Behind the Scenes

Career Change

Career change: in my lecture to the System Engineering Industry Program at the University of Adelaide, I reflect on my career changes. What can you learn from my experiences? (Hint: a lot, I hope!)

I want to talk about career changes because all of you – everyone listening – have already started to make them. You’ve already made the ‘career change’ from being a school student to coming here. You’re going to graduate – hopefully – and then move on into industry or academia or whatever you choose to do. And there are a lot of things to take in. Some of them are directly relevant to safety. But a lot of these things are relevant to whatever you’re doing.

I’m a High-School Student: How Can I Plan My Career Path?

When I was a student at school, I knew what I wanted to do. I guess I was quite lucky in that respect. I wanted to be a pilot in the Air Force. But then I flunked my first eye test at 14, and I knew that was the end of that dream. So I had to choose something else. And I ended up becoming an engineer in the Air Force.

The relevance of that is that I joined the Air Force before I went to university, and they paid me some money. They paid my fees (Well, there weren’t fees at the time.) I know it’s a strange concept these days, but University was free back in the day. But far fewer people went to university, so it’s swings and roundabouts.

But I’d gone from school, where I was in the top three of everything in every class.  Then I started doing my engineering course at university. I found myself in the bottom quarter of the class in terms of performance. So that was a bit of a shock, I have to say. I suddenly realized that I was now a small fish in a much bigger bowl. I suppose if you never leave Adelaide, you never have to experience that.

But if those of you do move on and move out of the Goldfish Bowl is ‘Adle’-brain, you’ll discover there’s a big world out there. One with lots of competition. And it’s a very exciting world, but it can be a little bit frightening sometimes. But anyway, I got through it. Most of us got through the course. I was doing an aerospace systems engineering course, and we had a wash-out rate of about 10% in the first year. But if you survived your first year, it got easier.

I’ve got these questions – I lifted these questions, actually, from an essay education website. It’s a bit tongue in cheek saying, ‘How can I plan my career path?’. Because when you’re at school, you don’t really have any idea about what work is all about. Unless maybe you’ve got a part-time job. Or your family owns a business or whatever, and you’ve worked in it, and you have a more realistic idea of what work is. But work is very different from school, as I’m sure you know, and University is very different from school.

I’m a Graduate: What Do I Do Next?

And then when I graduate, I think, ‘Well, I had a career path mapped out for me’, which was ‘Join the Air Force’. But I had some second thoughts. University opened my eyes and widened my horizons. And I thought about doing other things. ‘Should I stick with the Air Force?’. Although, there was always the issue that I’d have to pay them back lots of money, which I didn’t have. So, I decided to stay.

And so, you’re thinking as a graduate, ‘Well, what do I do next?’. There’re opportunities in the public sector, working for the government. There’re opportunities in the private sector. Do I go for a small or medium or work for a large firm? Do I stay in academia and do some research? What do I do? (Do you all go straight to a master’s on your course? Or is it a bachelor’s?) So maybe you think, ‘Well, do I stay and do a master’s?’ ‘Do I stay and do a Ph.D.?’ My results weren’t good enough to do a Ph.D. so that was a decision I didn’t have to make.

There are lots of choices. And there are pros and cons of working for large firms and small firms or the public sector. I have to say the public sector is probably better at training you and investing in you. This is because they typically employ large numbers of people. And certainly, the Air Force was very enlightened about the way it did education.

And a lot of people in the Air Force studying – even the troops who had maybe joined the Air Force early, those who left school at 16 with very few qualifications. Lots of people were doing a part-time study with the Open University. A lot of people I worked with did that. Part of my job was to help them get through trying to do a master’s degree in software engineering or safety part-time and support them. Which was a great privilege and I really enjoy doing that. So, you’ve got lots of choices.

So, there’re lots of opportunities out there for you. Do go out and look at what’s out there. And as I say, some firms will have a formal graduate development scheme. Others will not. It’ll be an informal scheme, but make your mind up about which way you want to go. And what you want. Always bearing in mind, of course, that, as you’ll have seen, I ended up making a series of big career changes. I had no idea I was going to do those things. I got into software by accident. I got into safety by accident. Sorry, but no cheesy pun intended.

I’m a Veteran: How Can I Make the Career Change into Industry?

And then when I left the Air Force after 20 years, I had to make a career change from Air Force into ‘Civvy Street’, as it was known. And fortunately for me, the Air Force – in fact, all the armed forces in the UK – had a really good career change scheme. A scheme where you’re entitled to go back to the classroom and you could do courses. There were some basic courses everybody had to do.

Specifically, one where you were taught how to deal with grief, surprisingly. Because if you’ve been institutionalized in a large employer for a long, long time and you only know one way of doing things, then it’s difficult to leave. Then when you leave that and you’ve got to go out and make your own decisions and stuff, and that’s really challenging.

And the forces introduced this career change scheme based on – I think it was at a New York Police Department experience. The New York police discovered that a lot of their veterans who left the police force were dying after only a few years of retirement. And they thought ‘This is weird. They’ve done this dangerous job all their lives, and then they leave and then they all die’.

Of natural causes, I should say, and suicide. And the New York police said, ‘We’re not preparing our people to leave the stresses and strains of the police and get used to a completely different way of life.’. Fortunately, the force has introduced this career change training to help you do that. To learn practical skills. I did my project management training, et cetera.

