Do You Have a Moment?

Article by Ewan Stewart CEng MIChemE

Ewan Stewart shares the hard-earned lessons of retrenchment

“DO you have a moment Ewan?” The tone was different; softer, subdued, more serious. As I turned to greet my boss’ unseasonal visit, I knew that my time was up. The year was 2015 and the plummeting crude oil price was sending shockwaves throughout industry; I was about to join the rapidly-increasing bodycount of the oil and gas sector’s unemployed. As I struggled to regain control of my career, the next few months would be the toughest learning experience of my life.

My story is not unique for that period. Boy gets good job, builds confidence, makes strong progress towards his career goals; boy learns he’s not invincible as geopolitics and oversupply turn his industry upside down. Within my week’s notice period, I found myself fighting against the current, in arguably the worst engineering job-market in a generation; the same downturn that forced highly experienced engineers into early retirement, prolonged gardening leave, back to university, or into completely unrelated career paths. For those like me, fixated on the idea of continuing in my profession, the task was an arduous one: compete against hundreds of equally-qualified and hardworking chemical engineers for seemingly only a handful of job openings. Globally.

As my journey wore on, I noticed a surprising trend. Many of those that I respected most as engineers really struggled, perhaps even more than me, to find their way back in. My premise is therefore that it’s not the best engineers that will bounce back in a severe downturn; rather it’s the ones who are the best connected and the most able to adapt to the situation. This article will follow my job search, exploring the insecurities, conceits and misconceptions that I had to overcome before I was finally able to regain a foothold. I hope that in writing this I can provide some encouragement to those who find themselves in a similar situation, now and in the future.

Lesson #1: Back yourself implicitly

A lot of people have trouble selling themselves to their full potential and I was no different. My first few weeks were spent diligently trawling the job boards, prioritising prospects, and aiming to submit one quality application each day. However, after a few weeks of this, my phone hadn’t rung once. Something was wrong and I suspected that it was my CV. Whilst this had been sufficient to secure positions during boom times, under scrutiny it was now inadequate to the point of just being a bullet-list of projects I’d worked on. At the time, I could think of nothing more excruciating than listing my achievements on paper let alone at an interview. I needed help.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I sought professional advice, which led me to create an achievement-based CV – a format I would recommend. The idea is that under each job entry, the CV would have a list of accomplishments detailing your role on a particular project and what the end result of your actions was, preferably with metrics included. For example, the bullet point that had originally read “Water injection project X” was then expanded to read “Produced operating procedures to allow the safe recommencement of water injection leading to 800 bbl/d increase in crude oil production...” Applying this method to multiple years of experience, I found the conventional wisdom of the 2-page CV to be very limiting. My resulting CV was 3–4 pages and packed with examples.

Lesson #2: Adopt an open mindset

With my shiny new CV to market-standard, I hit the job-boards again with renewed vigour. However, as radio silence continued, frustration began to set in. Whilst I genuinely don’t believe there is anything wrong with an involuntary career gap, negative sentiments can be difficult to shake when your professional viability is on the line. Part of me was embarrassed to find myself in this situation, and this had resulted in an almost entirely insular approach to my job search. Perhaps the most anxiety comes from not really knowing whether or not you are doing the right things. However, if you are able to constantly challenge your assumptions, the resulting insights will allow you to change your methods and set yourself on the right path. Clarity is a great thing; I just needed to experience more pain before I would start to question my own mindset.

My approach very slowly began to change and it started by reaching out to recruitment agencies. However, even though I was seeking advice, I would dismiss it out of hand if I didn’t like what I was hearing. For example on learning that companies were using software to screen CVs, I couldn’t accept that all of my carefully-scripted cover letters and customised CVs may never reach human eyes. How dare they – all applicants must be assessed on their individual merits! The correct approach, of course, would have been to use this valuable intel to my advantage by ensuring that all keywords from the advert were included in my CV.

If you are able to constantly challenge your assumptions, the resulting insights will allow you to change your methods and set yourself on the right path

As the weeks went by, I would slowly reconsider my position. The non-reaction to my applications made me think that perhaps I should be listening more. I started to put myself in the mind of a hiring manager. If I had more than 100 CVs in my inbox, would I really have time to read all of them as well as do my day-job? Or would I use other methods to narrow the field? Would I take the risk of hiring someone with no experience in my industry and living in a completely different region? It’s not impossible, but it’s definitely a tough sell!

There were other things that irked me that I was just going to have to accept, eg candidate profiling, where employers in particular parts of the world can specify the gender, age range, and nationality they want. The false adverts, or CV harvesting exercises. By accepting these for what they were, I was able to qualify the vacancies I was applying for and reduce unnecessary effort. I was starting to learn.

Article by Ewan Stewart CEng MIChemE

Member of the Queensland Joint Chemical Engineering Committee

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