Why Engineers Should Plan For Early Retirement

Why Engineers should plan for early retirementIs engineering a good field to get into? Would I recommend engineering to my son? That’s a tough question. I was an engineer (chip designer) for 16 years before I retired to become a stay-at-home dad/blogger. Engineering was a great career in the beginning and I enjoyed it tremendously when I was young. However, my career didn’t last. I still think it is still a good field to get into, but every engineer should know that it probably will be a short career.

This is especially true if you love the technical aspect of engineering. You’ll get to work on all sorts to technical challenges when you’re young. However, you’ll spend less time on technical issues as you advance in your career. Eventually, you’ll have to transition to a different role. Everyone I know from my engineering program no longer works on the technical side. Now, my friends are in management, marketing, training, or have exited the engineering field altogether.

When I was young, I thought an engineering career would last 40 years. But I was so wrong. Only a very lucky few will have a long career in the technical field. Most engineers will have to adapt and transition to another role. This is why engineers should plan for early retirement. If your career works out, then that’s great. You’ll keep the early retirement option in your back pocket. If your career went down the drain like mine did, you’ll be able to say goodbye without begging.

Now, let’s see why I think every engineer should plan for an early retirement.

Technical work

I loved being an engineer when I was young. It was a lot of fun learning how to design and validate a computer chip. The process was fascinating. The designers wrote codes to specify how the chips would work. Then, we simulated the design to make sure it worked correctly. Once it looked good, we sent it off to the fab (tapeout.) After a few months, we’d get a prototype chip back. Then, we spent days and nights in the lab to make sure the chip worked in a real system. It was a ton of fun for young engineers, especially if the chip didn’t have too many bugs.

Most kids get into engineering because they’re good at math and science. Being an engineer let them work on what they’re good at. I really enjoyed the technical part of engineering. Unfortunately, as I progressed in my career, I got to work less and less on the technical challenges. Truth is – it’s easy to train young engineers to do the technical work. If you’re senior, the company expects you to do more.

They want to get their money’s worth. This means more meetings, managing, networking, mentoring, and all sorts of crap that I was horrible at. That’s a big part of why engineering wasn’t the right fit for me anymore. I liked being a junior engineer and working on the technical side of things. However, the company was paying me to be a senior engineer and they wanted me to do more. Unfortunately, I couldn’t reconcile the difference and had to retire from my engineering career.

High stress

Being an engineer can be pretty stressful. There are always deadlines to meet and if you’re the one holding up the product, the heat is on. The chip design process was fun in retrospect, but it was very stressful when I was in the middle of it. There was a lot of pressure to finish fast in every step. However, we had to be thorough too. Leaving a bug in a chip can cost the company millions of dollars.

Every company needs to get the product to the market ASAP because any delay means a loss of profit and market share. Engineering is a stressful career. The management will always pressure you to do more. This is fine when you’re young, but it’s not good in the long term. Constant stress and a sedentary lifestyle in front of the monitor will lead to chronic health issues. My physical and mental health was deteriorating rapidly by the end of my engineering career. I knew I had to get out or I’d be carried out.

A lot of time commitment

At many companies, engineers are expected to work 60-70 hours/week with no overtime pay. This is fine when you’re young and single because you want to get ahead. I spent a lot of time at work when I first started and I didn’t mind at all. If you work late, the company usually provides dinner and snacks, so it was very convenient for a single guy. Once you have a family, then you really don’t want to spend a lot of time at the office anymore.

Although, these days it’s pretty easy to work from home. So that’s what many engineers do. Actually, I don’t think working from home is a good solution either. Then the company expects you to be available 24/7. It’s not good for the family.

When a product is nearing the deadline, then the managers will pressure for more output. If you refuse to work late, then you can be sure it will show up in your next annual review. This kind of time commitment is a better fit for young engineers. I can’t work like that anymore.

Replacement parts

Every engineer would like to think that they’re essential to the operation. However, anyone can be replaced. You are just a cog in the machine. There are thousands of young engineers graduating every year. They are younger, smarter, cheaper, and probably better looking than you. It’s easy to replace an engineer. Life will go on as usual even if the most crucial engineer leaves the project. Your ego will tell you that they can’t replace you, but that’s not true.

*Although, the employees might have a bit more power in 2019. The unemployment rate is so low. It’s probably harder to replace you now. However, this market condition won’t last. It never does. In a few years, there will be a glut of engineers looking for work and engineers will be replaceable again.

Seniority & Leadership

As you become more senior, the company will expect you to take on more leadership roles. One career path is to become a manager. Some engineers are good at project management, but most aren’t very good at managing people (that’s me.) This also takes you completely out of engineering, so it’s a career change. Going into management basically means retiring from your engineering career.

The other path is to become a senior engineer. This path will let you do some engineering stuff, but you’ll still spend a ton of time in meetings. Companies want more from their senior engineers. When you get to a certain level, you need to become a “multiplier.” This means you need to work more effectively through other people. Basically, doing technical work isn’t enough anymore. You need to have lots of meeting and hash things out. When you become a “multiplier”, you don’t get to work on the technical stuff much anymore.

Sunk cost

I invested a lot of time and effort into my engineering career. I spent 5 years in college to get my BS and MS in electrical engineering. After college, I joined Intel and started as a junior design engineer. My starting salary was around $50,000/year in 1996. I worked hard and got several promotions early on in my career. Eventually, I made a little over six figures per year. I also became an expert in my niche. It felt good to be the go-to guy. I invested 21 years to get where I was. That’s a lot of sunk cost.

Retiring from engineering threw all that out the window. Being a stay-at-home dad/blogger is great, but it doesn’t make much money. Well, I made $82,045 in 2018, but that was a lucky year. Normally, I make about $30,000/year with my blog. So income wise, it’s like starting over.

I think the sunk cost fallacy prevents a lot of people from retiring early. They spent so much time and energy to get where they are in their career. It’s hard to step away unless something drastic happens. However, I really disliked my job by the end. I was stressed out and hated going to work. If I stayed, life would be miserable for me and everyone around me. The sunk cost is gone so we need to make the best of what we got today.

Financial Freedom

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Engineering was a lot of fun for me when I was young. It only got worse about 10 years in. The other good part is that engineers get paid pretty well. I started saving with my first paycheck and I was able to retire after 16 years. If you save and follows the 8 essential things to do to retire early, then it should be possible for you too. Engineering is a great career if you save and invest consistently.

Early Retirement

I’m sure there are other careers that have similar issues, but I think an engineering career really can’t last a lifetime anymore. This is especially true if you like doing technical work. As you progress up the career ladder, you won’t get to do much of it anymore. I guess you can try to go back to lower level positions, but then you’d have a lower salary and also you’d need to compete with younger engineers. That’s a good answer either. I knew some older engineers that continued to do technical stuff. They inevitably fell behind their younger colleagues and were the first to get laid off.

This is why every engineer should plan for early retirement. I’ve been retired since 2012 and it’s been the best 7 years of my life. Most of my engineer friends from college hadn’t retired yet, but they all changed to a different field now. You can’t count on an engineering career to last. An engineering career probably will last just 10-20 years before you need to transition into something else. You need more options, so save up and shoot for financial independence.

So yes, I would recommend engineering for my son if he is good with math and science. However, I’ll make sure he knows it probably will be a short career. He needs to plan for early retirement if he goes into engineering. You have to be adaptable and never hesitate to move on when the time comes.

What’s your career and does it have similar issues?

Sign up for a free account at Personal Capital to help manage your investments. I log in almost every day to check on my investment accounts and cash flow. It’s a great site for DIY investors.

See my guide – How to Start a Blog and Why You Should. Starting a blog changed my life. It provides some income after retirement and it’s a great way to build a community. Those are the two biggest problems after retirement. It’s a great way to use some of your free time.

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*Thoroughly updated in 2019.

Image by Clint Bustrillo

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Joe started Retire by 40 in 2010 to figure out how to retire early. After 16 years of investing and saving, he achieved financial independence and retired at 38.

Passive income is the key to early retirement. This year, Joe is investing in commercial real estate with CrowdStreet. They have many projects across the USA so check them out!