So, that was helpful. And often I would say, if you’re going to make a career change, retraining is often a big part of that. Whether it’s the cause or the effect of the career change.

I’m Looking for A Career Change: What Are My Options?

In all of these things – as I say, I’ve done a lot of changes in my career. Some of my career was planned, but a great deal of it was not. And that’s okay. Sometimes choices are made for you by personal circumstances or whatever. I decided I had to leave the Air Force because our daughter was about to go to secondary school. We couldn’t afford to move around anymore and disrupt her education. So, the choice was made for me.

But also you might be tracking along quite nicely in your job and an opportunity comes up. And you think, ‘Well, I’d never thought about doing that, but actually, this is interesting. I’ve just got to try this.’ And I would encourage you to do that.

I’m An Employer: How Can I Ensure I Have the Workforce I Need?

One of the things I do nowadays – what I have done for a long time – is interview people. Whether it be for Frazer-Nash, QinetiQ before, or even in the Air Force. Because some of the jobs I was in were specialists and we had the right to interview. We could choose people. We could choose volunteers. So, I’ve interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people over many years. And potential employers are looking for the right people to employ. You’re looking for a good employer. How do I perform an interview and get that job? Or that career that I want?

And it’s not a secret, but when I’m interviewing people, if you rock up at the office, I’m going to find out what you do. What you’ve been doing academically. What you do outside of work. Because obviously – it’s not ‘obviously’, sorry. Often some of the most interesting things about people are what they do in their spare time. And you can learn a lot about somebody. People have got interests, particularly those who serve in different ways. Whether you volunteer for anything or sport or something like that. Because you often find that high achievers in life tend to be high achievers in everything.

And I’ve interviewed one or two people and they’ve gone out the door and I’ve looked at the other interviewer. And I’d say, ‘Well if we hire her, we’re all going to have to raise our game, aren’t we? Because she’s going to make us look bad.’. Which is a wonderful problem to have, by the way. You think ‘Great. We can get this person on the team who’s going to allow us to do something we’ve never done before.’. So, we’re looking for people that we can utilize. That we can deploy. What have you done? What tools and techniques are you able to use?

Consultancy is a bit unusual. Most of you will probably not start in consultancy. You probably won’t start in safety. In safety, most of us tend to have done another job first and then got into it for whatever reason. So, we’ve made that ‘career change’ as a graduate or an ex-graduate early in your career. I guess we’ll be looking mainly at your potential.

It’s not the technical skills so much that we’re looking for. Technical skills can be taught. If I want somebody who can do fault tree analysis, we can teach you how to do fault tree analysis. We can send you on a course. What I can’t or what is not so easy to teach is attitude and the way you approach work. And are you a team player and all those kinds of things? So, that’s often much more important.

I’m An Educator: How Can I Inspire or Educate?

I suppose this is what I’m trying to do today. In my spare time, I also run my own business called The Safety Artisan so please check it out. You can go to And there’re lots of lessons on there about safety. About Australian WHS and system safety. Some of it is free and some of it you have to pay me some money for which I will be very grateful. Thank you very much. The only problem is you have to listen to me talking, but never mind. You can’t have everything.

There’re a lot of opportunities out there, and I think the Australian jobs market is very dynamic. And it works both ways. Big firms will hire hundreds of people to do a project. And then some of them will then fire you just like that when the project is over. Not all firms are like that. Many are looking for people with transferable skills. If one door shuts, usually another door opens. So, we’re looking for people who can be flexible and adaptable. This is why I find myself doing cybersecurity these days as well as safety.

Reflections On a Career in Safety

I’ll move on to some quick reflections. It says ‘Reflections on a career in safety’ but you could apply this to almost anything. At University, I learned – and in training courses throughout my career – I’ve learned a theoretical framework. Whether it be engineering. Whether it be marketing. Marketing is a science and an art and a very complex one, for example.

So, whether it’s engineering or not, there’re lots of things to learn during your career. And you’ll get to learn on a course, or an institution like this – You’ll get to learn some theory. A framework to plug things into. But actually, it’s the practical experience where you sort of put the flesh on the bones, and the two go together.

And then the second point I’d just like to make on reflection. To a degree, I would say go with the flow because opportunities will come up that you hadn’t planned for. That you hadn’t thought of. But give it a go. If you’ve got an opportunity, try it. Particularly as I found, if the alternative is doing something you really don’t want to do. That makes the choice a lot easier. But go for it.

Also, you’ve got to remember to stick to your principles. So, you’ve got to decide what’s important to you and hold on to those values. Otherwise, you could end up doing something you’re not happy with. In fact, somebody much cleverer than me once said that the secret or the art of progress is to “preserve change amidst order and preserve order amidst change”. And those are very wise words. So, decide what’s really important to you. What you will not change. What you will not compromise on under any circumstances. But other than that, go for it.

And finally, in safety and in many other things, I’ve seen people tend to overcomplicate things. I think Einstein said, if you can’t explain something in simple terms, you don’t really understand it. And that’s a very challenging quote but it’s very true. So, there’s a lot of complexity out there. And that’s the whole point of systems engineering, isn’t it? To deal with complexity. So, big programs, are complex things and difficult to understand. But it’s all about boiling it down to something simple. And then, understanding what those core principles are and holding fast onto them while dealing with the complexity. So, a little plug for systems engineering.

I’m very happy to talk about systems engineering, it’s so important to safety.

Do You have any Career Change Questions? Leave a Comment, below.

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