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Thread: Mid-career skills update?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Mid-career skills update?

    I'm 11 years into my planning career now. I work with a lot of folks who are relatively recent grads (3-5 years or less) and am finding it tough to keep up with the skills and practices that kids are getting straight out of school these days. There was a point a few years ago where I had been keeping up pretty well: I learned AutoCAD during a stint at a consulting firm and am still pretty OK with ArcGIS. However, there are other software packages like Rhino, Illustrator, etc that I have no familiarity with, and as a busy new dad, I no longer have the free time to learn on my own. There was a time when I'd stay up late with Lynda and some training books and put the time in to learn. Now, getting pants on in the morning and out the door on time feels like victory.

    Maybe there is a bigger question that I am asking here. How does one avoid the sort of mid-career stagnation that can creep in when your planning gig becomes mostly of a means to an end to provide for one's family? How do you keep learning new things when you're on the far side of 35 and your free time is extremely limited? I'm not management currently, so I don't have any direct reports - I'm more of an experienced, generalist senior planner at my current gig with a large development review workload, so training during working hours isn't really a possibility. I want to stay sharp, and current, and state of the art, and don't want to coast on my experience. And yes, I am AICP - but I frankly, I haven't found most CM offerings to be all that useful in terms of providing the necessary skillsets.

    Thoughts?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    I wonder if you could set up some lunch and learn types of events in the office where people get tapped to teach each other different skills? I'm sure you have project management experience, or experience navigating tricky political climates, etc. that would be really useful to the young'uns. If you could set up opportunities for everyone to learn from each others' specific skill sets, that sounds like it could be ideal.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by gtpeach View post
    I wonder if you could set up some lunch and learn types of events in the office where people get tapped to teach each other different skills? I'm sure you have project management experience, or experience navigating tricky political climates, etc. that would be really useful to the young'uns. If you could set up opportunities for everyone to learn from each others' specific skill sets, that sounds like it could be ideal.
    Thanks gtpeach. I think part of the issue is that this is a planning bureaucracy, not a small-office environment - so, we don't have to navigate tricky political environments alone. We have whole teams of people to deal with that stuff, and we as planners don't interface with electeds on our own *ever*. I do have those skills, but am not able to leverage them here.

    The kind of skills I'm talking about take time to develop. Getting good at Adobe Illustrator in order to put together a killer public presentation involves a lot of time investment. My point was that if you are fresh out of school, you know these software suites. If you're well into your career, well, maybe you don't - and that's why you need to reassess and retool. You can't coast on experience if you're not current in the day to day skillsets needed for the work. How are folks going about doing this? I'm surprised this thread hasn't gotten more attention, I can't be the only one in this boat!

  4. #4
    Cyburbian
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    "You can't coast on experience if you're not current in the day to day skillsets needed for the work. How are folks going about doing this? I'm surprised this thread hasn't gotten more attention, I can't be the only one in this boat! "

    Depends on your current needs (versus previous needs) for those specialized skills, and have they changed in your career? Hypothetically, let's say you're done the lions share of the drafting, researching, writing, illustrating early in your career. You advanced up the career ladder, and now you are in management, with a new set of skills. Perhaps, you don't need to know the nuts and bolts of drafting or an annexation application, but you can hand off the Work-with-a-capital-W to a junior planner and you, the manager to a high level review.

    I've kept those design skills fresh throughout my career because, by choice, I enjoy the design-side of the profession and I never want to step away from that entirely, even though I can easily can hand off some of the work to junior designers/planners. I also have to keep my portfolio fresh and up-to-date, which is another pain in the neck, but it's part of staying competitive at mid-career. I'm probably faster at CAD in my 30s than my 20s because I've amassed shortcuts and workarounds. I bill at a higher rate now, so I should be spending far less time making changes to a junior planner's work.

    As for re-learning those skills, nothing beats practice, practice, practice. Fortunately, there is a plethora of FREE instructional material on most types of technical skills (drafting, illustrating, rendering, whatever) versus a few years ago where you had to buy a whole reference book with a CD of material or pay to take a class. Whether it's learning from a book and CD or watching a Youtube video on a phone you're still going to have to practice that skill over and over.

    On a related note, I'm currently working a certification in project management, PMP. I took the exam earlier this year but failed and will be sitting for the exam again at the end of the year. I have to MAKE time to study and this stuff is very difficult. Again, it's carving that time out of your existing schedule and practicing, practicing, and practicing until it becomes second nature.

    I've been able to have "some" fun while juggling work and study. I brush up on my photography skills and bookmarked a class in painting/sketching. I've never learned how to draw human figures/portraits, so this is a new skill for me to learn for fun!

