Finding a Job Building Things

Finding a Job Building Things
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I love building things. I love working with my hands, I like using power tools, I like the physical making of STUFF. (Or the tearing apart of stuff, which is a lot of fun but perhaps less productive….)

And by choosing to major in mechanical engineering, I thought I was giving myself the best shot I could to find a career where I can build stuff.

And now I am looking around at what my friends from undergraduate university are doing, and none of them are building things. And if I look at what my friends from graduate school are doing, none of them are building things either.

Part of this has to do with what you WANT to do. Of course if your interests lie more on the modeling/simulation side of mechanical engineering, or if you are more interested in leadership roles, or in management, or in design rather than implementation – then you follow your skills and find a job in those areas. There can be overlap, of course, but if you don’t WANT to build things, chances are you won’t (and probably shouldn’t) end up in a job doing that.

But let’s assume you DO want to build things. How to accomplish this?

Well it does have to do with WHERE you work. If you choose to go to Wall Street, well obviously you won’t be building things. If you go into consulting, or patent legal work, clearly you have chosen a different path.

How about working for a classical mechanical type of company? Ford to build cars, or John Deere to build tractors, or GE to build turbines, or Conoco to build oil rigs? I know folks who work for each of those places, and in all cases they are not the ones doing the actual building. Usually because they are in the management track – in which case they are leaders, directing a team of folks, going to meetings, making high level strategy decisions. As soon as I realized this meant spending 80% time in meetings, wearing a suit, and working in an office all day, I knew it wasn’t the right place for me.

It is possible to be in the engineering track in a large mechanical company, and I know a couple folks doing that – and that is closer to what I’d be interested in. At least you get to use some engineering knowledge to design things – heat exchangers, or compressors, or piping, or engine components. Yet still you hand off your design for others to make. If you are lucky, you will get to see your design implemented, and maybe you can point with pride to a car with your component in it, or get to travel to an oil field to see something you were involved in designing. But you still never got your hands dirty, and you still work in an office.

How about academia? Maybe you could get your hands dirty there – but let’s face it, how many professors actually spend time in the lab? Teaching, writing grants, and mentoring grad students seem to be the biggest job responsibilities. The grad students are the ones who actually MAKE things – and hey, guess what I’m doing at the moment! 🙂

How about working for a startup? I am slowly learning about this kind of life, and to be honest it seems really attractive. However if you are the CEO of a startup, most of your time is spent on things like meeting with potential investors, dealing with the board of directors, hiring and firing people, coordinating and organizing and scheduling, and again we are back to 80% time spent in meetings. Even as the CEO of a technically-based startup, the set of job responsibilities still doesn’t include building things. However, the CTO of a small startup probably would be building things. That seems like the most likely place, in my mind, to actually be able to combine technical knowledge and practical hands-on skills.

In the end, the answer may be that by going in to higher education, I have educated myself right out of what I wanted to do. Those who can design new mechanical stuff are no longer the ones actually working on the machine shop floor making it – and maybe that is the way it should be. If my most valuable skill is the design, I should logically be contributing there instead of taking the job that a vocational degree holder is qualified to do. Except that I LIKE doing what vocational degree holders do.

The jobs that actually let you build things may be the vocational jobs – automotive technicians, machine shop workers, welders, electricians, construction crews. I may end up there – I’ll be the only PhD woman driving a backhoe, but I’ll be a happy one!

So where do you go if you actually want to build things?


I’ve pondered this subject myself. There are a few roles I’ve come up with.

First is the obvious consulting route. Not consulting like for a big company consulting, but as an independent, just coming in on projects and offering your skills. This takes tenacity, ability to stomach the ups and downs of good and bad markets and knowing how much you’re worth.

The second is becoming the eventual CTO of a company (and staying on an engineering track towards that journey). There are obvious downsides, such as being passed over for the big money positions (CEO, VPs, etc) and having to deal with the usual stress of development cycles. But the reward would be keeping your hands in the process and getting to stretch your mind. I can think of no better example than Bob Dobkin of Linear Technology. He was a co-founder of the company over 30 years ago and still has a bench there and is still co-developing chips for the company. How cool is that???

It’s a tough proposition to keep a hands-on role in an engineering company. Sometimes I think it’d be easier to keep hobbies that are hands on and take roles that will allow you time to enjoy those hobbies. However, many of the high up roles in companies that most people move into (management, executives, etc) do not allow for this. In the end, I think it means you just have to make it a priority and find a company (or start one!) where you’re allowed to explore and play.

Yep, a startup.

Here’s a Craigslist ad we posted recently.

Hands-On Mechanical Engineer

We are a venture-backed Redwood City company building a great business by making power generators for farms, irrigation and factories. It’s solar power 24 hours a day (yes that includes night), using mirrors and steam engines. We’ll do well by giving our customers what they want: Reliable power that’s cheaper than electricity from the utility, and cheaper than diesel.

If you are very good at making, assembling, and fixing machines (preferably including piston engines), then help us develop and perfect our technology. So much the better if you have deep talents in thermodynamics and mechanical design.

We need someone who can deliver hands-on results, now. The sky is the limit for engineering growth. First-rate mechanical engineers with the required hands-on skills, and a burning desire to use them to learn the technology, should also definitely apply.

Fitting: The ability to use a wide range of measuring instruments and hand tools to achieve suitable assembly of components for manufactured systems.

Machining and fabrication: Extensive experience using hand power drills, right angle drive grinders, hand band-saws, pedestal drills, lathes, milling machines, and similar general purpose machines.

