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Making Career Decisions

Guest blogger Jamie Flinchbaugh, Business Advisor, Founder of JFlinch, and 1994 Mechanical Engineering alumni, shares his advice on making career decisions. If you are shaping a non-traditional path or still deciding on what your future may look like, his advice is for you.

While my career might have appeared to follow a traditional path right out of Lehigh, it has taken some interesting twists and turns. But there has been some consistency in how I’ve made career decisions, starting with my internships. I’ve started my own companies, been part of large corporate transformations, been an author, an investor, a board member...and I never would have thought all of that could have come from a Mechanical Engineering degree from Lehigh. Here are some of my career choice lessons.

Test, experiment, dabble

I did two very different internships while at Lehigh. One was a research role at the Energy Research Center on Mountaintop Campus, and the other was in a manufacturing organization on the factory floor. Both were interesting and I learned a lot, but I particularly learned that a research role just moved too slowly for me. Reflecting on those experiences and breaking down what I liked and didn't like helped shape my future choices. But it doesn’t have to be an internship (consider research projects, on campus jobs, clubs and organizations, volunteer roles, summer jobs, etc). You can experiment with early career choices and then change paths, or even use side hustles and other projects to test and learn. I still do this today.

What matters most to you

Make criteria-based decisions when it comes to your career. Know what matters to you. For me, it was learning. I started right out of Lehigh at Chrysler Corporation. I wasn’t a “car guy.” But they offered 6 rotations over 2 years, a high-level mentor, and paid for my masters degree, taken at night at the University of Michigan. It was a learning package - perfect. When I arrived, everyone who came there as a “car guy” rushed to the Viper platform because it was exciting, but they had too many young, inexperienced engineers and so each was assigned a minuscule project that had no meaning or impact. I signed up for the minivan platform. Boring product, but important, ready to launch, and I was given massive scope for my first assignment. I learned a ton more, received more exposure, and made a real impact. And that criteria shapes my decisions to this day.

Salary is rarely it

Money is not your #1 priority, and probably shouldn’t be #2 or #3 either. Three times in my career, I took a substantial pay cut because I made decisions on opportunities to learn more. Each and every time, this put me on different paths that have paid off in multiples, both in terms of career fulfillment and financially. When I co-founded the Lean Learning Center, I already had a good job and had an offer to be the COO of a major equipment manufacturer. Taking the path to start the center was unproven, and financially was a substantial step back from my current role, and an even bigger step back from the offer waiting for me. But it was consistent with my purpose, and I knew I would learn a lot. And for the following 15 years, we built a company with industry-leading reputation and margins, and I never looked back.

Planning is everything, the plan is nothing

This is an old phrase, and in this context, I mean that we should have career plans and career goals. But many if not most of the variables that shape that those goals are not in your control. So don’t get married to your plan, and learn when and where to pivot. When I sold my business 5 years ago, I kept telling people I’d never work as a W2-employee again, but then an opportunity to join the executive team at Qorvo Semiconductor came about. It was consistent with my mission, led to more learning, and sounded like fun, and so I spent 3 years making my mark on a firm in a role I never expected and certainly didn’t seek.

To sum up, these are important decisions. You absolutely should think through options hard, and even struggle. But there is not only one path forward, as most of you will end up doing something different than you planned or expected. It’s how you go on this ride that matters most.

Need more help with career exploration?

Connect with Jamie Flinchbaugh on Lehigh Connects

Review the Handshake resource page, Explore Careers Tile

Schedule a 1-on-1 meeting with a Career Coach on Handshake

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