    Hope this helps.
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

    Family Guy

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Plus
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    Not so much a skill set but volunteer activity related to work - the USGS National Map Corps - GIS & web research

    Slightly different way to get recognized for contributing - number of edits, accuracy of edits - becoming an advanced editor.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    Thanks gtpeach. I think part of the issue is that this is a planning bureaucracy, not a small-office environment - so, we don't have to navigate tricky political environments alone. We have whole teams of people to deal with that stuff, and we as planners don't interface with electeds on our own *ever*. I do have those skills, but am not able to leverage them here.

    The kind of skills I'm talking about take time to develop. Getting good at Adobe Illustrator in order to put together a killer public presentation involves a lot of time investment. My point was that if you are fresh out of school, you know these software suites. If you're well into your career, well, maybe you don't - and that's why you need to reassess and retool. You can't coast on experience if you're not current in the day to day skillsets needed for the work. How are folks going about doing this? I'm surprised this thread hasn't gotten more attention, I can't be the only one in this boat!
    I think you may be under-valuing what you do bring to the table. How collaborative is the environment in general? As in, do you really need to be able to do everything state of the art, or can you collaborate with others on the things you don't have specific skill sets in? Is part of this that you WANT to learn the skills and are frustrated that you have them? Or do you feel these are skills you NEED in order to do you job effectively?

  7. #7
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by gtpeach View post
    I think you may be under-valuing what you do bring to the table. How collaborative is the environment in general? As in, do you really need to be able to do everything state of the art, or can you collaborate with others on the things you don't have specific skill sets in? Is part of this that you WANT to learn the skills and are frustrated that you have them? Or do you feel these are skills you NEED in order to do you job effectively?
    These are great questions. It's a highly collaborative environment, and yeah, I could probably ask a younger colleague to help me on, say, putting together a snazzy graphic. In fact, I've done this before, and they have been great. I just hate the idea of not being able to do all of these tasks myself anymore, coupled with the feeling of not having the bandwidth to learn new skills as a new parent who doesn't sleep the way he once did. Free time is essentially nonexistent now - every minute is already spoken for. Even bringing work home in the evenings is hard.

    There was a time when I was an InDesign pro, but I let those skills lapse. I could also do ArcGIS joins in my sleep. Now that I'm public sector, (I'd been in consulting previously) I haven't opened AutoCAD in nearly a year, and use GIS way less - there are specialists here who do nothing but those things, so those particular skills could end up lapsing, too. What I'm trying studiously to avoid is that all too familiar civil servant stagnation that I see among some older colleagues. Anyone who has been in the public sector for a while knows what I'm referring to. It is so easy to get stale if you aren't continually seeking to get better in some way and reassessing how you are adding value to your office.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    These are great questions. It's a highly collaborative environment, and yeah, I could probably ask a younger colleague to help me on, say, putting together a snazzy graphic. In fact, I've done this before, and they have been great. I just hate the idea of not being able to do all of these tasks myself anymore, coupled with the feeling of not having the bandwidth to learn new skills as a new parent who doesn't sleep the way he once did. Free time is essentially nonexistent now - every minute is already spoken for. Even bringing work home in the evenings is hard.

    There was a time when I was an InDesign pro, but I let those skills lapse. I could also do ArcGIS joins in my sleep. Now that I'm public sector, (I'd been in consulting previously) I haven't opened AutoCAD in nearly a year, and use GIS way less - there are specialists here who do nothing but those things, so those particular skills could end up lapsing, too. What I'm trying studiously to avoid is that all too familiar civil servant stagnation that I see among some older colleagues. Anyone who has been in the public sector for a while knows what I'm referring to. It is so easy to get stale if you aren't continually seeking to get better in some way and reassessing how you are adding value to your office.
    Maybe you just have to accept that this is where things are right now. I mean, I get the stagnation. That's a large part of why I left my last job. I was just bored and didn't feel challenged and felt like I wasn't doing my best work there for those reasons. But again, I think what you DO bring to the table is really important, and being willing to engage others that have different skills/abilities is a great way to avoid stagnation and develop highly collaborative relationships. I am constantly asking my secretary to help me do stuff that I can't figure out in Word... or on my iPhone (super basic things, too!), but I think learning to utilize people well is a really important skill to develop in its own rite. The reason stagnation is harmful is because it can result in not only not learning the skills yourself, but in also not valuing the skills at all. When your life stage changes, you can go back to freshening up on the more technical skills if you feel like its important to you.

    No matter what you do, you're probably not going to know as much as someone that just finished school and has been working with the most updated technology. That doesn't mean you can't work to make sure that you have a functional level of skills in the essential technology, but it just sounds like the way your organization works, there will always be people that are very specific working in those areas and will be able to do those functions more effectively.

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