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120 thoughts on “Why Engineers Should Plan For Early Retirement”

  1. As a civil engineer I’ve spent most of my 34 year career trying to stay on the technical side of projects. I am required to manage projects, manage a few employees, monitor budgets, write proposals, mentor, market etc. but in civil engineering you do not have to abandon the technical side completely. In many cases the younger engineers lack the experience so older engineers are required to provide guidance and also perform more complicated design work. I expect to continue working as a civil engineer in some capacity for probably another 10 years but I will do it part time. I’m 58 and expect to transition to permanently working part time in the next 2-3 years. I have no debt, have saved for retirement, and have an emergency fund. I can pay my bills working 3 days a week. Working part time is not unusual for civil engineers my age, and companies would rather you worked 3 or 4 days a week than leave the work force. Older engineers in the civil field are sought after to maintain technical capabilities of a company and are key to getting selected for project work as many selections are based on qualifications.

  2. I’m an English Engineer with a PhD – got trapped here in a semiconductor company and a bad marriage that ended. Ended up with PTSD after going through project after project where I was the point man for the delivery of impossible goals. I do not believe semiconductors in the US is going to last much longer. It’s now run by ass*oles whose only objective in life is to suck the life out of you and collect stock options to check out early. I’m 47 now and moved into teaching college this last year but am now on disability, divorced and am heading back overseas next year. Sometimes you just have to GTFO but with kids you need to wait unfortunately. Now is my time to be happy. I am moving into property development and construction engineering after doing a degree online in the field. Civil Engineering (my plan B) is a lot easier than Electrical to study even at my age. I still love engineering but hate anything where you are competing with the Chinese. That’s a F*cked up game that the US cannot win – I’m sorry. So people have become Ass*oles here in the last 20 years chasing dwindling revenues. The smart ones got out years ago. Electronics would have been wonderful in the 50’s and 60’s but now it sucks so bad I had colleagues that were unable to work for years due to mental health conditions and others who committed suicide. I’m going to a place where people know their neighbours and its not here sorry. People here just need to become nicer full stop. I’ll be giving up citizenship and will never return ever.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your experience. It looks like the industry didn’t get any nicer after I left 9 years ago.
      I hope you can move on and become happier. Don’t be bitter. You’re lucky to get out early, right?

      • Yes.. the bitterness will fade as I return to a happy place. Yes I have been so much happier teaching so getting out has been great. The division I was in had 400 people – now its down to about 80. Young engineers who had no experience were just given simulation files that those of us before had perfected and adapted them to whatever new designs were needed. And then even now they are few because the business is no longer there. Likewise Principal engineers are now those with little experience and the pay levels have likewise dropped. Most of them are on the visa hook from China or India. Western engineers will soon be a rarity. Like I said, I don’t think it will last much longer as the business is drying up. Just look across the industry – there aren’t that many fabs left in the US. And the killer is chip design know-how has also moved abroad. My first boss said when I entered America if it doesn’t pay there is no point in being here. You give up a lot to come in terms of family and lifestyle. 99% are here for the money. I probably pulled in several Million and saved what I could. Here is a tip. I lived in a Mansion – don’t buy expensive property in the US. You will probably get your money back but you won’t see capital gains on it – there is too much supply at the top end of the market and not enough buyers. Stick to family housing and rental properties. I probably have about a Million in cash to leave with after cutting it in half for the ex – and hopefully a new 15-20 year career in property and Civil Eng. What I have found is that since wages have dropped/stagnated here I can pull similar wages now back home which didn’t used to be the case 20 years ago – wages have flattened or dropped for the average Joe. 20 years ago I was pulling in 6 figures after 6 months – 20 years on I make about 50K more so I consider myself lucky but that is a very poor performance for the tech sector. The US department of Labor predicted back in 2000 that electronics would contract at 1% a year. I think that has happened at the same time the industry leaders have pushed for a flood of new grads to come in so its been a squeeze. 3 years ago we advertised for a technician – We got over a 1000 resume’s and had to tell the HR not to send us any more. What shocked me was the head of the department weeded out those with the minimal amount of experience and education to interview. Great candidates were binned. I can only assume this was so they could offer the lowest pay to these candidates. So my first US bosses advice – I am taking. The kicker was the nastiness of the people here has been so unnecessary – and it goes beyond the business environment – people in the street don’t treat each other the way I would expect. That lead to the bitterness. But like I said that will go when I am no longer around these people. Teaching college is good but its a business here with still some nastiness due to the publish or perish mentality but nothing like the industry. Back home I think I will step down a notch and maybe at first do some vocational teaching instead before I get a toehold in some small business with people I can be friends with. So still young enough for another career. So you are right I am lucky – still a good life to live.

  3. These days, trying to earn a living in mechanical engineering is a grand delusion.

    Why be an engineer when you can make far more money for decades being a plumber?

  4. This was a nice read. I am currently an Engineer in Harvest mode. Basically 20 plus years of service for an IC manufacturer that is currently building a large fab in a southern state. Lets say in this state things are big. Started at high 30K when hired and currently in the low 6 figures. Guess my head was in the clouds thinking it would last forever but I see so many parallels in this write up. The shift from technical to being a mentor and transferring what I know to the younger Engineers ( just wait until they hit there 40’s and find out they were always in the same boat) . All the freaking meetings just kill me! I just want to get back into the lab and not listen to all the pontificating about how “we” do it. What a great way of not innovating, doing everything the same way.
    I digress, the investment of 5 years of studying and all the sacrifice to get a career that lasts only a decade doesn’t seem worth it? All this STEM BS is just for the employer to keep the door rotating with new hires as they use up and Harvest the older group and usher them out the exit.
    My advice for young Engineers, take the employer for all its got and stuff your pockets and save as much as you can. They don’t care about you. They just wish to use you up and spit you out. I tallied up the amount of my Salary for the 20 years I worked in the machine grinder (and yes 60 – 70 hr weeks are common, I once put in a 90 plus hour week that almost killed me). It came to 1.4 million. This year, one of the VP cashed in 10,000,000 in stock options. That is a salary of 100,000 a year for 100 years. Not bad, but they won’t give it to you.
    When they do usher me out I am hoping for a severance. It most likely will include 1 week pay per year of service. If you paid attention above, I gave them 1-2 weeks a month for free. My 20 years of service was actually 25 to 30 years of man hours. I gave them 5-10 years for free. This allows them to give those 10 million dollars of options to those in higher ranks. Me? I get to feel foolish to think I mattered, I was hard to replace and the work I enjoyed would last a lifetime. Boy, I am an Engineer, supposed to be smart, was I fooled! (OK, it isn’t all bad. Being an Electrical Engineer means I can repair anything man has ever made. Saves me a boat load of cash in repair and maintenance costs!) Good luck to those who still decide to move into the field. Watch for that door behind you.

  5. I find this particularly relevant to me as I close my work laptop late at night on a Friday having just gotten done with work for my employer- the same as your old employer. 10 years of increasingly less technical roles, and I’m only planning on about another 5-10 years maximum before I’m entirely out to pasture.
    Guess the work culture hasn’t really changed that much in 8 years. Well (for me), head down, chin up and all that. It’s good to know that I’m not alone in enjoying parts of the experience but feeling ready to move onto the next thing.

  6. Interesting take on engineering. I almost became one, but switched majors. Although I found your article informative and helpful I have to disagree with you on one of your statements: “However, the company was paying me to be a senior engineer and they wanted me to do more. Unfortunately, I couldn’t reconcile the difference and had to retire from my engineering career.”

    If you loved the technical side of things, and found out you hated the more Senior level role you could have simply asked for a pay cut and step down in the company. If you couldn’t get your company onboard you could have gone to another company. I am sure there would have been a company willing to pay a Senior level engineer more Junior level pay for a more enjoyable job.

    You did address this with your statement: “I knew some older engineers that continued to do technical stuff. They inevitably fell behind their younger colleagues and were the first to get laid off.” Is this really such a horrible thing? You do work you love, but have to keep more money in emergency savings in case of layoff? As you mention saving for FI is necessary, but while you’re working why not use your FI/savings to negotiate a better job for yourself?

    In the end you retired early, and are apparently enjoying your retirement. However, would it not have been easier to become better at negotiating for a more enjoyable work life? Then you really wouldn’t have needed to retire early. So many more options, and a more enjoyable life in your journey to FI/RE. It might have taken you more years of work, but they would have been more enjoyable.

