Weekend Journal — Countryside Edition

Weekend Journal — Countryside Edition

My wife grew up on a farm in Northwest Ohio. In fact, that’s where I am right now, writing this post. It’s a serene place. No sounds of the highway, lots of room for my dogs to run around, lots of fields and woods to explore and a laid back lifestyle. Though I grew up in the suburbs and I still enjoy the city (had a great time in SF a few weekends ago), I always enjoy my time in the country. It’s a relaxing experience and I recommend it to everyone.

It got me wondering though. Is it possible to live in the remote areas of the US though and be a successful engineer? My wife has always enjoyed the country and stated her preference to move back a more “spread out” part of the US at some point. I’ve been thinking about it too, since I asked about moving anywhere for a job. What if the role was reversed and it wasn’t that you were being asked to move to a specific location for a job that you loved; what if instead you were moving to an area you loved and you wanted to continue trying to work as an engineer?

I’ve had this discussion with my wife when we were starting to plan our married life together. If we were to decide to move somewhere, where could I go as an electrical engineer and ensure that I’ll get a job? During our future-planning discussion, I mentioned that there are really only a few technical centers that seem to make sense for someone with my skill set; and in fact, I’ve written about the technical areas in the US before, but will also recap it here. Silicon Valley was an obvious one, there are lot of companies out there. Same with the Washington DC metro area, because of defense contractors (though that would not be my first preference, nor do I have a security clearance). Boston is another high tech area with lots of growing robotics companies. I could have moved back down to Austin and tried a few of the tech companies down there. Or gone up to the pacific northwest such as Seattle and Portland where there are a smattering of hardware companies (and where a few of my friends have been flocking more recently). These are the bigger ones that I stated, but of course there are smaller markets. In fact, I decided to stay in a smaller market. Cleveland doesn’t have a glut of tech jobs, but I know the landscape and had a few options hardware-wise that I could have taken advantage of. I’m sure bigger cities throughout the US have similar situations, but often these are tied to the fact that there are many jobs in cities and the statistics say that of the hundreds of thousands of jobs available, some are bound to be hardware engineering positions.

So what if I wanted to move to a more remote location? Well, had it been about 20-30 years ago, this might not have been such a bad proposition. You know all the manufacturing jobs that I and many others lament moving over to Asia? Well those actually used to be done in the US, oftentimes supporting small towns in rural areas. Their disappearance is the plight of many countryside folk, as it will be when the factories decide to move out of China to the newest low-cost region of the day. The problem is that it’s often the farmers coming in from their fields to manufacturing work that produces the cheapest labor. And when the jobs leave, the farming ways are often already pushed off to corporate farms or the small percentage that remained farmers. Regardless, this happened quite often in the midwest, where I’m writing from. Thirty years ago, there were many large factories out here, many of which would have required an engineering staff for the manufacturing capabilities, if not for the design side of things. Sure, there are still a few manufacturing outfits in the rural areas of Ohio, but it’s nothing to count on these days. So that’s out. What else is there? Am I doomed to the metropolises of the world if I want a steady paycheck?

There are a lot of jobs out there that involve engineering (and sometimes selling), but one job that readily comes to mind that does not require a cosmopolitan lifestyle: Field Application Engineer (FAE). No, it’s not because it has “field” in the title, though that’s a fun coincidence. It’s actually nothing about the job that makes it more rural-friendly than city-friendly. I just happen to know a lot of FAEs in my area who live in more rural settings. So it must be working for them, right? For those that don’t know, FAEs support products on the technical side of things. Oftentimes (at least with the FAEs I know), they are former engineers and users of the chips or products and now are experts for a particular vendor. In fact, I’ve been asked to go become an FAE for a chip company because I had used many of their products in the past and they wanted me to become a technical expert in my geographical area. The key part of the job that allows country living is the need to drive to various companies to interface with customers. In the Cleveland area, I know that the FAEs are often expected to cover northeast Ohio and Pittsburgh. This means a lot of driving but also means that it’s worthwhile to live in between the two. What’s in between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, you ask? A wholelottanothin! Really, the FAEs are often allowed to live wherever they want, but many I know are able to live in remote locations because they aren’t constrained by a desk job at an office park (or similar).

Another job that allows for a country setting is working for yourself. In this case, I mean operating as an independent consultant. Often times a technical expert in a field will do this as they advance in their career, eschewing management positions and instead focusing becoming the number one expert in a particular field of engineering. This means you might have many different customers;  however, there would be no way to tell where those customers ultimately be located. With the rise of electronics in Asia, I know some consultants who used to work with companies in the US and now find themselves consulting for foreign companies just as much, if not more than the US companies. Much like the above mentioned FAE, the key factor in a consultant’s living arrangement is their travel. If you need to travel all over the area or the country on a regular basis, your home operating geography isn’t really of significance; the biggest constraint is how long it takes you to get to the airport. Other than that,  if you can get a broadband internet connection (which thanks to groups like ConnectOhio is growing daily), you truly can work from almost anywhere. If you don’t mind picking up your mail at the post office and the slower up/downlink of a satellite connection, you can go even more remote. It’s kind of a crazy time in that regard, but also allows people to do work that sustains them and enjoy more isolated and serene surroundings.

