Can Engineering be “Just a Job?”

Over on EngineerBlogs, Chris Gammell has written up a post asking his readers if they think that engineering can be “just a job” — that is, can engineering be just something you do to make money, or does it have to be more than that. Obviously, there’s no practical reason why this can’t happen. I think what he really wants to know is if there are a significant number of folks who are actually doing that, as opposed to doing engineering because there’s nothing else they’d rather be doing. I’m curious about this too.

While engineering is still a potentially lucrative career path, from an income perspective it cannot compete with the financial fields today. As such, it would seem that most people today who choose engineering as a career would do so because they like building things and figuring out how things work.

Chris has gotten some great responses to his post over on EB, but I wanted to post it here on Adafruit too, because it’s something I’m curious about as well, and because we have a very diverse audience here.

So what do you think? Do people still enter the engineering field simply because it provides a comfortable living, or is the ‘making a living’ aspect only a small part of why they (you!) choose engineering as a career?

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  1. Anyone who thinks engineering isn’t “just a job” to most engineers, hasn’t hung out in a large class of undergrad mechanical engineers in a while. It isn’t just a job to me, but of the doctor lawyer engineer triad, it’s the one that requires the least effort. Many kids in engineering classes just want teaching to the test, and, like the rest of the world, are afraid to be curious. This is why I hang out in hackerspaces. That’s where people go who are interested in building things. If someone tells you that engineering faculties are like this… well, I’m glad they’ve found a good one. That was not my experience.

  2. @Adina: I suspect your observation could extend to many types of classes beyond engineering classes. Most students in general today seem to seek accolades (grades) without placing value on understanding. In my experience, most (but not all) of these people either end up dropping out of engineering programs, or immediately getting their MBA and never working as engineers.

    That said, there is a lot of truth in your statement — I saw the exact same thing when I went to college over a decade ago, and I was troubled by it. Sadly, there were no ‘hackerspaces’ then, so I just had to keep my enthusiasm to myself (but not anymore – yay!).

    Obviously, this is an idea with many layers, and it is driven as much by individual situation as by the general disposition of the working world, so there are going to be lots of reasons why folks pursue engineering as a career.

  3. I think something to take into account is ‘when’ the person enters into schooling for it.

    I think kids right out of high school vs adults who go back to become engineers may have different perspectives on your question.

  4. Adafruit Support

    The “just a job” attitude goes beyond the college level too. Anyone who has spent any time in and around large engineering organizations has seen plenty of engineers that are just there for the paycheck.

    And different people have different ideas about what it means to “make something” too. I recall a dinner one evening at an international sales conference in Europe. I was the only engineer at the table, and one of the marketing people started talking about how glad he was to be out of engineering.

    Engineering to him was just “turning the crank”. He felt that marketing gave him the freedom to “create something from nothing”. Considering that I had personally proposed, designed, built, photographed and even written the ad-copy for the product he was selling, I found that statement to be more than a little amusing.

  5. I think there are many things that play into this. There are a few engineers that I know that do it because they love it but there are also many that do it for the money. The ones that do it because they love it are willing to explain the process to you and always looking for a better way to solve the problem. The ones that are in it just for the cash just want to get it done and (at least here) are more likely to make mistakes as they do not go back to check their work and don’t run their ideas past other engineers as this would be seen as extra work.

  6. I don’t know even half of the 150 engineers on my floor, but I’m pretty sure most don’t live and breath engineering. And that’s OK. I think that most professionals don’t care enough to bring their vocation into their private lives. Further, the people who aren’t engineers after hours are 99% just as smart and creative as the full timers.

    The thing is, we do what we do for ourselves. And whether we’re engineers, musicians, chefs – the common thing is that we’ve oriented our careers around our passions, and we don’t resent as much of our 40-60 hours a week as our peers do.

    It’s not about ability nor is it about success. I think it’s a pretty sad life when upon waking up you look forward to getting home in the evening. It’s about enjoying a huge chunk of your life that most people engage in only because they need the pay check.

  7. Within the first decade after finishing my engineering degree, I learned that I prefer the process of explaining how something works more than I enjoyed working as a developer in a huge engineering team. I observed my tendency to procrastinate some tasks and to enjoy other tasks. I looked inward to see what parts felt like “just a job” and what tasks gave me a sense of purpose and energy. This led me into technical writing and technical training. I now volunteer as a trainer almost as much as I work my paying job as a trainer, because I find it so fullfilling.

    -Christin Boyd, Event Producer, Seattle Mini Maker Faire

  8. I think this question also depends on what kind of engineer you are. I am a Software engineer and I don’t think I could be as good at what I do if I only did it for the money. I spend most of my free time reading new things and trying to get even better at my craft. While also making things along the way for the fun of it

  9. Gustavo Olivares

    Interesting question … and interesting answers!

    I can only talk from my experience and that says that whatever I do it is not "just a …". I am passionate about many things and I believe that I would not be able to do anything for too long if that wasn’t part of *me*.

