My father worked for the same company, in the same job, for 31 years. Today, it's becoming unusual for professionals to spend a significant part of their careers with a single company. One reason is because hiring goals have changed. Also, shifting technologies and markets have brought new companies into existence while killing off others (my father's company no longer exists, for example). Engineers are likely to have various employers over the course of a career and work with several very different types of technologies.
As a young engineer, you may feel the need to explore diverse specialties, career options, and employers before settling down. This often means a certain amount of job-hopping is a given. Once you find a company and role that's personally and professionally satisfying, you're more likely to stay around. At first you'll remain because it's worthwhile to do so. Later it will be because you have family and pension obligations to consider.
Technology and corporate culture changes might encourage even the most stable and loyal engineers to consider seeking other pastures, however. In some instances, it may be a dot-com startup that offers a small but very real chance to become independently wealthy (I personally have 50,000 options that today are worthless). In other cases, the challenge could be reduced by the march of technology. Or perhaps the company is downsizing or in a slow decline.
It doesn't have to be something monumental. A bad boss or an irritating colleague could be enough to make a job miserable. Your commute may become unbearable because of highway construction. Changes in your family commitments may provide you with more or less time than your job requires. But such occurrences could be enough to send you searching for alternatives.
Is there a "right" time to move on to a new challenge, or is it a matter of individual preference? This is a question that has a lot to do with both circumstance and personal choice. Maybe your life's goals include technical challenges, work time spent doing worthwhile tasks, or the satisfaction of a job well done at the end of the day. If so, job and possibly career changes are likely in store for you. Even job security, or at least the prospect of continued employability, often requires changing jobs and probably even employers several times over the course of a 40-plus-year career.
For mid-career engineers, changing companies and jobs is a tough decision. Venturing into an unfamiliar situation can be distressing rather than exciting. Even just finding a new job involves a lot of unknowns. Fortunately, there are enough employers offering stimulating opportunities elsewhere, often without the need to relocate. But making the break, even in a bad situation, demands a combination of logic and emotion.
Many issues are involved in a job- change decision. Considerations include a cost-benefit analysis of the loss of seniority, pension benefits, and any other quantifiable aspects of the job, versus what might be available at another company. Because many of these factors are quantitative in nature, any engineer should be able to make a rational judgement based on measurable criteria.
But there's much more to changing jobs than numbers in a ledger. Many engineers keep jobs that pay less than the market rate, require long commutes or inconvenient business travel, or fail to provide a technical challenge. Yet they are perfectly content. The job may fill other needs, or be a stepping stone to another, more desirable role. It also may be that starting a new job is emotionally difficult and stressful. Staying put, even in the face of distinct disadvantages, is therefore simply more comfortable.
Others change jobs almost as frequently as they change their shirts. The reason may be a lack of satisfaction with structured work environments in general, or a desire to seek what they would consider the perfect employer and position.
There's no shame in either course of action, as long as you understand the consequences of your choices. The decision of whether or not to pursue a new job becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy over time. It defines you more so than any of your technical accomplishments. If you change jobs quickly, by the time you reach mid-career, you won't be taken seriously. If you remain in a job long after the obvious benefits have evaporated, you will be pigeonholed and taken advantage of.
Both arguments are true, at least to some extent. In either case it's likely that you're not learning anything revolutionary. If you stay too long, especially doing the same type of work, there's nothing new to experience. If you change jobs annually, it's possible that you haven't been exposed to difficult problems or haven't seen a project through to completion.
How can you tell when it's time to move on? You have to take an objective look at both yourself and your work environment. You can start by observing your actions, the first thing in the morning. When you wake up, do thoughts of the upcoming workday fill you with anticipation or dread? If you linger over that cup of coffee, or take hours for your morning routine, a lack of enthusiasm for your job could be the problem.
Your lethargy or frustrations may not even seem to be related to your job. In psychology, there's a behavior that's often called "kicking the dog" (the technical term is transference). This phrase refers to taking out the frustration of a bad experience at work on an innocent bystander such as a spouse or pet. You might find yourself being abrupt or losing your temper in circumstances where you hadn't in the past. The cause may be pent-up anger or annoyance stemming from your job situation.
Many professionals in such a position hang on, hoping that conditions will improve. While there's always the possibility that things will get better, there's often no reason to assume they will. An important reason for this is that a poor work environment isn't likely to bring out the best in you. In fact, you could easily become associated with it.
The second place to look for signs that your current job is no longer right for you is on the job itself. Do you shun challenges, instead concentrating on a daily routine that has rarely changed in at least a year? Has your work output decreased? Do your work hours drag on interminably? Does any new work seem like an impossible burden?
The answers to some of these questions can be found in how your colleagues and managers treat you. If your name no longer comes up when difficult problems have to be solved, or if colleagues no longer stop at your desk for advice, then they probably perceive that you're no longer a part of the game. If you want to continue being a team player, it probably won't be with your present employer.
Then there's the opposite situation. The problem may not be with you and your job, but rather your employer. Many companies have declined in market share and ability to innovate over the past decade. A few of them have been among the most noted names in the industry. There's rarely a stigma associated with working for a failing company, but the lack of control in your own destiny can make such a job stressful.
There may be reasons to share a company's ride into oblivion. You may have unvested stock options, for example. Or perhaps your achieved skills or position will make you more valuable in the future. More often, though, there's no glory in going down with a sinking ship.
You should always have a picture of your employer's financial health. If your company is publicly held, that kind of information is easy to get. The web has many sites with financial and research data that will enable you to make an informed decision about your company's financial status.
If your company is privately held, such details are far more difficult to obtain. Management is often reluctant to speak frankly when the business is in decline. Even if production sales are stable or increasing, higher costs or discounting can be hiding a problem. Your best bet in these circumstances is to acquire friends in sales or accounting jobs, where the facts are much harder to conceal. Above all, don't expect the truth from your manager, who has good reason to try to keep your services as long as possible.
A new job with different responsibilities won't necessarily reinvigorate you; you have the most important role in that task. You might recognize, through your own behavior or through those around you, that you've outlived your time with your current employer. In this case, you should be prepared to act upon that realization.
Taking the next step may be trying for some mid-career engineers. There's always the sense that your existing employer has the best idea of your worth. But if your motivation has faltered, or your colleagues don't rely on you as they have in the past, your value to your employer may be more limited than you think.