Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Dec 17, 2012

by Michael MacRae ASME.org

You committed your future to engineering, offering up a dowry worth thousands of dollars in student loans to earn that degree. But the thrill is gone. You're not moving up, you rarely get a chance to show your skills and whole days go by without high-level technical interaction with colleagues. The differences seem irreconcilable. Is it time to break up?

It's a tough choice. You thought engineering was going to be the career for you. It sure looked cool from afar, with its come-hither promises of financial reward, intense professional stimulation and long-term career satisfaction. Best yet, it was so available — you knew engineering would offer up countless opportunities for a good career fit.

You're not going through this alone. Google "I HATE BEING AN ENGINEER" and you will find pages and pages of kindred spirits — wayward engineers carousing the blogs, online forums and social networks for new career hook-ups.

Keeping engineering majors in college and on track for timely graduation is an established challenge in academia. Industry, which can't seem to hire enough new engineers to replace retiring veterans, is still behind. Their challenge isn't only to keep good employees from jumping ship with a competitor — it's to keep them from leaving the profession entirely.

When an otherwise motivated, skilled engineer leaves the field for pastures that may or may not be greener, it's a big loss — and not only to the profession. The biggest loser is often the disillusioned engineer, who walks away from a massive financial and emotional investment in an engineering degree that, perhaps more than ever, should be a ticket to a future of unlimited opportunity for intellectual and financial satisfaction.

A glimpse into the psyche of the at-risk engineer may help employers and engineers come together.

What's Missing?

"The face of engineering is changing," blogs Tim McAward, vice president and engineering product leader for Kelly Services Outsourcing and Consulting Group (Troy, MI). "Due to the impact of the high demand for engineers in the U.S., many companies are challenged to recruit and retain talent. And the satisfaction of their employees will be key."

Engineers are highly skilled, results-oriented, and — despite the cliché of the nerd-loner — extremely motivated by working closely with others. But whether in a two-person consultancy or at the lofty heights of NASA, many engineers are tasked with projects that require technical skills without also providing an environment offering collaboration, problem-solving, and other perks that satisfy the engineering mind and soul.

"Many early career engineers are required to establish a close, meaningful relationship with their computer," says Jason Kent, a senior hydraulics engineer with Three Parameters Plus (Portland, OR). "There certainly is need and opportunity for interpersonal communication, but more extroverted science/engineering professionals may become frustrated with the relative lack of communication, and seek a more fulfilling career."

Kent, who has spent much of his 20+ year private-sector career managing younger colleagues in this very position, says the opportunity for upward mobility — or perceived lack thereof — is another cause of itchy career feet.

"Many engineers in the private sector aspire to 'move up' with their company but want to maintain their technical focus. They feel frustrated because promotions to management and marketing roles are available, but little to no career advancement opportunities exist for technical staff." He notes that more firms seem to be developing upward career tracks within the technical ranks that offer a new title and better compensation while also offering personal growth through more responsibility and accountability.

On the other side of the equation, some engineers are born entrepreneurs. Their desire to start their own business — any business — eclipses their love of engineering, observes Kent. Faced with burdensome start-up requirements such as licensure, securing Errors and Omissions insurance, and the slow process of building a profitable client base, finding a non-engineering niche is often the smartest choice.

"In my field, most of our work is project-driven and competitively bid, so a steady revenue stream is not assured. Entrepreneurial-minded engineers might have to look outside the engineering field to find businesses with income stability and reduced risk," he says.

A Balanced Approach

Whether in the private or public sector, engineers want a positive work environment that brings rewarding challenges and exposure to new technologies that keep their skills sharp. They value job security and want their employers to invest in their development. But as importantly, they want a life too.

"Today's engineers place a high premium on work-life balance," McAward writes. "Non-monetary perks, family- friendly benefits, and flexible scheduling are attractive to potential employees. Employees appreciate a company that invests in them personally," he says, underscoring that employers that provide for education and career advancement help their employees feel valued awhile also keeping them up-to-date on new practices and technologies.

"Benefits that include flexibility and education can help meet corporate goals and increase employee retention," he states. "Much more can be done, to everyone's mutual benefit."

Michael MacRae is an independent writer.

Many early career engineers are required to establish a close, meaningful relationship with their computer.Jason Kent, senior hydraulics engineer, Three Parameters Plus