    Having said that, I totally agree with horton in that it would be pretty sad to go to work and having the paycheck as the only motivation.I feel very fortunate that I actually found the thing that makes me "tic" and that the economical reward I get is sufficient for my lifestyle so I’m not in a position where I *have* to do something to pay the bill, I can pay the bills doing what I love.

    So, finally, and to give an answer to the original question:
    Yes, engineering *can* be "just a job" just as cooking, playing an instrument, building, sweeping or any other activity *can* be… but it is *SO* much better when it is not, when you thoroughly enjoy what you do and when you can see parts of yourself (figuratively speaking) in your work … I *love* what I do and to me it is not just a job.

    I love this quote that I found in this site:
    "It’s only "work" if you’d rather be doing something else" -Dean Kamen

  10. Speaking personally, I do engineering because I *have* to. There’s all this stuff coming out of my head all the time.

    Some people draw or paint lines, or sculpt, or compose symphonies.

    I write software and design circuits.

    It’s not enough to just “get the job done.” My solution must also be *elegant* or it offends my aesthetic senibilities.

    I am blessed that I am able to do engineering that way at my full-time (day) job. If I couldn’t I’d have to do it on my own in order to not go crazy.

    I make a very comfortable living, but (don’t tell my boss) I’d probably do it for free.

  11. I have been designing and developing embedded systems that are widely deployed for about thirty years. I enjoy the technology, and I enjoy the technological change, but I don’t enjoy every aspect of my job, and I certainly wouldn’t be doing this if the pay was not so excellent. And the pay, in regard to actual effort, is excellent. Maybe that is because thinking comes easy for me. Or maybe because I had a few years of experience (before college) of heavy physical labor. And the pay for that was pitiful.

    What are the downsides of my chosen career? How about the fact that I get four weeks of vacation every year, but while I am gone, no one really covers my work, it just piles up. Or the fact that for each product development cycle (runs about three years) I have to read between 4000 and 6000 pages of the dullest, driest, most opaque documentation that you can possible imagine. It has completely killed the joy of reading. Or the fact that I am beholden to a set of development guidelines and tools that are not of my choosing, in the spirit of maintaining a common shared development environment for 15,000 engineers.

    So the "newness" is fun. The technology is fun. Working on things that no one else will see for the next eighteen months is fun. But there are a lot of downsides, and the skids are greased by a generous salary.

    Here is a hint about what I like about the technological change. If you imagine the internal structure of a modern SOC, for example, what you see in a cell phone, you have multiple CPUs, and multiple peripherals, all on a piece of silicon. Basically, an entire 2000 era ‘motherboard’ on a chip. How are all those cores interconnected? Chances are, not the way you imagine.

    So yes, it isn’t just the money, it is the nerdy technology, but there is enough soul crushing overhead that only cold hard cash can soothe.

  12. I love building things and I want to know how things work or how they are made. This is why I entered college as an engineering major. School and the career path I chose just haven’t lived up to my expectations. I design HVAC systems for buildings. My designs are driven by budgets and building codes. There is little opportunity to think outside of the box. Today’s economy only makes this worse. Right now, I would say engineering is just a job. My employer is always looking for ways to make the design process easier, more efficient and less expensive.

    I had friends that went into manufacturing. They designed shelving for Home Depot, conveyor belts for UPS and printed logos on the sides of wrenches. I am guessing that they would agree with the job perspective.

    The reality that I came to accept is that few engineers work for NASA or the like. Even some that do are faced with the reality of working on some small piece of the whole.

    Watching MIT, robot ping-pong competitions on PBS while growing up inspired me to become an engineer. I am still trying to tie that inspiration to my career.

  13. Wow! These are all great answers — insightful and expressive — you guys rock! 🙂

    Keep ’em coming!

  14. Charles Griffin

    A quarter of a century ago, when I earned my Electrical Engineering degree at a well-regarded institution, I believed that about 3/4 of the graduates did not know which end of a soldering iron (or hammer) to hold. Many of my peers went directly into Wall Street, and over the years most of the rest of them went into pure (non-technical) management or became deskbound rubber-stampers.

    Few of my fellow graduates have any idea about what is currently happening with Arduino, 3D printing, open-source hardware, open-source software, 3D modeling, digital design, or anything else that interests most of us here. On the other hand, most of them have done very well financially, choosing the opportunities that were most lucrative over those that (I would have considered) would have been most interesting.

    Luckily, there are plenty of us around to teach their kids and grandkids (and point them to awesome web resources like this one.)

    I’d say that *being* an engineer is a state of living. It’s a way of thinking and viewing the world. And trying to fix it. It often does not match directly with the higher-level education that one chooses. I know that when I have had jobs that did not include "engineering" anywhere in the HR job profile, I still did the job as an engineer.

  15. To be an engineer/doctor/any profession.. All you need is the knowledge and the qualification. So yes. It is definitely possible to be an (insert profession) purely for money.

    To be a GOOD engineer, or anything for that matter, you need passion. Because anything above pretty menial unskilled jobs is going to take a certain amount of self direction.

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