Differing Interests Define Engineering Dream Jobs

Oct. 19, 2007
Engineering stars and Electronic Design readers alike were able to engineer their dream jobs based on both passion and talent. Those who haven't quite found their yet see home in tomorrow's technologies.

In his senior year at the University of California, Electronic Design reader Thanh Nguyen remembers the chair of the physics department cancelling class so students and professors could watch NASA's firstever shuttle launch. As Columbia lifted off on April 12, 1981, Nguyen's dreams of working for NASA were just taking flight.

"I remember sitting in the physics department's conference room and watching the shuttle lift off flawlessly for the first time," Nguyen said in a recent reader survey. "I dreamed someday I could work on a space program like the shuttle."

Nguyen is now a senior electrical engineer at NASA's Glenn Research Center, working on the Constellation space program, which aims to return man to the moon and eventually reach Mars. Like many engineers, Nguyen found his dream job by responding to a national need.

The final frontier has long driven people to pursue careers in electrical engineering, most famously during the Space Race and the Cold War, which sparked a major influx of inspired people into the profession. Subsequent waves of inspiration came during the computer hardware, software, and Internet era. The latest generation of engineers has a range of innovative fields - like alternative energy, green engineering, and nanotechnology - to motivate them.

Some engineers have achieved fame in their fields, like astronauts Scott J. Kelly and Rick Mastracchio, Apple star Steve Wozniak, and "Electric Boy Genius" Ryan Patterson. But regardless of their renown, personal passion seems to be the most important motivator for today's and tomorrow's engineers alike. In fact, a few Electronic Design readers told us in our 2007 survey that they absolutely love what they do and shared some glimpses of their daily routines. And they told us not only what makes a job a dream for them, they also explained what doesn't.

Elements of a Dream Job

Mike Collette is his own boss. He gets to design products that he loves to use, and he does it as his own pace. He has carved out an ideal niche for himself engineering digital backs for regular film cameras via the company he created, Better Light Inc., about 15 years ago. These elements alone are enough for Collette to say that he's living his dream job.

That's also the case for a number of readers. Maybe they haven't contributed to the launch of a NASA shuttle or designed the next iPod, but many Electronic Design readers do get to do cool things all the time. For example, Spencer Klein tests sensors for a high-energy "telescope" at the South Pole. Meanwhile, Ricky Howard engineers sensors for autonomous docking systems at NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center.

Many readers were satisfied calling their job a "dream job" simply if they enjoyed it or if they could see the fruits of their labor being used for the greater good, especially in fields like medical electronics and defense technologies. (Fig. 1)

"Working on medical electronics is extremely satisfying knowing that the technology will be applied to healing and improving the lives of others," said Alan Ritter, an Engineering Fellow with Bausch & Lomb.

One reader involved in the defense industry said "working on a significant problem with a great deal of potential impact on human safety" made his a dream job.

For many readers, feeling challenged was another vital element of a dream job, which aligns with those defining characteristics of engineers: they're creative and they're problemsolvers. Ray Dargento's gig with a satellite operating company, where he works with technology that will be deployed in an environment as harsh as outer space, presents constant challenges.(Fig. 2)

"Every facet of engineering must be considered when designing for the space environment: mechanical, thermal, packaging, radiation," Dargento said. "Everything plays a part in the reliability and functionality picture."

A number of readers agreed. "I enjoy being semi-autonomous, using my imagination, thinking outside the box, and showing young engineers 'how,'" said Mike Blood, a senior engineering tech with Honeywell Inc., Redmond Test Systems.

Some readers were simply satisfied if they had a good office environment. For them, a job's "dreaminess" hinged on relationships with coworkers and team members. And if it allowed flexible work hours and left sufficient time for family, it was ideal. (Fig. 3)

It's obvious that a "dream job" is a matter of individual preference, and it's awarded the title if it meets an individual's standard for satisfaction. For a little less than half the readership, their jobs were not up to personal par, and often for similar reasons. The lack of opportunity to do design engineering was a major drawback. (Fig. 4)

Where Has All the Design Work Gone?

"When I started, I spent about 90% of my time doing engineering work and 10% non-engineering paper-pushing," said one reader who worked in a government engineering job. "Now the situation is almost reversed."

As more design work gets outsourced or is given to H-1B visa holders to save money on production costs, survey responders said jobs that once required design skill have turned into little more than paperpushing.

Such a drain on creativity leaves much to be desired and has prompted some engineers to pursue degrees in business administration or make the switch to managerial positions to find better job security within the field.

"This field has seen a significant shift from engineering-driven leadership to business-driven leadership," said Don Rumrill, a principal engineer for BAE Systems. "An MBA with an engineering background is more valuable than a PhD in engineering."

Rumrill, however, hasn't been affected by the shift and is living his dream job in aerospace. But he has observed how engineers are treated as a commodity, rather than respected professionals - another complaint from readers not in their dream jobs.

Readers said the bottom line is to blame. With companies constantly looking to cut costs, employees feel their jobs are expendable. An environment with low morale hardly provides the context for a dream job. (Fig. 5)

Promising Opportunities

Fifty-five percent of readers who aren't currently in their dream jobs, however, said they're not discouraged from looking for one. The future holds some exciting challenges, and electrical engineers see plenty of opportunity in tomorrow's dream jobs.

Readers said medical electronics, space exploration, national defense, and nanotechnology are promising fields that will abound with jobs for EEs. But it's alternative energy that incites most readers' passions: 35% said they'd prefer to work in the field if they had the chance. (Fig. 6)

"Energy is a fundamental need for all life and business," said Edward R. Johnson, president of BanDao Associates, which does a significant amount of alternative energy systems design. "Where there is pain, there is opportunity. Today there is a lot of pain in energy."

Global warming and fossil fuel consumption may seem like problems now, but engineers today and tomorrow alike will go to work to try and come up with solutions. And opportunities extend beyond environmentally friendly fuel sources for cars, as innovations that curb electricity consumption and supply consumers' power demands cleanly and efficiently will continue to be in demand as America goes green.

Readers were also drawn to the field of medical electronics; 23% said they'd like to find their future dream jobs in the field. The rapidly advancing field of medical imaging will demand engineers to create these systems, which will sharpen diagnostic ability and ultimately increase survival rates for certain diseases. (Fig. 7)

And that's just the beginning of the opportunities. With so many promising fields, engineers are likely to continue finding "dream jobs" in electronic design. Hurdles like outsourcing and fewer hands-on design jobs will be overcome as U.S. engineers tap into their creativity to forge the next generation of technological advances. (Fig. 8)

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