In my experience, the willingness to send engineers to conferences - especially in smaller firms - varies greatly from office to office, and can even vary by the specific manager and your workload (i.e. don't ask to attend a conference right before a big deadline). As someone who has never worked (in an employee capacity) in an office that actually had a written policy related to conference attendance, I wanted to offer some additional thoughts towards how to ask if there isn't a policy and you've made the observation that others in your office don't often go to conferences:
First, to reiterate what others have said: when you ask, consider what you can give in return that makes it a good idea for an employer to send you. You want to make it easy for your employer to say yes.
Before asking, consider the following question: Is this important enough to my career that I'd pay my own way if needed?
If the answer is no, I'd reconsider asking because if you haven't sold yourself on why you should attend, you're going to have a difficult time justifying it to your employer. The first conference I ever attended, my employer gave me the days off paid and I paid the rest myself. To say that first one forever changed my career trajectory is an understatement (and yes, it was an ASCE conference), but I went in believing it was important and that I would do what I needed to do to attend. That absolute certainty put me in a much better position to negotiate.
Here's a couple of ways you can "sell" your attendance at a conference (once again assuming it is necessary):
- Conferences can create great employer PR, especially in our current environment where many firms are trying to be more active on social media. For example, being a presenter or moderator at a conference helps position both you and your employer as an expert in that space. Participating as an organizer, a volunteer, or a very active networker during a conference can help similarly if done right. Here's a couple of ways you could do that, even if you are just starting out:
- Get involved in a volunteer committee of interest. Committees - such as the young professionals' committees - often put together abstracts for presenting at a conference. Even if you are just starting out, you can offer to participate, and may be able to a moderator for one of the sessions.
- Offer to write a blog about the conference and what you learned that can be posted on your firm's website.
- Some conferences have volunteer opportunities that help the community (like Structures Congress coming up soon). Once again, this is great PR (in addition to a great networking opportunity for you). Assuming you can get permission to take pictures, take them and give them to your company's blog or social media coordinator.
- Is your firm an expert in a particular technical area? Consider offering to put together an abstract for a conference next year (with you as the moderator) to demonstrate that expertise.
- Consider carefully the types of conferences you want to attend. Are there potential clients you can meet? Are there sessions on things your clients really care about (that can be a blog topic)? Some conferences are engineering peers only, while others are more broad. I've personally found it easier to get a "yes" for conferences that clients attend than other types, unless I was presenting at them.
2. One of most common objections I have heard on sending people to conferences - especially for small firms or offices that may not have a policy in place - is: "If we send you, we have to send everyone." If that is the objection, here are a couple of ways you can get around that:
- Get involved with a committee related to a particular conference, or apply to be a speaker/moderator. Some conferences give you a discount on attendance if you act in that capacity, which makes it easier for companies to sponsor you specifically because you've already put in some work - often on your own time - and the costs are reduced (but only for you as compared to others in your office).
- Offer to do a write-up or give a presentation over lunch in your office on what you learned at the conference that is relative to everyone, so they can learn too. This increases the perceived fairness of you attending because while many people may want to attend conferences, less are willing to publically present what was learned. There are some offices that actually have this as a policy for anyone who attends a conference (which I think is great!).
- AS @Maegan Nunley has already said, focus on drivable conferences, or better yet in-your-city-conferences and networking events where possible. For the cost of airfare and lodging, companies can send many more people for the same price as one person further away.
- If you hear this objection, make it clear that you're happy to rotate with others on attendance at conferences (i.e. you go this year, someone else can go next).
One final thought: If you are told no, follow up with two questions: "Can you help me understand why?" (so you understand how to better frame your argument next time). After you understand that ask, "What can I do to get a yes on this next time?" Asking that last question is really important, as it creates an environment where you are both brainstorming to find a win-win solution, even if it's not right now.
Stephanie Slocum P.E., M.ASCE
Engineers Rising LLCwww.engineersrising.com