Stefan Lofhelm is currently a verification engineer at Rheinmetall Defence Australia. As a contract worker, Stefan has had exposure to many businesses, industries and technologies. After spending years in the Automotive Industry, his engineering and management experience has seen him successfully transition into Defence Industry. Stefan shares how he has remained valuable, how he navigates the infamous work/life balance and how he got to where he is today.
What is your current role?
My current role with Rheinmetall Defence Australia is as a contract verification engineer, working on a new heavy recovery vehicle. My responsibilities cover the Acceptance Verification and Validation (AV&V) of this vehicle. Tasks include developing test procedures against the vehicle specifications, submitting these to the Commonwealth for approval, conducting the AV&V testing on the vehicle to the approved procedures and finally, writing and submitting the test reports for approval.
What was your first job?
As a student I worked a summer break in Dampier, WA establishing the township and Iron Ore treatment facilities. The following year I spent a summer on the Gove Peninsula building the township of Nhulunbuy to support the new Bauxite mine. My experience with the ‘wild west’ made my decision to take up an engineering role in the Automotive Industry in Melbourne more difficult, but that was the path I took. My first full-time job as an engineering graduate was as a product engineer for Nippondenso Australia Pty Ltd (DENSO).
How did you get to where you are today?
After nearly 20 years in the Automotive Industry, working for major international organisations such as DENSO, Bosch, Nissan and VDO, I felt a need for new challenges. I spent the next ten years in various industries including Domestic Appliances, Analytical Science and Commercial Furniture. Within these new industries, I utilised my automotive based product development and R&D skills to offer structured and state of the art engineering experience, processes and procedures.
Australian industry has changed dramatically in the course of my career. The Automotive Industry has grown and died, and many other industries have also come and gone. As each of the non-automotive industries faded away, I realised I might need to get back into the car business again. To do this, I took any role to get back on the merry-go-round. So, I started as a contract tooling engineer with Nylex and then secured a managerial role at DENSO, where I remained for another nine years.
In around 2010 it became clear that the car industry was on its last legs, so I decided to leave it once and for all and secured a senior role in Industrial Pumps, again drawing on my broad engineering and management skills. However, after yet another re-structuring and/or business closure experience, I found myself without a job and basically at retirement age.
So what do you do if you want or need to keep working? You offer your extensive skills to any industry you have the background for and hope it will not follow the automotive industry into oblivion.
Drawing on my previous automotive background and experience with designing, building and testing vehicles, I was fortunate to secure a contract role in Defence Industry working on military vehicles.
What are the main benefits of working as a Contractor?
Contract work is great as a transitional working tool. Be it short term for a few months or longer term (as it tends to end up) it gives you an insight into an industry or company before you lock into a permanent commitment. It allows you to enter into new industries short term to get a feel for the industry and see if it is a match for you and your career goals.
As a contractor, you are selling your skills and experience to someone who wants the best they can find to do a specific job. Unlike some permanent roles where you might get told, ‘You’re too experienced for this role,’ there is no such thing as too much experience for a contractor.
For me, at the latter stage of my working career, contract work is perfect for utilising my skills and having some flexibility in my work schedule and preferences.
How have you found moving from Automotive to Defence Industry?
The transition to Defence Industry has been quite smooth. It is surprising to see how many others have made a move from Automotive Industry quite successfully and how many connections I have within defence already.
Defence Industry has its own systems and culture like any industry, but this is quick to capture and understand. The fundamentals of engineering and product development are still basically the same, just played to a different tune and rule book.
Work/life balance is such a complex and topical subject in today’s working environment. It is critical to maintain some level of balance between working hours and your free time. As a manager, I believe it is important to delegate and empower your staff. I’ve seen too many managers burn out because they were reluctant to, or unable to delegate work to their team and preferred instead to do it all on their own into the night. Delegating allows you to balance your workload and be a better manager.
After hours I keep very busy in family-related activities and getting outdoors. I also enjoy model engineering.
What was your biggest career surprise?
In a nutshell, four retrenchments in 40 years! I’m surprised that the entire car industry has disappeared from this country. The government has seriously undervalued the offshoots from the industry regarding technology, skills and experience. Tied in with that is everybody’s concern about job security. From my viewpoint, security is no longer than one hour regardless of whether you’re permanent or casual. Prepare for some ups and downs. Stay positive, and a window always opens, more often than not from some unexpected direction.
What advice would you offer to someone wanting a similar career path?
- Experience is critical. The more you have and the more varied it is, the better your chances of success. It’s a competitive world out there!
- Be open-minded to all industries and opportunities.
- Be prepared to take on a lesser role than you have had before to break into a new industry. You can then focus on progressing through to the perfect position and career path within that industry.
- Embrace change in roles and opportunities.