    That’s my take. As stated I am not an Engineer, but a Nurse. If you look you’ll see that nursing is high stress as well. However, when I applied the concepts from FI and progressed in the field I became more valuable to my employers. This allowed me to change up my work life, which made work a lot more enjoyable. Whenever a situation arises that I don’t like I approach the manager and negotiate. If no solution can be reached, I move on. It costs employers a lot of money to train new staff, so they are generally inclined to keep you.

    • It’s much harder now to stick with the technical side. You can do that in smaller companies, but you still need to take on more leadership responsibilities. Most companies prefer to hire younger engineers to do technical work. They can work 60-80 hours per week and they won’t complain. It’s easier to absorb young engineers into the company culture.
      Senior engineers need to specialize in a particularly difficult niche or else they need to take on more leadership roles.
      Nursing is a different field. I think they value experience more. The technology probably doesn’t change as fast. Engineers need to keep learning new technical stuff. That gets harder with age too. Thanks for your feedback. Nursing sounds like a good field. Also, thanks for your service and stay safe!

  7. I feel a very, very strong resonance with your story. I can say, I share a rather similar journey with you.
    Struggled in freshman year in college, BS/MS, enjoyed junior engineer work before dipping into corporate culture and politics, forced to fake being someone I am not, starting to think about a career shift that is less gut spilling and more enjoyable, and family-friendly.

    However, it does not seem $30k income a year is enough to even support a family, even yourself. I want to ask you, what does your wife do?

    • My wife is in the HR department. She has a good income, but she plans to retire in a year or two.
      The key to early retirement is saving up in your early years. Use that money to generate passive income.
      Passive income + $30k/year is not bad at all.

  8. Sometimes I google whats on my mind and come across an interesting post and this is one of those times.
    20+ years into software systems engineering. Currently interviewing and learning that employers expect older engineers to be good at leading, mentoring, planning, etc. I still enjoy troubleshooting and playing with new technology and hate meetings. You’re right that things were alot more fun as a junior to mid engineer! Now my wrists are a little sore and time is more precious.
    I’m not at a place where I can retire yet, but I am flexible with income if the w/l balance is good due to no debt. Like you said it’s hard for an older employee to find these jobs as employers expect experienced engineers to be management or very senior specialists. I guess they would prefer to hire 20-30 yo for these type of jobs. Have been dealing with a surprising amount of rejections for a hot market.

  9. Some discouraging experiences being an engineer. Our company is facing a crisis trying to retain employees, yet with 20+ years of experience, work routinely gets passed to the younger engineers and I face unemployment soon.

  10. Hello –
    I started in Engineering 10 years ago, then went into another field. Now I’m wondering what path I should take, at 47 years old. Returning to college as an adult is expensive also, even at the local community college. Any suggestions or where to look for further research?

    Thank you for any feedback.

    • Hi, I suggest you talk to your friends and colleagues to get some ideas.
      They might have a good suggestion for you.
      If you have enough savings and investment, then I suggest you try doing something you enjoy. You might ignite a passion and work could be enjoyable again.
      Good luck!

    • Knowing what I know now about engineering’s short shelf life as a career, I would have advised my young self to expose myself to as many things as possible in a desperate search to find something quasi-fun to do for a career. Boxing yourself into a time-consuming career like engineering will make this hard to do later, especially if you have a family. If possible, continue to expose yourself to new things as time allows.

  11. I retired at 52 as chemical engineer at the oil refinery. The pay was great, but job was extremely stressful. The company supplements health care insurance until Medicare. Add up the money you’ve saved inside & outside the 401k, and divide by the years you have left to live. Easiest math problem I ever had in life – I was out of there! Sure I loved parts of my job, but those weren’t the parts they were paying me for. I did myself and the company a big favor. I just want to go on cheap hiking vacations the rest of my life and start getting high again here in Illinois on January 1 after abstaining for over 20 years due to random drug testing bullshit. I might as well enjoy heaven for the last third of my life after working and saving like a slave the first two thirds of it.

    • Wow. The company supplements health care insurance until Medicare? That’s very generous.
      That’s exactly how I feel about engineering. I like the technical part of the job, but the rest was just too much BS.
      Enjoy your retirement! I haven’t tried our legal marijuana yet. My son is still young and I want to set a good example. 10 more years… 🙂

      • Thank you for reading my rant. Engineering jobs can suck, but I’m telling you there were some especially rewarding moments where I actually did help solve some real dicey situations, and all the folks I worked with (both engineers and hourly) were just incredible, appreciative, and generous. I got laid off 3 years out of school from a job that was going nowhere because I wasn’t any good at it, but then I got a new job by shear luck and look where it landed me. That health care supplement isn’t offer.ed to new hires any more. I pay about $2,500 per year because I’m just single and had 28 years of service. I owe favors in life, and I intend to pay them back. I wish you and your family the best. (And no, even though I still have my problems in life, I don’t condone some of the stuff I talked about – you know it, buddy.)

  12. I love your observations and I think it’s important for young engineers (or anyone really) to at least consider that their job conditions and expectations will change over time. I left my engineering career after 12 years and you’re bang on with the expectations of senior engineers. I was lucky that I loved the people side of engineering but I underestimated how much less fulfilling managing and developing systems and processes were from solving technical problems. Working towards F.I. was the best insurance that I gave my future self. I’m glad you’re talking about it and have developed such a healthy community!

  13. Excellent observation. I feel like I could have written this post. I am a software engineer and I enjoy solving technical challenges just the same. Slowly but steadily I reached the highest point in my career as someone who still mostly writes code. There’s definitely pressure for me to be more like a Dr. Phil within our department. The expectations are that I should act more like a manager and I am actively trying to get away from that. The money is good but meetings and all the corporate drama – not so much. I take peace in knowing our FIRE goals will get reached within the next few years.

  14. IMHO the engineers who can choose the seniority path are only the smartest ones. Those are difficult to replace, even if you get a younger engineer. All the others engineers will be basically forced into management careers (either product management or people management).
    Maybe a solution to go on playing with tech stuff could be to find a job in a small company for a lower salary.

  15. “However, we had to be thorough too. Leaving a bug in a chip can cost the company millions of dollars.”

    Very true. This is the price of capitalism! Just look at BOEING now. They had to rush 737 max using cheap code writers from India and see what happened. They’re losing billions by day.

      • it wasnt only the 1 sensor. or the cheap indian programmers accross the street. boeing couldnt profit on training,so they delivered planes to companies and countries outside FAA oversight, who in turn put on very low hours pilots,who where cheap, and less then 300hrs in that body of plane,with zero flight training for that configuration,and never knew that leveling system was even in the plane.

        its bad enough, the big names drive sales of crap and advertising,but when a large company puts LIVES on the line,for PROFITS, thats very very WRONG.

        BOEING is why those people are dead.
        And now they have another Wall Street BANKER as the CEO.

        we put a lander on the moon back in like 1965, thats 60years ago, BOEING couldn’t send a rock to space without loosing communications in 2020…

        they will never go bankrupt,GOVERNMENT contracts and very big ones are there bread and butter, Civilian aircraft are the PROFITS and they are BIG,well used to be.

        Those people are DEAD,because of GREED…BOEING GREED…

  16. It’s funny that we all have parallel job experiences even though I was a product developer (soft goods engineer) for Adidas, Nike, Columbia Sportswear and Icebreaker for a total of 23 years in my industry. There were “perks” throughout my career such as the travels to developing countries where they manufactured footwear and apparel. I too, was persuaded into taking on a managerial role when I became a Sr. Developer. The environment became increasingly toxic. There always younger developers coming out of college nipping at your heels. At that time, I regretted not having the “personality” for being a bossy driver but now I’m thankful for not being chosen for the role as I have avoided the frustration and headache. I eventually became so frustrated in my work environment that I was pushed out. Now I work as part-time as a contract medical interpreter, freelance product developer for my own business and an on-call administrative civil servant. I continue to seek new part-time work opportunities. My salary is extremely less than it was before when I worked at the 4 big companies and I have to save for taxes but my stress level is extremely less than it was before, and I have made the best of my life now. Most days, I look forward to getting up and no longer dread Mondays. Looking back, I am thankful that saved and invested for a career change.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience. I heard similar sentiment from several designers at Nike and Columbia Sportswear. It’s a highly competitive environment.
      It sounds like you’re enjoying life more now. That’s the ultimate goal, right? Keep at it!

