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by Perri Capell | March 10, 2009

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Question: I'm in my first year as a design engineer for an engine company. My first group had a good combination of experienced engineers, but it has dissolved. I'm now with a small group and have practically nothing to do. I asked my boss for permission to search for jobs in other groups, but his answer was vague. The unwritten rule here is you can't move until you've been with a group for three years. What should I do??

-- Steve Jones, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Steve: Does it seem that after a great start, the brakes have been put on your career? Many talented young professionals struggle in routine jobs, especially after working with a group of stars. However, you can still shine where you are. You also can take advantage of this time to meet people within your company and create connections that might propel your career in the future.

This advice comes from Phil Bezaire, senior vice president of human resources at Detroit Diesel Corp., a 5,000-employee diesel-engine company, and from Teresa Shappell, executive vice president in San Francisco for Applied Research Corp., a leadership-coaching, development and career-planning firm. Ms. Shappell is a former director for Cummins Engine Co. Inc. and ran its M.B.A. recruiting.

Some companies don't adequately take advantage of new employees' enthusiasm, Mr. Bezaire says. However, it's possible that you can't see the big picture and how you fit into it. "You really haven't given your organization enough of a chance," he says.

Try to take an objective look at yourself and your situation. Jumping around too much might damp your prospects with other employers, says Ms. Shappell. "You need to protect yourself from having short-tenure job jumps, not only from company to company, but job to job," she says.

Excelling in more routine assignments can make you stand out as much as -- or perhaps more than -- in high-flying groups, Ms. Shappell says. "Look for opportunities where you are, and don't assume things are closed to you," adds Mr. Bezaire. "Young people shouldn't take the first lull in activity at face value and assume that this is what they will be doing for the next two years."

Be outstanding in your current role by adopting a positive attitude and looking for processes to overhaul or improve. When you have time, investigate other activities. It's likely your company offers internal training. Talk with your manager about taking appropriate or interesting classes. If your employer supports continuing education, consider that also.

Many large companies seek volunteers to serve on committees, work in the community or take on other ancillary roles. If you have free time at work, go to your boss and ask if you can volunteer for such tasks. Ms. Shappell says helping with college recruiting is one way for you to demonstrate your value to your company.

The benefit of these activities is that they may allow you to participate in cross-company groups and meet people in other departments. From this, you can learn more about your employer, start building a network and perhaps gain some informal mentors who will champion you for positions later on. Don't assume you should talk only with older managers. Young employees like yourself will rise up the ladder. If you have good relationships with peers, they may reach out to you as they become managers, and vice versa.

"Go outside your group to establish relationships and trust and get coaching from others on your career direction," says Ms. Shappell. You need to do as good a job in your volunteer work as you would in your paying job. "Create demand for yourself," she says. "Be someone they would want on their team."

In the meantime, you need to guard against a chronic problem that afflicts overachievers when they are assigned to positions that bore them. "The pendulum quickly shifts to their becoming underachievers," says Ms. Shappell. "Be cautious of that."

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