Ask The Readers: Can Engineering Be “Just a Job”?

Ask The Readers: Can Engineering Be “Just a Job”?

This morning I awoke to an interesting Get Rich Slowly article. I’ve mentioned it on this site before, but GRS is one my favorite sites on the internet. It’s a personal finance blog that was started by JD Roth but has expanded to many other authors (and guest authors!). Today, the daily post was from a former teacher who wrote:

[This and other blogs] seem to be written by people who work in their pajamas or by people with no opportunity cost to blog (they’re either financially independent already or stay-at-home parents). These are both great things, but I don’t hear much from a Joe Sixpack schlub with a 9-to-5 like me. Instead, there’s a lot of Tim Ferris-type noise about how us poor saps who go out and punch a clock are the suckers.

Plus, there are so many blogs advocating early retirement in the form of extremely low cost lifestyles, or quitting your big power job to become something touchy-feely, etc. You know what? That’s not everyone’s reality.

As an experiment, I thought maybe GRS readers would like to know that one of your fellow readers has, in fact, done the opposite of what many of these bloggers recommend: I’ve gone from a touchy-feely feel-good job to one that’s boring and practical — and I couldn’t be happier for it.

So basically on a site based around financial and career independence (and the associated idea of a “dream job”), a guest author wrote an article about how they had given up on the job they were once passionate about and got a 9-5 gig in order to pay the bills. I found this to be intriguing.

Those engineers out there who work day-jobs in an office, will know this situation. Not necessarily because EB readers aren’t passionate about engineering. But because many offices have people that aren’t as enthusiastic about engineering. Not as a calling, not as a passion, not as something they particularly even like doing anymore: It’s just what they do for a job.

So I ask you, dear reader, can engineering “just be a job”? 

Do you see this on a regular basis? Is it possible to be detached from the work and still be effective at it? How do you interact with someone with this mindset?

And yes, we’ll even consider the fact that perhaps you are someone who feels this way (though if you’re reading a site called Engineer Blogs, perhaps you’re a bit more interested). If so, what has changed and have you always been this way?

Please let us know what you think in the comments! …that is, if you care enough to leave a comment on a site about engineering… 😉


Thanks to atsuke for the dream job picture.


I reject a job modified by “just” because it sounds like they’re not really into it. People who are just phoning it in are denying themselves the opportunity to do something really cool and are denying their client the opportunity to work with someone excited about the project.

When I was a kid I messed around with radios, antennas, and electronics for fun. That’s not a job, so I had to find something practical and marketable that somehow had elements of exciting activities I would do for fun.

I would challenge the person who moved to the boring job to find something marketable with elements from their former “feel-good” job. I am not knowledgeable about the teaching world, but I bet the top people in teaching earn millions of dollars a year. They don’t do that with a regular teaching job, but maybe they create a curriculum, sell/train medical infomatics software, give seminars, tutor rich kids, provide consulting to schools, sell a fun education product / toy / seminar / etc. If he could some how find the “teaching” element in selling pharmaceuticals or industrial automation equipment, he might blow away other “salesmen” just focused on their monthly sales numbers.

“Just a job” wastes everyone’s time.

Few things are as terrifying to me as the idea of a 9-5, punch-in, punch-out type of job. I want a job that’s interesting and where I’m learning new things. If I had a job where things got stagnant, I simply don’t think I would last very long out of sheer boredom. In fact, I’ve had jobs like that, and quit to go to college and get out of that situation.

I did that too – quit a paying job to go to university to study Engineering. I didn’t get to go to university straight from school, it had to wait until I could afford it, which took over 20 years. I’ll soon be re-entering the workforce, but the Engineering field here in Ireland is so depressed that I’m not expecting to find a job in that area. The 4+ years at university have murdered me financially, and just about killed my interest in Engineering: thank you, academia. So a job and money are now the only priorities; I don’t have the luxury of “passion” any more.

I’d say that engineering as “just a job” can work for some people maybe, but it certainly wouldn’t for me. To use a cliche wording, to me “it’s a lifestyle”.

I’m currently a student finishing my degree, and to my dismay it seems like a large majority of the student body does seem to view it as “just a job”. My peers with the best practical skills however, are for the most part the ones who view it as more than that.

Mine has been “just a job” for a few years now and the boredom that accompanies this has made me restless. But we’re a single income family and I don’t have the luxury to quit my job and “go find myself.” The joy and stability that money brings to my family and our lifestyle are incentives enough to do well on the job as to assure that I continue to be employed and that I am well compensated in doing so.

It ain’t a dream job, but it pays well.

I find it really difficult to be in a job that is just for the money. The upside to this is that the job ends when the clock is punched.

When you work as a design engineer, you can’t be in it just for the money because your job doesn’t end at the end of the day. You always have to stay in touch with trends, products and new ideas. When I’ve worked as a design engineer, the hours become quite long between the design work and the research work. But learning and loving what you do is pretty enticing.

