Is 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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*Thoroughly updated in 2019.
Image by Clint Bustrillo
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