  17. i’m a chemist and we’ve taken a back seat to the engineers over the past 20 years. when i stared a young chemist would be paired with a chemical engineer on a project and they would have sort of equal trajectories. back then a decent chemist could stay as a development bench chemist for a whole career. i don’t know how it works any longer as a landed in more of a technician role for more money with a huge company. so long as the hours stay good i give ’em just enough to not be noticed.

    one of the phd. scientists just got bounce out of here yesterday after 30 years. it sucks he didn’t get to go on his own terms. it makes a good case for keeping your money straight.

    • One of my old tenants was a chemist. She worked at Intel too. Crazy hours, a lot more than I worked.
      It really depends on your company. I think it’s great that you found the right spot.

    • As a ChemE, I took a ton of chemistry classes including 2 sems of both Pchem and Organic, and those classes were infinitely funner (if that’s the word for it) than reactor design, transport properties, thermo II, and unit ops labs. I had a professor once who spent the entire hour deriving the equation of a parabola formed when you dump liquid into a test tube – totally worthless bullshit! And test scores would be in the 30’s – there was never any expectation in the world that anyone would ever actually solve the test questions – it was all just a matter of partial credit and grading on the curve. When I got a real job, it was about 100% solving a problem. Engineers get paid more than chemists because of the extra crap they needed to endure in school, factoring in endless hours of study for totally unimportant stuff. After that, I’d say that engineers including myself aren’t any smarter than your local trash pickup guy or grocery store clerk.

  18. Hi Joe, I’ve followed you for years, but don’t think I saw this article before. I was a chip designer also until early retirement. But as a chip designer in Silicon Valley, the companies I worked for had both technical and management paths. So I could have worked on the technical side for as long as I wanted. I did retire early, so I don’t know first hand how that would have played out in my 40s and 50s, but I do know engineers in their 60s at my last company. One of the engineers in their 60s has been at the company for over 20 years now.

    You said it’s easy to train new grads to do chip design. Maybe for simple chips. Honestly, after 20 years in the industry I was still challenged technically when I decided to retire. There were always new challenges especially in a rapidly advancing technology (I worked in video, 3D graphics, artificial intelligence, deep learning). The training process took years to understand things at a system level, and could easily be lifelong if you wanted to work on leading edge technologies. Plus there are many areas of technology involved in modern chip design, including power management, audio, video, graphics, communication protocols, peripherals, digital signal processing, high frequency design, analog, robotics, AI, caching, memory systems, software considerations, firmware, etc etc. I don’t see how it’s possible to master all those areas.

    And if you ever get tired in one study area in Silicon Valley, it’s easy to jump to another. Probably not the same opportunities available in Oregon.

    • Thank you for your input. I knew a few older engineers too. They’re all gone now. It might just be my group, though.
      You’re right about the many areas. For me, it’s hard to compete with young engineers. They learn so much easier than I did. I probably hit my peak early. It’s good that I got out.

  19. An interesting perspective on the longevity of engineering careers!
    I am 62+ years young and currently have kept my engineering management career
    going by: (1) Teaching EMGT Masters Classes at KU Edwards Campus in Overland Park, KS about 50% of my time. (2) Engineering Management Consulting work building on over 17 1/2 years of experience at both MAMTC & Missouri Enterprise. Many of my clients I have worked with for many years, and most consulting projects are repeat business and referrals!

  20. I’m currently in the same boat and reading this helps me understand what I’m going through. I graduated late at 34. After a couple of stretches of unemployment, I’m basically forced into early retirement when I got laid off at 47. Now I’m working part time in retail, hating it, and am not ready to retire. I don’t think I’ve accomplished what I wanted to in my shortened engineering career and there’s so much more I’d like to learn, with the new technologies, etc. Nor do I have the funds to retire this early. I’m not sure where to go from here, when no one’s hired me at this age?

    • You’re in a tough position. It’s bad to start late with engineering. Agism is rampant. Companies are very biased toward young engineers. Keep interviewing. Maybe you’ll get lucky. Otherwise, you might need to go into a different career. Teaching might be good for you. That way you can continue to learn and be involved with tech. Good luck!

    • Ralph if you want to send me your resume I’d be happy to take a look and see if I can make some suggestions. I’m an engineering director that works for a major technology company. I’ve done quite a bit of hiring and interviewing. [email protected]

  21. I see this post is a few years old, but it is still applicable!

    I am a mechanical engineer working in utilities. I switched employers after moving out of state. Where I was before, the work was hard but I enjoyed going in everyday. I did about half technical work and half project management. I was a solid performer, compensated well and felt valued for the most part.

    Then I moved to the upper Midwest. I am now ready to get out of engineering or at least pivot to a different field related to engineering.

    I wish I saw this article when I started my career in 2007. Heck, even 2014 when it was published. I’m now starting to think about engineering my lay-off because the severance and unemployment I will get. I am going to talk to my husband and get his support. To be honest, I need to draw a line in the sand if he doesn’t. That’s another story.

    I’m so thankful I found this site.

  22. Man you hit the nail on the head! If I had only known this 20 years ago. I would have saved myself a lot of grief. I had the same experience!

  23. Thank you for this article. I’m nearing mid-career (about 8 years in) and I wish I had this information sooner. I really agree about the dragging on. I’ve been able to keep engaged so far by switching jobs and location, but at some point soon that will peak out.

  24. Hi Joe, I think this is my first time commenting on your site, which I enjoy reading often!
    This post could apply to other professions as well. I’m thinking you could have titled it SOFTWARE Engineers Should Plan for Early Retirement. I have an engineering degree as do multiple relatives, and none of us chose the IT path.
    There are a lot of interesting and challenging infrastructure and aerospace projects out there, now and coming in the future. We need to encourage more great math and science minds to join the profession, but I don’t want a newbie designing bridges or aircraft without oversight from those more senior.
    My mission is to encourage more professionals to work part-time to accomplish work-life balance and avoid burnout. Take care!

  25. Middle of the night insomnia search for “what can an engineer do after retiring early” introduced me to your blog when your “Why Engineers Should Plan For Early Retirement career change” popped up first. Interesting perspective and it really resonated with me so now I’m hooked on your awesome blog! The first paragraph made me laugh because its totally “me” right now (…obviously…otherwise I wouldn’t be here). I am a civil engineer by degree in the O&G industry and did strictly engineering for the first 10 years of my career, transitioning (forced due to seniority) to PM 4 years ago or so. I loved and now miss the engineering! You are so right — you get to a point in your career and they expect you to do management and its just not for everyone. I’m glad hubs and I have a golden nest egg growing from our dual incomes and it’s going to be hard to leave the money behind when I get up the courage to do it and we become a single income household. Hubs is a huge supporter and why I keep going, but SAHM is so very very tempting especially when I get long periods of time off with my son. Four more days of SAHM life and then I’m back to the office grind…

    • Welcome to Retire by 40! It sounds like you’re doing well financially so you just need to figure out how to turn that into early retirement or a different career. Being a stay home parent is great for me, but we’re past the toughest point already. Now our kid is in school and life is good. Enjoy being a SAHM for a few more days. Good luck!

  26. I am an engineer , a Staff Scientist MSEE and a musician and talented in languages.
    Both my sons did not go into engineering because neither is a geek.
    One is in medicine and the other is a trial attorney.

    Hasn’t anyone ever wondered why every US president has to make a special pitch
    for High IQ American teens to go into STEM???
    Hasn’t anyone ever wondered about that???

    In Europe engineers are treated the way doctors are treated in the USA.
    Europe cherishes its engineers.
    In the USA–our Congress awards contracts and then cancels them
    throwing thousands of engineers out of work.
    Engineers are treated like dirt–and smart kids know that.

    Of course—some poor guy struggling in India doesn’t mind being thrown out of work
    –so to him being an engineer is great–so he will come to the USA and take the job that
    the smart American teen wants no part of it.

  27. Many very high IQ high school students who are talented in Math and Physics
    –automatically assume they must become an Engineer.

    WRONG !!!—Big mistake. This might be the right decision if you are a Geek with no personality and no social skills: then by all means: Become an Engineer 🙁

    But if you are not a Geek–and if you DO have personality and some class
    –then become a doctor or a finance person or an accountant or an actuary.

    Who, — not a geek –, would want to become an “engineer”
    when he(she) can become
    a doctor or a finance person or an accountant or an actuary?