Engineering jobs don’t put any of us in the 1%, or even the 5%, so if any of use are going to do a job for the money, better to choose something else.

Top 1% is pretty hard to crack, but top 5% isn’t out of reach for US engineers. Data from 2008 shows that a tad over $150k/yr/household gets you into the top 5% of households. Data from 2010 shows $100k/yr/person gets you into the top 6.5% of personal incomes. Both numbers are well within reach of many engineers at some point in their careers. Heck, some of the engineers (non-management) I work with make over $150k/yr. For these engineers that have working spouses as well (and some having engineering working spouses), they are well into the 5% household territory.

My observation is that there are people who believe their job is simply a means to providing income to enjoy the rest of their life. And then there are those who believe there should be deeper fulfillment from work. I imagine a lot of EB readers and GSR readers are in the second group because reading such blogs would be an activity that people more invested in their work would prefer. If you are in the first group, absolutely engineering jobs can just be jobs. If you are in the second and find yourself lacking passion, the job can work for a while, but I think you and the job eventually part ways.

Eventually you have to develop new skills, go to training, do some extra travel, move overseas, etc., and the tradeoff of having a job that was just “meh” in exchange for money is now unbalanced as The Man has now expected you to invest more in the job than you want to give.

To one degree or another, almost everybody in industry is in “just a job”. I’m an engineer. I have a degree in engineering. My job title has engineer in it. But, as I mention in the post I co-wrote with my wife Miss MSE last week, over 95% of what I do isn’t engineering. I’ve talked with many other engineers about this, both older and younger than me, at OEMs and suppliers, and from a few different industries. They all confirm that a vast majority of being an engineer is not actually engineering. It’s not a passionate job. We show up, go to meetings, sit on conference calls, answer emails, jump through corporate red tape, and go home. This idea of finding your dream job is a joke. A “dream job” is nothing more than what you would do all day long if you didn’t have to worry about income. Generally, we refer these things a hobbies. But, something happens when a hobby becomes a job, something very critical. We stop doing it because we want to do nothing more in the world than that activity and start doing it because it’s our job, because we need the income, because we have to. As soon as we stop doing something for our own personal enjoyment and start doing it for money, all of our ability to enjoy that activity instantly vanishes. The reason that Tim Ferriss talks about automating your job and Ramit Sethi talks about automating your finances is so that we can minimize the amount of time we spend doing the “have to” and maximize the time we spend doing the “want to”. Unfortunately, the “dream job” throws a wrench into it by turning your “want to” into your “have to”. It’s unfortunate, but it’s reality.

This is a very thought-provoking and timely post for me, as one of my previous bosses has gotten back in touch with an intriguing job offer that would mean either uprooting the family, or a long commute which would result in a lot less family time. Right now, I feel comfortable prioritising the family time, but the new job does sound quite interesting. I’m still thinking about it: Work-life balance.

Just as Mr. ME observes, much of my current job is “not-engineering” and borders on the terminally dull, especially as the dull bits are always the most urgent bits. It’s a question of how much we get to do what we studied for over what we didn’t bargain for: Work-work balance.

A final point – hobbies as jobs. It gave me great food for thought when my trombone teacher told me how jealous he was of my position – I could put the trombone down tomorrow and not take it up again until I really felt like it (a regular occurrence – putting it down for a while, I mean, alas!). That point about having to do something killing the loving it rings true. I think that’s good, in a strange, melancholy sort of way, as it means that the opposite remains strongly true.

It’s hard to argue with these posts. I spent thirty five years as a design engineer and enjoyed the work. I think design engineering is the most interesting field. Always a challenge. Always something new. Rarely bored. Occasionally ticked off at the boss.

I can remember, in my early years, thinking that making copies was not engineering. Maybe so. But breathing isn’t engineering either and I never complained about doing that.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was that every engineer should have a technical hobby. Mine was statistics. Try as I might, and I tried mightily, I could never predict the dog races, but I figured out how to make millions of dollars. I surprised quite a few people with things I data mined from the computer. Things I could get the computer to do that no one else had even tried.

The best and worst thing I ever heard was “We tried it and it didn’t work.” It was the worst thing because I knew it would be a tremendous challenge getting anyone to try it again and it was the best because I knew that if I could make it work, I would feel great. I loved those words and also, “We’ve never been able to get this to work.” Challenge accepted. Game on!

Some people heavily identify their personality with their careers, others don’t. For others it’s a matter of income so they can actually do what they want to do with the rest of their time.

For me it’s a bit of both, I like tinkering with stuff, however IT engineering does get boring after a while so I’ve started to diversify into other things. Lately I’ve been playing around with electronics and power generation. I also tend to think of other projects I tackle with an engineering mindset as engineering as well, it’s surprising how much of these principals apply to daily life.

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