For 30-something mid-career workers, charting a path towards greater responsibility and a director-level job can be an anxious process. It can also provoke anxiety for their employers.

Is it better for workers to stay loyal to their current employer or pursue another rung on the career ladder somewhere else?

Can they fit in the time to gain further education or more professional credentials, and if they do, will their company support it or will it put their jobs at risk?

On the other side of the table, employers wonder whether it’s in their interest to make such sacrifices for workers who may depart for rivals once they’ve gotten an MBA or accumulated the management experience they seek. Yet if they don’t support a worker’s ambitions, do they risk alienating a mid-career employee who sees no path forward from their current job?

‘Dangerous in a good way’

Cheriene Griffith, operations manager at Chevoo, a startup artisan cheese company in Healdsburg, characterized the dilemma for both employers and mid-career employees as a kind of crisis point.

“I was recently told that I am at a great point in my career and that I have all the knowledge and experience to be dangerous in a good way,” Griffith said. At Chevoo she has hired some of the employees who work under her, which gives her the chance to shape the culture at the small start-up, where everyone does a little bit of everything.

Figuring out how to synthesize all her “dangerous” career experience and skills is something Griffith, who studied engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy, hopes to do in partnership with her employer, just as she once worked in partnership with her superiors in the military.

Military leaders ask tough things from subordinates, but always keep in mind how to prepare those subordinates for advancement and promotion to new jobs.

Griffith pointed to the idea of “serving as part of something greater than myself” as a source of motivation in the military, and suggested that ethos is also helpful in the private sector.

Giving employees at any level greater responsibility is key for employers who want to keep them, said Griffith, but particularly so for mid-career people. At a startup, where there are never enough people to do everything that needs doing, responsibility is hers if she wants it, and if she’s willing to step up and take a swing at it — and, of course, she is.

“Being a key decision-maker in a startup is simultaneously fast paced, agonizing and rewarding,” she said. “I wear many hats and do the best I can to keep balance and forward momentum in the company.”

Bouncing around

“I like to be challenged, always have, and my work experience has echoed this,” said Nathan Wilson, quality assurance manager at La Tortilla Factory in Santa Rosa.

Seeking challenges while pursuing his different interests led Wilson on a zigzag career path that is typical of many modern workers. He grew up in Sacramento, where he worked in the food industry in his teens — cafés, catering and restaurants — but with occasional forays into construction “to switch things up.”

Construction work taught Wilson about heating and air conditioning technology, landscaping, excavation and other types of work he’d never have encountered in the food industry.

“I did bounce around a bit more for experience and not wanting to get stuck in the same rut,” he said.

Diverse skills let him jump into management jobs in restaurants pretty quickly, both in the kitchen and in the customer-facing part of the business.

He continued to “bounce around” from culinary studies at City College of San Francisco through various restaurants in the city. “Some jobs were deliberate stepping stones and some were more to gain a new perspective,” he said.

“I then moved into facility management, which led into manufacturing,” he said.

Wilson’s lifelong interests in food and facility operations came together in that same job Griffith held previously, quality assurance manager at La Tortilla Factory, where he manages five people — technicians and a supervisor.

But he doesn’t feel like he’s “arrived” at last and can rest on his laurels. One thing that keeps him happy at his job is his employer’s clear commitment to his career.

“La Tortilla Factory has provided me a solid plan for moving up the ladder, which is a mutual gain on both our parts,” Wilson said.

Not waiting tables

Not every employee, however, takes the same calculating view of their own career as Griffith and Wilson, who clearly see jobs as a ladder leading upward.

Some workers, like Jason Kirchmann, an associate at BKF Engineers, have already achieved more than they ever thought they would, and that changes the way they see the future.

“I did not take a degree,” said Kirchmann, who works in BKF’s San Rafael office with three other people. “I did it the hard way. I was taking classes at junior college and got hired as a drafter when I was 20 years old.”

Kirchmann, who had to work six years just to be able to qualify for his professional license, describes his career as always “asking for more responsibility.” When he took the job at 20, he didn’t think much about the future.

“This wasn’t even on my radar. I was just glad to not be waiting tables, which is what I was doing before,” he said.

In December, after 16 years at BKF, Kirchmann, who is 36, was promoted to associate, which means that at the end of this year he will be allowed to become a part owner of the business.

That chance to own some bit of the business, however small, is something Kirchmann said might keep him at BKF for his entire career.

“As a stakeholder you have a little skin in the game,” he said.

He also praised the widespread use of mentoring at BKF as a factor that has kept him — an employee who started with very little education — loyal to the company.

BKF is now big enough, he said, that it’s thinking more about people’s career paths. “We’re trying to develop a little more of a formal road map, from entry-level engineer to principal,” he said.

Leadership ladder

Griffith and Wilson both hope to be in a director’s or executive manager’s job in five years, which will mean more oversight of other people. Kirchmann’s ambition is more quixotic, though he, too, thinks he will be managing larger numbers of people in a more responsible job in the future.

