the skills required for managerial success. With the exception of a few studies, little research considers the potential derailment situations of engineers during the managerial transition. On the basis of career stage theory, this study explores the career states of mid-career and older engineers, especially whether they get derailed during managerial transitions.

Derailers are defined as those who are similarly situated as others but perceive lower work autonomy and influence in the current study. The proposed career stage measurement, which combines organizational position ranks and personal perceptions of autonomy and influence at work, provided a valid frame for tracking the career stages. The sample came from 254 members of the Chinese Institute of Engineers (CIE) in Taiwan, which not only is the largest association of engineers in Taiwan but also has many engineering members in managerial positions, as required for the current study. As Fig. 1 displays, the proposed measure differentiates six career stages, including one comprised of engineers who evidently have derailed from the linear progression domain of the two job scores. Both the background between the on-track and the derailed careerists, which offer some causes of the derailed situation, and the abilities that engineers need to avoid derailment as they progress from one managerial stage to another are discussed underneath.
Fig. 1. The six career stages clustered*
* X : Work autonomy extent; Y : Influence status extent; M: Managerial position level
N: Number of respondents in each career cluster
Career stage:        
A: Apprentice-late
T: Technical advancement
L: Low management
D: Derailed middle management
O: On-track middle management
H: High management

On-Track vs. Derailed Careerists

The on-track careerists, who advance from Apprentice and Technical advancement to Low, Middle, and finally High level management, make up approximately 80% of the sample. These position ranks also revealed significant linear relationships with various indicators frequently used to evaluate engineers’ promotions, including technical expertise, people skills, job experience, and demographics in age, education, and seniority. We therefore may presume that four out of five engineers in the current sample recognize the task expectations and appropriate types of relationships on the basis of their managerial authority. In contrast, the remaining one-fifth, the derailers appear less perceptive about almost all the tested indicators. They not only perceive lower job skill and success, but also indicate fewer managerial skill requirements for their jobs. On the contrary, their payment satisfaction appears similar to that of their counterparts, which may suggest that though they do not perceive themselves as successful, they are as satisfied with their salaries as the others. Finally, their significantly lower ratings on the skills required to build interpersonal relationships and individual leadership abilities may imply that derailed engineering managers are less self-aware of the need for people skills at work.

Possible Causes of Derailment

Limited positions in the organization. Engineering corporations in Taiwan seldom adopt a research-based organizational structure. They mostly structure promotion systems according to various routes, such as engineering, sales, design, and special functions, and promotions to higher organizational ranks imply greater career success. This upward transition, however, may not be possible for all engineers, because the positions are limited: Only around 20% middle and 10% or less high levels positions are available.

Reluctant self-learning of the individual. Derailment seems more of a problem for the individual. Specifically, the nonderailers in the current sample appear to prefer self-learning, including reading newspapers and professional books, whereas the derailers tend to prefer conferences and seminars, which suggest external learning approaches. These findings reveal a significant association of self-learning with the nonderailed managers.   

Downhill view of the individual. On average, high-level managers held shorter tenures at their current job than did those at the middle level, though they possessed similar professional tenures. That is, those who have a higher degree of job mobility across different organizations seem to have better career opportunities and be less likely to become derailed. The relatively high proportion of derailment in the government sector in this study also may suggest a relationship between derailment and environmental stability.

Dealing with Derailment

Derailment is not necessarily a permanent condition; recovery is possible by developing specific managerial skills. As displayed in Fig. 2, this study found a proper sequencing of ability profiles attached to on-track stages, in which each stage involves certain skills to accomplish tasks and more dominant needs for personal interactions. In general, basic skills, including language and computers, score between “required” and “quite required” for all stages, but the classes of upper-level skills increase significantly at higher career stages. The trend is especially notable in the triangle pictured in Fig. 2, which suggests that engineering managers, in the order of high, middle, and low levels, especially need to prepare themselves to achieve excellent leadership, decision-making, negotiation, communication, motivational, directing, analysis, and planning skills. Mainly, they need to self-evolve and gain the required abilities progressively along their career track. With a greater awareness of what to prepare for each career stage, engineers should find it much easier to progress in their careers if they follow a similar skill-updating chart.
Fig. 2. Required extent of each ability profile according to each career stage*
* A: required; B: fairly; C: quite; D: very; E: especially required; the trend is especially distinct within the triangle pictured.
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