Thoughts on Engineering Careers: Obsolescence and Economics

Engineering is a great career path. You get paid well to solve interesting problems. For young people starting a career, an engineering degree is close to a sure bet when it comes to getting a good paying job. This has become increasingly important as the cost of college has skyrocketed.

Engineering careers have particular challenges though. In my experience the challenge most people find hardest to deal with is the relationship between engineering salaries and job security. By the time most engineers get into their late 40’s and 50’s they are highly compensated. It often comes as a great surprise when a downsizing company lays off an experienced engineer to save money. Except for government jobs ( a different kettle of fish) they are not paying you for years of loyal service. That’s a crock. They are paying you to solve problems so they can make money. And it is not “ageism” either. Engineering is not physically taxing like laying asphalt in Georgia. In most cases it is not personal it’s just economics.

If a company can pay $50,000 less for a worker with 60 – 70% of your skill level they will likely do it when a downturn comes. It is important to understand that for most medium and large companies raise budgets are set as a percentage of a department’s payroll. If your salary is a big portion of your department’s payroll it is not possible to give you a significant raise without lesser paid workers getting less than the budgeted percentage. Companies are loathe to lose their up and coming stars. Giving a junior engineer a lousy raise is a sure way to lose her. As your career progresses keep in mind none of us are irreplaceable.

So what can you do? One of the most important things you can do for your career is maintain as broad a skill set as possible. If you want to stay in engineering as you get older you need options. What does this mean? For example, if your primary skill set is hardware based design add software skills. A good way to do this for electronics designers (digital or analog) is by writing drivers and diagnostic routines for your designs.

All types of engineers benefit from fluency in programming languages such as C and Python, which can be easily learned on line. Python is a great tool for ordering and analyzing raw data and is useful in many industries. Other programming languages can open other doors. Software skills are useful across a variety of industries from finance to health care. Think about it.

Another important thing you can do to protect yourself is to plan for a sudden career transition. Don’t wait for it to happen plan ahead. What do you want to do for your next career change? I enjoy electronic hardware and software product development. I wanted to stay with that. So I had to adapt to keep doing what I love. In my own career I went from working for large companies to forming several startups to starting my own company. Along the way I have been involved in design, marketing, finance, manufacturing, and management. My engineering skills were useful in all of this.

For some the answer is a career outside of engineering. I have a free spirit friend, a chip designer, who loves sailing so he became a charter sailboat captain in the Caribbean. Maybe you want to join the Senior PGA Tour, or open a winery. The analytical skills you gained with your engineering career can be applied in many ways. Go for it!