  28. If you are smart enough to be an engineer
    —that is the very reason you should not become one.

    Think about it—If your IQ is top 0.25 %
    –in (Design) Engineering you are just a nobody
    –just like everyone else.

    BUT—you can go into Medicine–and be a doctor–and Be Somebody !!!
    —or go into Finance–and be considered the genius —“the Engineer !!!”.
    but in engineering you will continue to be a nobody
    because you will be no smarter than the rest of your peers.

    If you are smart enough to be an Engineer
    –that is the very reason you should NOT become one.

    • I totally agree, and if I was lucky enough to be married with kids and they were smart, I would never ever encourage them into engineering like I went, but instead, go into something either more easy or more rewarding with higher pay, like a gym teacher or labor union leader or a financial advise swindler or a life insurance executive. Con artists have it made.

  29. Sorry to say, I have to agree with early exit planning. When I started developing software 35 years ago, no worries about offshoring, unchecked guest worker visa abuse, endless restructuring, or goofy bureaucratic management fads. Skills were more transferable between jobs and companies.

    On the other hand, career progression in tech is so much faster now. I’m amazed at the salaries kids get right out of college, and how fast salaries ramp up. Yet baffled that just 10 years qualifies as a “senior” developer or manager. Maybe why software is still so buggy, or why so many projects go awry. There was good reason senior managers used to have a few grey hairs.

    Careers seem to be peaking at least 10 years earlier in general, even more in tech. Can vouch that keeping up gets harder, not so much by creeping laziness, but the burning desire to know and do everything wanes, replaced by non-professional interests and goals.

    And of course, the corporate world became nastier. Lean and mean isn’t just a cliche. Not that it was great, but usually at least tolerable, and considerably more supportive. Now it all seems to be sink or swim.

    The STEM field in general suffers shocking attrition. About half of STEM workers bail after 10 years, and about half of new degree holders don’t go into a STEM job. Not surprising why: no jobs, low pay compared to alternatives, or poor working conditions. So a plan B is crucial.

  30. So glad I found this blog Joe. I stumbled upon your blog from other blogs and I really enjoy reading your blog! I am a Software engineer too. But I might offer a different point of view. I think the problem with software engineering with me right now is technology changes so fast and you have to constantly immerse yourself in new ones every day. I used to, and still love doing this, for the most part. I chose this because I really loved it, and get well paid for it. This lasted until I decided to slow down and became a permanent employee. Then politics and bureaucracy creep in and I am hating it. Once I get my bonus, I am heading out the door, either to independent contracting again, or stay home to raise our kids. I thought about working part time too, but it’s virtually impossible to do in this field; you are either in, or you are out. Independent contracting still doesn’t solve the time investment though.
    My husband and I achieved financial independence without realizing it until recently. But he couldn’t quite adapt to the FIRE style yet, but I am fully on board. I hope by reading your blog, we can transition our family into the FIRE lifestyle by having sustainable cash flow.

    • I’m glad you found us! I think that’s the problem with any tech companies. You have to keep learning new things and new employees can learn just as fast as you. They are cheaper too so it makes sense for the company to rotate senior people out. Good luck on your journey!

  31. Software engineer too. I subscribed your blog. Love it. I have been thinking about leaving this career very often now. I took one computer class when I was in college back in my country. I hate it. I have no idea about it after one semester. I chose this career in 1996 only because it could change my life for the better quickly as an immigrant. I started to like software engineering shortly after and landed a very good first job in 1998 after graduated with M.S. degree. I think partly because the pay was very good and it’s very promising. I never seriously thought about saving for early retirement besides “normal retirement” until five years ago. I thought I could work until 60. I have plenty of time. I wish I knew better and earlier. I am 48 now. Thanks God that the housing market is good. The equity in two houses gives me some comfort. My current company is a fast growing startup with little over 500 people. It’s a very stressful environment. I am working with a team of very talented young people. I could be their mother. My mind is actually still good to work on cutting age technologies. It’s just that I don’t want to put the effort anymore at this age. My health is more important than anything else now. Glad I am still very healthy. I remind myself everyday it’s OK to be laid off someday. Don’t stress yourself. It’s not worth it. I hope I could still keep this career for another 3 years until my daughter goes to college. Then I will leave MA and move to Orlando to continue in this field until she graduates. My dream is to work as a greeter or similar job for Disney, the happiest place on earth and the closest place to heaven. I am sure that day will come. I can’t wait to greet you “Welcome home”.

  32. Civil engineer here. Started at a metropolitan planning organization in transportation planning after grad school, turning down top 200 A/E firm. After five years switched to a mid-size city public works department, becoming director by 35. Spent a total of 25 years in local government and “retired” at 48 with pension. At that point I started with a solid regional A/E firm that still had “family values.” Recently retired after a total of 41 years in engineering. Lessons learned: 1) I was not very good at managing people, even though I had a staff of 55 in public works, 2) I was really good at technical stuff, even at 64, 3) the public sector can be as demanding as the private sector, and 4) you will reach a point at which others will not listen to you no matter how technical solid and logical your presentation. That is your clue to get out, whether from that specific job or from your career. Now I operate a model railroad and explore the implications of resource depletion. No one listening still, but the trains run on time!

  33. Yeah. That is happened to me too. An engineer had always been in a deadline. You might take a day off sometimes, but the next day, you might not get any chances to sleep. Like you said, and I agree, this job suits more to a younger lad. Senior engineers should have seen themselves as consultant experts rather than doing the labor themselves. Leave that kind of work to a younger engineer as they will learn a lot from that detailed work as well. Win win.

  34. I decided to not become an engineer. Instead, I joined the military as an officer. I left the service last year after only 3 years to be a project manager. I’m 30. I currently manage a team of engineers. I only have a BA in history, PMP cert., MS in applied engineering, and a MBA. My current salary is 125k. I work about 50-60k a week and do some light traveling (a lot of those 50-60 hour weeks is me telling other people what to do and when it needs to get done). It doesn’t take a lot to successfully retire early. I literally drank and partied my way through college while my engineer friends spent years pulling their hairs out.

    • HI, I know I may sound naive,but u did two masters and that too not highly correlated? An MS and MBA. Can u pls explain how does that work? And how many years u spent for this combo? And also how did u get hired for the project mgr job assuming u hd no expereince beforehand? Please do reply, thanks.

  35. Just out of curiousity, @retirebyforty, how much$ did you have in the bank roughly and what’s your expected annual income & duration?

    I find that $1M would only net after accounting for standard risk (S&P500) and realistic inflation (3%)….3% which is only $30k. Even with house paid off, real estate tax in any decent school district would be $5~10,000 and private healthcare would take the rest of the income, so you have no money for anything else. I’m thinking $3M + house paid off to sustain middle class living, but how many engineers accumulate $3M prior to 40 with exception of rare IPO luck?

    • Our net worth was a little over $1M when I quit. That won’t generate much income, but my plan isn’t to live off the investment income. I’m still working part time and we won’t take distribution for 20+ years. That should give our $1M plenty of time to grow.
      It really depends on your cost of living. Check out Root of Good. Justin accumulated about $2M and he is only spending about $2,000/month in North Carolina.

  36. I’m a UI engineer – 35 years old – and currently working on an exit strategy. What are the main things I need in order to exit? What amount should I have in savings and retirement before I can say bye-bye? I know cash flow is the most important thing to have and I’m working on that by becoming an independent contractor.

    My dream is to be a full time travel writer/photographer. Right now I’m contracting 9 months each year as a UI engineer, then the travel blog for the other 3. I should be able to hit the following goals by working 9 months:

    1) Max out Roth IRA – $5,500. Currently have around $15,000 invested.
    2) Save $8,000 for travel
    3) Save $5,000 in emergency savings account

    Is that enough? Any suggestions or advice?

    • Are you making enough money from your other gig to support yourself?
      I would get the passive income rolling so it will cover part of your expense. Then figure out how much money you can make from travel writing/photography. Once those two number reach your expense, then you’re golden. Of course, it’d be much easier if you cut expense as much as possible.
      You probably need more in emergency saving account so you can give it a year to switch career. What’s your annual expense?

      • I make $0 from blogging. Not sure how to do it. I do that primarily for fun. My UI engineering contracting affords me the ability to do that on the side. So I work 9 months, then travel for 3. I would like to figure out a way to make some passive income from travel blogging/photography, but just not sure how to do that yet.

