As an engineer, you have a unique opportunity to design products that can improve quality of life, fuel economic activity, or simply entertain. But engineering takes a serious commitment. You never know enough, so you're always reading and studying technical journals—like Electronic Design—and it's usually on your own time.
Your primary tools are your knowledge and your creativity, so you're likely to find yourself back in school honing your skills to stay current. You also probably belong to a professional society or two, finding time to fit in association meetings around work hours and family life. And if you're like most engineers, you constantly build and maintain a network of colleagues in and around the industry, just in case you need to bounce ideas off someone or want to investigate other employment opportunities.
So when payday rolls around, do the rewards justify all that effort? The majority of you think they do, with 58% saying that they feel adequately compensated for the work they do—although this falls slightly below last year's figure. Moreover, 83% of engineers say they would recommend engineering to a young person looking to choose a career path. That's a bit higher than the 77% who expressed such a sentiment a year ago. "Engineering can be very rewarding financially—and personally satisfying—for people with the right aptitude and abilities," said one engineer.
Why such high grades for a profession that's facing challenges on so many fronts? Another engineer put it this way: "It has to be one of the most exciting careers you can choose. Technology is always advancing. There are always new challenges and problems to solve. Things that weren't possible one decade may be possible the next. Plus, you get to work with a bunch of other folks who feel the same way, too."
Despite perceptions to the contrary, engineering still offers a relatively high degree of job security. Only one out of 10 survey respondents said their company planned to scale back engineering staff this year, and nearly 40% said their companies planned to increase the number of engineering jobs in the coming year.
"For those with the right skill sets interested in a challenging career, engineering offers a lot of opportunity in a reasonably secure profession," confirmed one engineer. "Growth opportunities are fairly easily found, and the job market is fairly good."
Only 11% said they were actively seeking a new position, though nearly a third indicated that they would follow up a lead if the right opportunity came along. About 30% said they'd only consider another job if they were personally approached, while 26% said they were staying put no matter what.
Perhaps only 11% were actively seeking a new position due to the promotion possibilities within their company. For those survey respondents who changed titles this year, 30% said it resulted from a promotion with the same employer based upon merit and/or training. Other reasons for title changes were that they left the previous company to pursue other opportunities (19%); reassignment due to layoffs or restructuring with the same employer (13%); or they were laid off or fired from their previous employer (12%).
The job-related issues creating the most stress at work this year look very similar to the ones our respondents have experienced previously. Topping the list are insufficient human resources to get the job done, difficulties finding the right components for their designs, time-to-market pressures, being required to compromise their design approaches, and insufficient funding for design projects.
Nearly half of the engineers surveyed said that even before they finish one design project, their company begins creating concepts for the product that will replace it. "Sometimes a design can seem obsolete before I even get it out of the prototyping stage," remarked one engineer.
While engineers may be working longer hours these days, they're not losing as much sleep worrying about professional issues as they have in the past. In fact, one in five said that no work-related issues at all keep them up at night. However, those who do count sheep worry most about looming project deadlines, trying to stay current with new and emerging technologies, product reliability issues, job security, and the general health of the economy.
"Engineering is not as secure a profession as it once was," one engineer commented. "It is a field that requires constant study to keep skills up to date. It is continually faced with many challenges—both technical and political. An engineer's worth is what they can deliver today, not what they accomplished yesterday. If you enjoy the challenges, then it can be very rewarding. But I know many fellow engineers for whom it is difficult to handle—they just try to get by."
That outsourcing word
Fears over outsourcing continue to swell. Last year, outsourcing issues ranked eighth on the engineer's list of concerns, moving up from the number 12 spot the year before. This year it moved up even further, placing sixth.
"While I've had a rewarding and profitable career, it is my perception that the long-term, stable engineering jobs are threatened by outsourcing," said one industry veteran. "I believe the wage structure, stability of employment, and reasonable working hours are in jeopardy. I also think that engineering management is actively transferring intellectual property offshore in their search for cheap engineering talent willing to work excessively long hours."
Not all survey respondents shared this negative view toward outsourcing, however. In fact, many engineers and engineering managers alike pointed out some of its benefits, including providing relief to overworked staffs, speeding time-to-market, avoiding layoffs, tapping necessary expertise, and generally benefiting the bottom line.
No other topic generated as much response—much of it passionate— from readers. One engineer summed it up by saying: "Outsourcing can be good or bad, depending on how it is used. Generally, if it is done to relieve a temporary workload problem, or to take the routine work away to free up a creative team, it can be good. But if it is done strictly because it looks good on a spreadsheet, outsourcing can be a nightmare.
"In general, I think what matters most is the motivation of upper management when they decide to outsource. I have seen outsourcing go terribly wrong because the scope of the project was not well defined, so that pieces of the project did not work with each other—leaving someone local to 'clean up' after the outsourcing parade had gone by. And that cleanup took more time and effort than was 'saved' by outsourcing.
"I have also seen absolutely beautiful work, done on time and on budget, by an outsourced team brought in for a specific project. The company did not have the expertise in-house, and developing that expertise for a one-off project was not justifiable, either. As long as you keep your resume current, maintain your personal and professional networks, and keep retooling yourself, you should be okay—but don't expect any of this to come easy."
A rewarding experience
With so many sources of stress, what are the satisfactions you get that make it all worthwhile? Even more than the opportunity to make a good living, it's the challenges that accompany the design of new products and the opportunity to research potential design solutions.
According to one engineer, "The work is very challenging but tremendously rewarding. Even with all the new computer modeling tools and a great engineering staff, things go wrong with most initial designs. I've been around long enough to watch young engineers struggle through their first designs and see how devastated they become when something goes wrong. What's great is seeing them solve the problem, then pass their experience and expertise on to the next 'new guy.'"
A full 43% of engineers characterize their current design project as a brand-new generation of products, as opposed to simply an extension to the company's existing product line. Therefore, engineering certainly provides adequate opportunities for you to flex your creative muscles.
"The many flavors of engineering allow a person to engage his or her creative drives in ways that satisfy on many levels," said one engineer. "Making things work feels good. Knowing that many will gain greater enjoyment from life because of work that one has done is a kind of compensation that money can't buy."
Following your salary, what gets you juiced the most is the opportunity to design products that can benefit society and the recognition you get from others for the work you do. "Engineering is a good way to contribute to the progress of humanity and quality of life," noted one engineer. "It's very rewarding to see something you designed working and making a difference."
Interestingly enough, despite the fact that engineers love to solve design problems, this year's survey respondents indicated they received less satisfaction from the pressures associated with finding design solutions. This may result from engineers spending more time at work solving these problems and not seeing the rewards in their paychecks.
Of course, lots of factors contribute to job satisfaction, and these can vary depending on the size and nature of the company you work for and what stage you're at career-wise. Engineers at smaller companies work on smaller project teams and shoulder more responsibilities about the things that can make or break a design, like sourcing components and ensuring adequate product testing. By contrast, engineers at bigger organizations tend to worry about bigger issues, like reductions in staff, job security, and outsourcing.
At the end of the day, your true satisfaction comes from the opportunity to be masters of technology. You get to play with it, transcend it, innovate with it, and see it benefit others.
"Creating a product that has tangible use is satisfying," said one engineer. "Solving design challenges is fulfilling. Troubleshooting systems and making corrections to make them work is fun. And although some engineers claim to get no respect, when you get a system back up and running, you get respect. The money may not be as great as a doctor or a lawyer, but I'm paid well enough to be happy."
It doesn't get much better than that.