Assembly: Familiar with torque wrenches, clamping systems, sealants and their application to the final stages of manufacture.

Engineering drawings: Ability to accurately interpret engineering drawings, both printed and on the computer.

SolidWorks skills.
Experience working with outside vendors.
Welding skills.
Industrial steam systems experience.

I love designing things and then making and this type of job suits me to the ground.


PS Yes, we have filled the position. 😉

In one of the blog posts written here, it’s been said that hobbies or hands on experiences becomes no longer hobbies when they become part of your job. That’s true!!! They should always stay as our hobbies for weekends.

I love to make things with my hands. For me, there is a synergy that takes place between my mind and my hands when I work. A design may start in my head, progress to paper, get detailed in the computer, but the final touches are developed when I build it. While this produces the best design IMHO, it takes longer, and managers do not like an expensive engineer doing what a less expensive employee could do. They just don’t understand the process of creation.

I have spent my life learning how to make things because it is what I love to do. I don’t consider myself an expert at anything, but my broad knowledge has been an asset in several startups.

The best job I ever had was working in the electronics shop in the chemistry department of a university. We maintained the electronic equipment and built whatever electronic stuff graduate students needed for their projects. In the department was a student machine shop that we could use when we weren’t busy.

The only hobby that I had space for and could afford equipment for was woodworking. I would love to have a machine shop, a sheetmetal shop and a 3D plastic printing machine. Alas, not enough room or $ for all that.

I work for a relatively new company, though I wouldn’t call it a start up since we are in the ten year point already. I do a lot of desk work but I do get to go to the shop and do some hands on stuff. Both of my jobs after college were with companies that do R&D or proof of concept work. I also have been doing some V&V (verification and validation) work which requires me to actually build things and run some test equipment.

Honestly, I think the trick is a combination of things. First find a company that has a need for in house production of at least prototypes, find a way into the room with tools (I chat up the guys in the room and get to know them), and then find a project that you can do. Once you get your hands dirty once, people will start coming to you to build things. I had someone come by and ask me to run the metal lathe for a few hours. It made me very happy. 🙂

Don’t forget your own hobbies either. If you want to build things at work, you need to build things at home to show you know what you are doing. Also, I ask every company I work for if I can use the tools after work hours for my personal projects. If you want to get away from the desk sometimes and get your hands dirty, it is possible.


I just had a random thought too. Btw, I saw this already posted above but I think the best thing would be a consultant type job because in being successful at that you pretty much become expert in a niche market – which sounds exactly like what your talking about since not many people are doing it. But I thought about something else – a true engineering position is one where all you do is design and/or test designs. But in my case, I would love to be the guy that is the head engineer of a specific project. Not the management, but the guy that was part of the original design process and knows the who, what, when, where, why and how of the project very well. Then after the design is completed my job is to make sure it stays on track in the construction process as well. And the reason why is that I love the social aspect of it. I think I would like coming up with an idea, working through the design process, seeing the implementation process, and most importantly working with people to get it accomplished. I know I got a little long winded but my point is this, I have found that most people do not become engineers to only sit in front of a computer all day and design stuff. So I feel like your job as an employee is to make sure you are getting everything from your job you want; and that if there is a new type of position you could fill, there is probably a way to try it out if you can sell it to your bosses and if you it helps or adds value to the company they should keep you. The question of “how do you find the type of work you want” isn’t as important as “how can I convince my company the type of work I want to do is valuable” in my opinion. But that’s just my two cents, and since I am still a grad student and not a good one at that I know I will have a lot to learn about the working world.

This is the main reason I say at my current job, because I’m responsible for everything from the first concept to installing it at the customer, to everything in between. I work for an ITW company, so it is possible to find a big company that allows you to work on your own designs; it’s just not common. And personally I find the change of pace very nice, because just working with my hands get’s old after a while, as does being a desk jockey.

It’s for hands-on reasons that I’m opting for EET (finishing up first year) instead of EE. As far as I can tell, it’s the closest thing to guaranteed hands-on work, even if it’s not “building”… But I’ll have build options as well.

I wonder if you shouldn’t examine the idea that your “most valuable skill” is A or B, and that accordingly you should “logically” be doing X or Y. This assumes, more or less, that market utility is one of the highest goods, if not the highest, in considerations of what we should be doing. It also assumes that you have the full inventory of your skills, and know for certain the value of each one. But let’s be honest: who knows what the future holds? Here you are thinking you should be an engineer, but maybe the world needs you to be an apiarist–maybe you’re the one that will save the bees, who knows?

But it’s that most valuable skill thing… I mean, my background is in history and philosophy, while currently my most valuable skill is restaurant management–but I can’t see this as any reason to stick with this line of work, if it doesn’t serve the life I want to live, if, in short, it doesn’t make me happy. It really shouldn’t matter how “valuable” your work is to the market–at least not in the context of your question, which is how to find work that makes you happy. Of course in this question, happiness in your work must be balanced with paying the bills and other realities, but that can come later. First ask yourself: what do I want to do with my one precious life?

What I really want to do is build things (which is why this article caught my eye, and why I’ve spent some time thinking about it). I’m coming at it, it seems, from the exact opposite direction: I’m a self-taught amateur–and my teacher had no idea what he was doing–and don’t even have the work experience to get a job driving a backhoe! But I’ve also been tinkering away for years, all my life, and the combination of mental and physical work is just perfect for me, and it’s only in the last couple of years, asking myself what I really want to spend my precious days doing, that I’ve come to entertain the idea seriously. Who knows how I’ll get my foot in the door… I guess this is really all to say, good luck to you, sista, hope you find the work of your dreams!

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