        And yes my emergency savings is only $22,000 right now but my goal for this year is to have that around $30,000. By the end of 2016 I want to have that at $40K.

        My expenses is roughly $4,000/month or $48,000/year. So I would need to figure out a way to make $4,000/month off of travel blogging? Boy. That would be the day!

  37. RB40, I’m researching Engineering as a possible career option and am wondering now if I should jump in at all. I’m 31 and have a BS, but not related to Engineering at all. After consulting an advisor, it looks like I would be essentially starting over, would take 4 yrs for Bachelor’s, 5 Masters. I have a family and ABSOLUTELY want a 40-hr-week job, maybe even Part-time later on. Should I look at Associate’s degrees or certification instead?
    What could I train to become in 2 years’ time that would be Engineering-adjacent?

    • Do you like engineering? I recommend you find a few people who are working in the field and talk to them. Sorry, I’m not much help. It’s a good career, but it depends on the job. In my old job, you would have to compete with young new college grads who spend 60-80 hours/week at work. Older folks with family don’t want to do that. I don’t know anything about the Associate’s degree, sorry.
      Good luck.

  38. Advice: Don’t think the university experience has anything to do with the work experience.
    This description of the engineering profession sounds awfully familiar to the architectural field. Long hours are expected, and so on. Very stressful and the construction industry and clients have pushed more and more liability on the architect. Starting salaries for intern architects are notoriously low. Here’s a survey from 2013:
    Here I am at 55, weighing options and wishing I would have changed earlier!

  39. RB40 your blog is a golden nugget. So many people have shared their experience. My engineering career lasted 14 years including a couple of years part-time while waiting for a green card and doing an MS degree in computer engineering. I wasn’t into management and I am a curious tinkerer who likes too many fields for my own good. I quit to do my own thing which is work on a PhD degree. Ten years later during which I got an MS in Electrical Engineering and an MA in math at a top-5 university, had a family and raised a 4-year old, made a tidy sum in real estate investments (but hated being a landlord!), started research then stopped for a couple of years, I am wondering whether this path is really going to work for me. I have enough to retire now at 50 with my last engineer’s salary as income in a conservative investment portfolio with a paid-off house. It might sound great to retire at 40 or 50. Doing your thing may mean you are the only one doing it, though. If you are trying acting at 40 or doing scientific research at 45 or starting your own technology company at 50, if you weren’t on that path already my experience is that it can be very difficult personally. Researchers in their early thirties who stay up in their department all day and night to get tenure won’t find it amusing that you have 2 year-old you want to spend time with. A venture capitalist or younger engineers won’t want to work with you if you have gray hair and you expect a work-life balance. I’m not talking about the superstar engineer who at 60 becomes head of engineering at Google. I am a typical engineer who likes the work but not enough to get divorced or ignore my kid or ruin my health for it. So frankly I am finding myself being nicely nudged into staying at home, watching my stocks, bonds and real estate do well and walking down to the beach to surf every day. The snag is that retirement isn’t another 14 or 15 years; life expectancy is pushing 85. I can’t imagine living like that for another 35 years. I tried hobbies like playing music or collecting stuff but I really love engineering and find myself wanting to work through Knuth’s TAOCP or rewriting a C compiler or the memory paging in Linux but all these are lonely, pointless pursuits. I would really like to be part of a meaningful engineering project with time for my little family and without hurting my 50 year-old body with stress, but this so far for me has been an illusion. It seems our workplaces have either become wastelands of unmotivated slackers making minimum wage or those hungry cats that work 50-70 hours a week as young 20-something engineers or 30-something lawyers or 40-something doctors. Managers last longer but the shake-up axe is always one or two years away. While retiring at 50 sounds good for someone who is striving for it, it can be a very lonely place. And what does your kid tell her peers at school about what you do for a living? I couldn’t be hired if I paid a company for it, because I firmly believe no one can be productive more than 5 hours in a day and therefore am not willing to go through chaotic product development cycles that require you to cram 100+ hours in a week every other month instead of every other year. If Beethoven could get more than 5 hours out of his day he certainly would have done it. He in fact worked roughly from 8 am to 2 pm then walked a long way down to the local bar and drank until dinner time. How is being away from home at an office for 15 hours a day (including lunch) and an hour at least of commute time going to make a better product than the best ever made?
    All this to say, you had better have a concrete plan on what to do during the 40+ years you will likely live if you do retire at 40. That plan needs to include doable goals, peer recognition, achievement in an area of competence, some monetization to the achievement – if only to give it a financial value – and a reasonable exit plan if that doesn’t work, i.e. a retirement plan B. The reality is that even in non-profits where you volunteer to work for free, inserting yourself in a 24/7 work culture when you don’t want to do that is going to shut you off. And 24/7 is what we have now or are tending to have, whether we need it, it is good for us or not.

  40. You could interchange Accountant for Engineer on this article because the similarities are remarkably similar if not identical.

  41. Share a similar story. Engineer, long hours, no problem. Then kids came (which I enjoy very much), realized the long hours working did not balance well with home life. At age 37, applied for public sector engineering job. The pay is less but the hours are very reasonable. I think not having a lot of debt (other than mortgage) gave me the flexibility to take a lesser paying job.

    My work life balance is great. The job is challenging, but only for 40 hours a week. I am home every night for dinner with the kids and I can work from home sometimes. I now have 5 kids and enjoy life and work very much. I looking forward to retiring as soon as I hit my minimum retirement age (for health insurance purposes).

  42. I am a little late to this post but I just have to comment because it’s almost like an exact mirror of my own engineering career experience. Freaky! I did retire early at the age of 51 from a telecommunication lead engineer position at a Regional Bell Operating Company. I think my issue was being the go-getter that I was and the one responsible for the final answer for high profile situations just wore me out. If I had stayed a lower level engineer and just kept my head down without trying to make a difference and climb their technical ladder I may have lasted longer. Even though I retired from that engineering career, I still have pursued other passions that my engineering skills crossed over to. I was able to transition to an I.T. Sr. Systems Analyst role at a major cable company working in one of their video teams that actually paid better than my engineering career so it is possible to retire from your engineering career and still make decent money. The thing is you retire and then pursue your passions or positions of interest on your own terms. It is all gravy going forward, both financially and personally as you now are the one learning new things rather than always having to have the final answer for everyone else. I did that for a few years and I am now on retirement number 2. Looking forward to whatever happens next. It is an adventure.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s great that you were able to leverage your knowledge into a new career. I just got tired of the whole engineering field. Good luck on your next adventure!

  43. I know some engineers, and it seems they are happy with their careers. Or at least that’s the impression. Maybe they are, but then again, maybe it’s socially not typical to voice if you really don’t enjoy your profession. Probably not in your best interests to admit that “outloud” in many professions that are really small communities when it comes to job prospects (who’d want to hire you if you admit that? – imagine you trying to get a job back at your last place of employment now after your blog!)

    I do think the grass is always greener in other’s professions. Also suspect often times it comes down to one’s employer, work atmosphere, ability to have some control, etc. Maybe that’s why some in a given profession love their jobs, and other’s hate theirs. Maybe there in the same profession, but they are just lucky enough to have a lower stressed work environment/employer.

    For example, I suspect those outside of healthcare may think that healthcare professions are highly desirable careers, but studies show that there is a great deal of burnout in the healthcare professions. I suspect many providers I know won’t admit “outloud” they are burnt out on the grind of patient care after say 15 years, give or take.

    Maybe in life, about 15 years in any one profession is enough. However, the salary level change (typically less), and the time/money put in training is the ball/chain that makes it hard to change careers. I’m sure many people would never have thought they’d get burn’t out when they were starting their new/exciting/well paying career 15 yrs earlier.

    As a lawyer posted, the higher the degree requirement, the more school one must complete, the more lost income while getting that education/training. With higher paying jobs, comes stress in various forms, often specific to the profession/work environment.

    An interesting question that I’m asking various financially successful or career successful people, “Are you hoping your kid(s) will follow in your footsteps for careers?” I’m asking honestly, as a parent, I’m hoping to steer my child (in about 10 yrs) towards an education for an occupation/career that will hopefully put long-term enjoyment over prestige/salary considerations alone. High stress will affect other areas of your life/health in less than positive ways so I suspect when it comes to work, it’s like the tortoise vs. the hare for long term finance success in many situations.