Griffith, who learned a lot about leadership at Annapolis and in her subsequent service aboard the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship designed to deliver Marines to a hostile shore, said the military “set a foundation for my work ethic and determination.”

One reason she eventually landed in the food industry, she said, is a similarity not everyone may realize.

“The food industry is very similar to the U.S. Navy in certain ways, since both have a firm base for rules and regulations to protect people and performance,” she said.

Looking for even more leadership experience, Griffith has taken seats on two boards of directors — the North Bay Food Industry Group and the local Naval Academy alumni association — and plans to continue board work throughout her career, seeing it as an essential component of a high-level executive role.

Her work at FIG, as the food group is known, puts Griffith in close contact with industry executives who know how to get things done in large organizations.

“This will set the foundation for an upper executive level position in 10 years,” she said, which will be combined with further board service.

Wilson aims at a director-level job in the next five years. “Quality, of course,” he said. And Wilson hopes to be developing teams in manufacturing and to have a more strategic level job in a decade.

“La Tortilla Factory is keeping me on track to accomplish this,” he said.

Kirchmann, who already manages about 20 people, with four of them reporting directly to him, said he will probably eventually oversee more people, but with fewer direct reports. “Managing people — that’s part of my job description,” he said.

Griffith, like Wilson, appreciates employers who have encouraged workers to advance their careers.

“My employers who have taken the time to ask what I would like to do in my future have been a big influence on me,” she said. “They showed holistic support for me and didn’t treat me as just another commodity.”

What comes next after landing a director-level job or sitting on a company or organization’s board? Some forward-thinking workers like Griffith already do this kind of work, which may leave employers wondering what other enticements they can offer ambitious mid-career employees they want to keep.

A big benefit of board work, Griffith said, is networking, which she sees as an invaluable ingredient in any career. Employers who provide such opportunities will have happier workers, she said.

Wilson, too, included networking as a vital part of his own five-year plan to reach a director-level job: “Gaining more insight into the industry and making connections will be the main driver of accomplishing this.”

Military has an answer to retention

A typical employee today is likely to work for seven different employers in three different industries, said William Ibbs, a civil engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Even those who don’t bounce between construction and the food industry, as Wilson did, but who stay in one industry, wander more widely than in the past.

In the engineering field, for example, Ibbs said a common career path these days moves from construction to real estate development and then to consulting.

Continuing education, including advanced degrees, is also important to ambitious employees, though shoehorning the required coursework into an already busy life requires a lot of help and understanding from an employer. Often, the financial constraints of getting a graduate degree keep employees from ever going back to school, said U.C. Berkeley’s Ibbs.

“Engineering students generally get a master’s degree right after their undergraduate work,” Ibbs said. “They’re used to poverty, to eating hot dogs and cornflakes. If they get a $60,000 job first, they buy a car and get used to living well and never come back.”

Employers can learn quite a bit from the military, which pays for those advanced degrees, Ibbs said. “The military will send top candidates back after eight years to get a graduate degree. They’re a different type of student.”

However, a “culture that promotes education” doesn’t have to mean giving employees reimbursements or lots of time off for graduate school, something beyond the reach of many small and medium-sized businesses.

Another option is offering in-house training by bringing teachers to the workplace. This is a popular choice at many companies, said Ibbs, who has taught tailored project management classes at big Bay Area employers like Chevron Corp., Bechtel Group Inc. and the East Bay Municipal Utility District.

No sweeter deal

Even limited support means a lot to employees, who understand the pressures their employees are under, said Wilson.

“When you have a staff that feel appreciated they will work harder and this promotes the overall culture,” he said.

Griffith, who is enrolled in Sonoma State University’s executive MBA program, praises company support for such studies as “raising the bar for the employees’ skill sets and dedication.”

She added: “If employees announce that they have a goal, such as going to school, employers should work with them as much as they can to help the employee achieve those goals. Previous employers have gotten me excited about going beyond my job description.”

None of the three, Kirchmann, Griffith, or Wilson, have any plans to leave the North Bay or their current jobs — a salutary lesson for employers — because of the benefits and culture where they work.

“I would be willing to move if the opportunity was a right fit,” said Wilson. “But this would have to be a sweeter deal than I have now, which is going to be hard to match.”

Kirchmann also sees his situation at BKF as a pretty sweet deal. Having already achieved more than he ever expected has perhaps reduced any urgency he feels to “get” anyplace else.

That low-key attitude is reflected in his approach to his future. In five years, he said, he expects to probably still be at BKF and continuing to grow and learn on the job. But he isn’t 100 percent sure.

“There’s part of me that thinks I’ll be retired in five years,” he said, laughing. “When I was 30, I thought I’d be retired by 35. Now that I’m 36, I’ve pushed it back to 40. When I’m 40, I’ll probably bump it up to 45.”