    I do think that the smart parents/kids will put costs of college options into better prospective than the old traditional thought of sending one’s kid to an expensive, but prestigious college over on-line/community college options that may be more cost effective given one’s future career may be filled with burnout years later. Easier to change careers when you haven’t invested huge sums of money/time.

    The other questions I’m asking many professionals, “What college did you go to, how expensive it was it, what major, and do you think it had any real bearing on your choice of profession or getting into graduate school?”

    Ironically, one of the main reasons I started reading your blog was that it was nice to see someone admitting/blogging how much they didn’t enjoy their chosen career anymore. Not that I’d admit “outloud” feeling the same. One thing I can say, I wouldn’t be steering my son towards a career with the ongoing grind of direct patient care, day in and day out for the rest of his working life. Love him too much to do that . . . .

    • My brother is an ER physician and I can see that it is quite stressful on him. Healthcare is a tough career. The training takes so much time and the job can be very stressful.
      I know many engineers that are pretty happy with their job. The ones that weren’t happy moved on. There are a few disgruntled people left over, but I think that’s the minority.
      If my kid likes science and engineering, I would encourage him to follow that path. It might work out better for him. I’d also tell him to have an exit strategy just in case.

    • I worked as a CPA in corporate accounting for 30 years. My last position was Accounting Manager with a staff of 30 accountants for a major defense contractor for 11 years. All was well until the company merged with another and existing executive management was overtaken by the other. Suddenly I found myself working for the most unethical and down right mean people I have ever known. Although my stress was always high in accounting, this ‘new’ company ran my stress out the roof and that is exactly what they intended. After a few years they began massive layoffs and after a couple of years they laid me off too at age 51 only 2 years from being eligible for full retirement pension benefits. Ironically, the stress was so high being laid off was probably a life saver. I have remained unemployed and not sure what I will do next or where I will do it, but I have enjoyed the down time none the less. Now if I can find a way to access my 401k without penalty by the time I’m 55, a year and half from now, I’ll be able to survive while finally stopping to ‘smell the roses.’

      • Thanks for sharing. It sounds like quite a few corporate jobs are very stressful. It’s ridiculous that they were able to lay you off with only 2 years left until full pension.
        You should try to get a job with a 401k. Roll over your old 401k to the new 401k. Then you can retire when you turn 55 and withdraw from the 401k without the 10% penalty. Check with your adviser.

  44. Good blog and congrats in retiring. I’m an occasional reader and first time commenter. Your description applies to any in demand profession and not just in engineering. High pay typically comes with more stress. I would say that if one’s main interest is making a lot of money and having an exit plan within two decades, then finance is a much better choice. Someone working on Wall Street as a trader, investment banker, or in private equity at one of the major firms can accumulate several millions fairly easily compare to an engineer. Only way for an engineer to make over several millions in a decade and half is probably hit the IPO jackpot, move up very high in management, or is such a rock star individual employee that he’s compensated at much higher pay.

    • I think finance is a much better choice as well. When you’re young, you usually don’t think about making a lot of money and then exit in 20 years. Usually, you’re looking for a career doing something you like and making good money along the way.

  45. I am a young engineer (graduated ~2 years ago) and I’ve found that in the Houston area in Oil & Gas there is a large gap in personnel between new grads and much older experienced engineers which may bode well for us younger folk. But I can see how you could burnout in this career, though I hope to go into project management which could extend my career life expectancy. Still, my goal is to retire by 50 and I should be on track to do so!

  46. This is very interesting. I had talked to a few engineering friends about their frustrations. Should make us physicians grateful. Any premed knows those engineering students worked much harder than we ever did, but perhaps residency and fellowship even things out. Good luck to all the engineers out there!

  47. I’ve always planned for an early retirement, but that’s just because I always knew I wanted to own my own time and not spend it doing things I didn’t really care about. I’m an engineer too, I think that because I started out at 2 different startups with hectic crazy work schedules and bosses from hell, my new job seems like a walk in the park. Some of the other engineers complain about the work loads but honestly, at most they put in a few extra hours a week. I think they just expect things to be handed to them. Because of their laziness I have been noticed much quicker as a high performer and I don’t really complain about workloads so I’m guessing that works in my favor too.

    But after working for a while I’ve always had the thought in the back of my head that as I got more experience I would be able to be replaced by a cheaper younger engineer eventually. Does someone who has 25 years of experience really perform that much better than someone with 15 years of experience?

    I know if I were an employer and I had the option between the 2, if one of them costed 30% less then that would definitely be something I would consider.

    I’m hoping to retire by 40, but the more honest goal is perhaps 42, we’ll see as I get closer but right now I’m trying to not focus solely on retirement as I don’t want to miss out on the years until them.

    • Good luck with your retirement plan. Do you have a family? It’s a lot more difficult to put in more hours when you have a family. I didn’t mind spending time in the office when I first started and that was when I was a high performer. The last few years on the job, I didn’t put in a lot of OT at all. I avoided it as much as possible because I’d rather be home with the family. Also, by that time I didn’t like the job much anymore. 🙂

      • I don’t have a family at the moment, but I know that would change things a lot. I actually don’t put in a lot of overtime at my job now, only a few hours a week. It’s just that I don’t complain about it like a lot of the younger engineers that have never experienced a lot of other companies with crazier deadlines. I guess in a way grateful for having worked at places that demand more so I truly appreciate my current situation.

        But I still don’t want to be working there past 40 🙂

  48. “…work 50-70 hours/week with no overtime pay…” I simply could not do this. My family time is too precious to me. I only have my kids for a short amount of time and the time I spend with them is more valuable than any job. Plus, not to be paid overtime? That seems improper. Employees should be compensated properly for the amount of work they put in. Of course, this comes from a teacher who also doesn’t get compensated for the extra hours he puts in. 🙂

  49. Hmm, I have similar views but have had a very different experience. I got my BS in 5 years in AE and have worked for last 5-6 years, life has been good. Never put in much OT, low-stress, gotten a couple raises, etc. Found the Bogleheads forum early on and started maxing out my 401k, HSA, and Roth right out of school. In 3-4 years, I will honestly be able to do whatever I want with my career.

    I think what really motivated me was when I discovered what the career salary arc was like for engineers. Good pay to start(1-10 years), but after that everyone else starts catching up to you. Figured I might as well save and invest as much as possible in those first 10 years.

    • I with I found the career salary arc early on too. That would be eye opening. Engineers’ pay ramp up early on and then level out. Young engineers shouldn’t expect their salary to rise forever.

  50. I’ve got to say you’re article fits attorneys to a T, but for the fact we start our careers 3 years later and with additional debt. Although I’m not sure as many start out actually loving the work but are more enthralled with the status and trappings.

    As you get more experienced you often get to hand off more work to new/ junior attorneys, but being the leader means you’re expected to take on more projects, so you’re not really cutting your work level back but probably taking on more. And you’re expected to spend more time trying to bring in new business, so the result of your success is getting to work harder than ever, generally right at the time you’re starting your family and would like to transition away from the office.

    So yeah, burnout.

    • Thanks for sharing. Any career that require a lot of office time sounds tough these days. I’d rather spend time with the family than the office. I guess that’s a big change from the past.

  51. Your advice is dead on – even for “fringe engineers” – other tech jobs like IT and security. I’ve moved more into project management, but not people management (thank god!). But you reach a dead end pretty quickly unless you want to move into management. My husband is struggling with this in his job (software engineer). Officially, their company has a “technical” track for advancement, but it doesn’t exist in practice. He’s at the top of what he’ll be paid, and he’s only 37. We’ve still got ~10 years before we’ll be financially independent, but we’re not expecting any salary increases between now and then, so we do what we can.

    • I get the feeling I’ve reached the ceiling at age 33 barring moving into management type role or moving company, which would involve pretty much the same deal. The thing is the utility of any extra salary is getting lower and lower, and it’s time to look at cutting expenses at this stage, as I’m sure you are Mom 🙂
      This is especially true in the UK where the 40% tax rate kicks in at just ~£42k

  52. It’s funny, b/c at least 50% of my classmates at Haas for business school were engineers. They always get the highest scores, and the best grades, and wanted OUT of being an engineer. They wanted to get more into management.

    • Management sounds good in theory, but it’s not for everyone. Some people are really suited for more technical works. I’m terrible at managing people.

  53. I’m an engineer as well (10 years and counting) and have worked with a lot of men in their 50’s who are planning on retiring at 62. Maybe it’s the type of engineering I do, control systems engineering but I haven’t met many young people in my field. When I talk to my coworkers it’s a shock to them that I plan on being out of the field by at least the age of 50 if not sooner. Granted they are over 50 and probably can’t afford to retire so that’s why they don’t understand my logic.

  54. I work at your ex-employer in Portland as well.

    To be honest, I think a lot of your points apply to all careers, not just engineering. I’ve got friends at more ‘blue-collar’ jobs, and I can’t even imagine the stresses they face. Not only do they put in long hours, but they deal with management that is absolutely atrocious. While corporate politics can sometimes be frustrating, at least we don’t have to worry about being fired or verbally abused because the manager is having a bad day.

    The advantage we engineers have (as you mentioned) is that we tend to be highly compensated even right out of college, so it’s far easier to plan for early retirement (if you’re smart about living frugally). I wonder if being at ease with numbers and abstraction perhaps translates to being a bit better with our finances as well?

    But I think your advice applies to all careers. The stresses we face are trivial compared to many.

  55. Odd that our life expectancy is increasing but our career spans are decreasing at the same time. I work for an engineering company and unlike other companies we have a lot more older folks than younger folks. I’m in sourcing and don’t think I will be doing this for the next 30 years. Although there are people in my department who have been in this field for 20+yrs. Can you imagine??? We just congratulated a person on his 40 yr tenure with company.
    We are preparing to not have the same job with the company for the rest of our lives. I don’t ever want to stop working, I enjoy it. But I think the definition of working will morph.

  56. I agree with most of what you said, Engineering is tough in your 20’s and 30’s, but I have felt it becoming easier at 40. Maybe I’m more confident, and engineering is very traditional in giving more respect the more gray hair you have, but I also feel that most engineers in my industry are much older than me or much younger, so employers are pretty eager to hang on (or try to headhunt) us midlifers.

  57. Joe, I’ve been an engineer for over 25 years at one of your ex-employers’ competitors in silicon valley, and I’d say your article is dead nuts on. I was in a similar position as you, I hit my number before my 40th birthday, but obviously unlike you I didn’t take the road less traveled. But I will say that being financially ready to exit has made all the difference– if I needed my paycheck to cover a mortgage my job and life would not be nearly as pleasant and stress-free as it is now.

    I had two strokes of luck that maybe you didn’t: one I hired into a job that I disliked intensely early on (reverse honeymoon), and two my hiring director told me in a private meeting what to expect out of my career– and what he said was pretty much a copy of your article. His phrasing was a bit different than yours– he called engineering “akin to a sports career: fun and great money when you’re young, but a tough slog as you get older”. He also pointed out that unlike other lucrative fields like law and medicine, engineering wages rise rapidly early into your tenure, you don’t have to wait, but then don’t expect the sunshine to last for long. His message: bank and invest those early gains, and by all means don’t extrapolate them into the distant future.

    Learning this was kind of a surprise to me, but given the first problem, it was obvious what I had to do, so I did it. One of the little secrets about living and working in silicon valley is that wages can be very high but cost of living doesn’t have to be– cheap rents are out there if you look. So I was doing a very high savings rate early on and was ready to jump after 15 years (I beat you by a year!).

    Where you and I diverged was on your points about seniority and leadership– what you say is true in general where I work, but we also have a “specialists” path where, yes, the meeting schedule increases, but then so does your freedom of action. Being the expert means you’re the axe, so you get to define the rules, and some new hire kid gets stuck with executing your design. I was never much into supervision either but I carved out a niche in my own specialty where my leadership is basically making new discoveries and creating software tools that are widely used (and tweaked). Unlike where you used to work, my company recognizes the value of this kind of informal contribution– and this is why I stayed on, pretty much as a full time in-house consultant in my area.

    One thing I learned in technology, unpredictable stuff happens at unpredictable times, so my happy era certainly won’t last forever, or perhaps even for much longer, but I’ve stayed prepared for this. I carry my undated resignation letter in my jacket, ready to whip out at the first sign of trouble. Just a matter of time before our paths converge.

    • Thanks for sharing your story. You were really lucky that your manager gave it to you straight. Not many people have that advantage. It’s also great that you were able to carve out a specialist niche. My area was too general and it was easy to retrain someone to take over. If you’re going to make a long technical career, you definitely need to find a niche.

    • My experience echoes a bit of both here. Although I’m not old enough yet to know exactly where I’m heading, but I’m not sure my life will get more stressful with more seniority, unless I jump ship to another company and take on loads of responsibility. At my current place things seem to be chilling out a bit and I will definitely be trying to carve out a niche as free bird has done. On the other hand the sh#t could hit the fan at any time and I could be straight back into the fire!

      Either way I still want to be out of there in approx 4 years if I can, as the commute is slowly killing me!

      • My path is like free birds. I am 40 and just being debt free for a while changed my mindset about work. Knowing that I could walk away at any time helped me ignore the stupid stuff that used to get me all riled up. My husband was a senior manager and engineer. He actually went to work for a smaller company at less pay so he could be home more. Our quality of life has improved immensely.

        Not all engineering jobs are made equally. Also, In my field, my job actually gets easier over time because I have knowledge about stuff in my head from past experiences that I can use to get to answers people need quicker. I am way more efficient than I was 10 years ago because I already know many of the answers people ask of me without having to dig or research anymore. I am now becoming the “go to ” gal on lots of stuff instead of the other way around. Although I work WAY less than I did in my 20’s, it also takes me Way less time to complete my job so I still ranked a top performer on my team.

        • Hi Sandy, it’s great to hear from you. It’s really nice that it’s working out well in your field. I think being senior is more problematic in the computer engineering field. It seems like there aren’t a lot of stuff you can really specialize in. Circuit is one, but that’s pretty difficult.

  58. I totally agree. I am a middle manager and the road ahead looks bleak…more responsibility and more stress. I am hopeful that I can downshift but not sure if i can get a job that people will think I am overqualified for.

  59. I believe anyone working for others should begin saving for retirement. I also believe we all should build some sort of skill set to teach others if all else fails. Ive been working for 12 years now, financial services first and now compliance. The work is not as stressful as engineers, but from time to time, we get a lay off shake up. For this reason alone you should begin saving.

  60. As an actor there’s a high rate of burnout. I’m not even 30 yet and I’m feeling it. It’s hard to live a life of constant uncertainty and underemployment. My advice for anyone looking to get into the field is to develop a practical skill set along with your career, that way you always have something to fall back on- like web coding or tailoring or carpentry.

    • Thanks for sharing. I guess you can’t last long in acting unless you can make it big. There is always new talents coming up… It’s best to go for it when you’re young. Good luck with your career.

  61. Sunk costs… One problem I have as well. I worked on a PhD thesis in a field that I was interested in, but during the PhD period my interests have shifted. Now it’s been two years since I worked on the thesis fulltime. It still isn’t finished, even though I worked on it irregularly over the last two years (in my spare time). The resulting title has become pretty meaningless careerwise since I am working in a different career now, anyway.

    It’s hard to make the decision: quit now, or continue working for who-knows how much longer, to get a title I’m not very interested in anymore (but to also make my family proud, sigh…).

    • My brother was in a PhD program for 5 years and didn’t make much progress in the last few years. He eventually quit the program and found a job. It was tough to walk away, but he just wasn’t going to finish anyway. I guess you need the right subject and professor to make headway. That’s tough.

    • Hi, I think if you can finish your PhD without too much trouble, I mean if you can really pull it off, it may be worthwhile as an early retirement option. By this I mean, you will be able to have a lifestyle retirement by going in to teaching or a work for a NGO that is not a corporate setting. I am leaving my engineering career for a career in education. I actually cannot think of staying at home doing nothing, I tried for two years! It is not fun for me. So, I am finishing up a PhD in education now, so I can have a intellectual environment and a smaller pay compared against senior engineering positions. I wonder if you would like to purse something along those lines. A PhD, although a painful process, it can open up non-corporate jobs in many ways…

    • I think it’s a bit of an old stereotype that all the engineers are nerdy geeks who do not like other people’s company. Even in IT-field, programmers are supposed to be more social than before, because that it just the natural evolution of modern worklife.


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