The final position I can think of that allows for rural settings is again working for yourself but also employing others. My favorite example is the Factor-E Farm which is part of the Open Source Ecology project; they are manufacturing easy-to-build agriculture equipment and open sourcing all of the design files. They are designing and manufacturing goods in a rural setting and the distributing that information all over the world. It is just as likely that they could manufacture and sell some of that equipment to others. And much like above, the constraint is simply logistics. How long it takes for raw materials to get to you, how long it takes to manufacture with those materials and then how long it takes to ship to your customers. Really these are the same constraints that companies have dealt with since commerce began. But with the rise of 3rd party logistics companies (UPS, FedEx, USPS), these things are offloaded to others. The only constraint is how much faster your competition is able to get the product out to others. If you’re not manufacturing iPhones (something that takes a lot of advanced supply chain logistics), a rural business can once again become a reality. Talent acquisition in a not-so-dense area could be problematic, but in the age of the 3rd industrial revolution, it’s entirely possible that no workers or traditional manufacturing will be required at all. Now it’s completely possible that the only constraint to a business is the bounds of the proprietor’s imagination. If you feel most creative while on a farm, why wouldn’t you move your business to one?

What about you? Have you ever lived or worked on a farm? Was there any opportunity for engineering either on the farm or in the nearby towns? Please let us know in the comments.


As far as the ‘working at the office but living in the country’ thing, I know quite a few people who do that here in NJ. That is, they work here, but they commute (sometimes 2 hours or more) from homes in Eastern Pennsylvania. Part of this is because they (or their spouses) prefer to live in the country, and part of it (I’m certain) is because the cost of living ‘out there’ is much less than it is here. NJ, particularly Central and Northern NJ (where all the tech is), is one of the most expensive areas of the country. So, for them, it’s a combination of cost and quality-of-life factors. In exchange, they have a 2-hour commute, but I guess it all depends on what means the most to you.

I have a feeling that the next 10 years is going to see a huge increase in telecommuting options for EDA jobs, to the point where many of the design jobs are going to be remote (whether you like it or not), because it’s more cost effective for the organization. At that point, you can live wherever you like (as long as you have broadband).

I lived in Northern MD and commuted to a city that was about halfway between DC and Annapolis (70 miles – one way and commute included Capital Beltway, BW expressway and Baltimore Beltway about 2 hours each way). Our apartment was in the country, but we mostly lived there for cost reasons. The job that I had entailed a fair amount of driving (up to 1 K mi. / week). The day after I fell asleep driving, I was looking for another job.

My wife and I decided that we wanted to move to a different part of the country and we moved and I got at job at a company that had a startup electronic product line. I became an electronic product design engineer and continued to work for that company (with a small lapse) until it was purchased and moved. Now that I am over 60 and the engineering jobs here are not in what I have experience in, it appears that I will retire early and generate income by some other means.

From what I have seen regarding engineering in my home town and where I live now, I would encourage engineers to pay a lot of attention to living below their means, saving and investing heavily, target a place to live with a low cost of living, and plan for a second career or your own company. Most engineers that I know have not been able to continue employment once they have developed some grey hair. I am talking about a graduate of Johns-Hopkins and an engineer that worked on Apollo 13 and others.

If where you live is not important, follow the job. If you want to live in a certain place, move there and create your own source of income. If a family is important to you realize the hardships and benefits of moving around.

If you’re looking for tech+country, look at the Minnapolis+St.Paul area and the Milwakuee area. Lots of engineering jobs (especially for EE), less than an hour to mile-grid style farmland.

I’m not idea about the idea of living in a big city. The Fargo metro area is roughly 200,000…but I can drive about 20 minutes and be out in the country. There are people I work with who live in the country and drive into town. I personally wouldn’t want to live on a farm (work all day and then go home to more work!), but it’s doable here. On the other hand, the offerings for engineering jobs is fairly limited, so you’d have to be willing to work at some place like Bobcat or John Deere if you want to keep being an engineer. Also, Microsoft is here, so if you can do software, you’re probably okay. (And they do funny things like this: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/oldnewthing/archive/2008/12/22/9244583.aspx)

Personally, I find the quality of life to be much better here than in a big city. It’s quiet, safe, affordable. On the other hand, if I can’t get a job I’d like to continue doing once I finish my PhD, chances are that I’ll have to move.

Pittsburgh Pa is another booming tech area. Since the steel industries decline an active effort to bring in new tech bases jobs. Now the economy is largely based on healthcare, education, technology, robotics, and financial services. Its not really country life here, but I do feel like it is different from other big cities. The cost of living is much less here and the state taxes are nice too. We have mountains, trees and rivers throughout the city. It is possible to live outside the city and commute in too. If you are looking for tech jobs you might consider Pittsburgh.

I live in an upstate NY town of about 20k, surrounded by apple farms. I lived in New York City for a few years and didn’t like the rent. I love living in a small town- the bus to NYC is 2 hours, I have a big workshop (cheap!) and lots of other people around here have big workshops because they’re affordable.

It is a challenge here to find interesting engineering work. There’s a bit of contracting work to be found, but it takes constant effort to get it.

Sales Engineering or FAE type of work does seem more conducive to living in smaller towns as we make company visits only when needed.

Off-topic: I would think this is a good second career for gray-haired engineers as you have to be capable to learn what your customers are doing, rather than having up-to-date design skills. Plus, the experience of doing design work provides conceptual insight into your customers’ problems.

I agree with what Cherish said about mid-sized towns in the Upper Midwest being the best place.

I would also add that hard-working Midwesterners should create high-tech businesses.

I’ve never lived in a rural place but I get the sense that the times when a plant would spring up in a rural area are completely gone. I think most places are now at least sprouting near metropolitan areas. Now, they don’t have to be huge mega-centers for technology like Silicon Valley and Boston, but they generally have to be some area where there’s a sizable workforce.

Everything that I’ve heard in the news is that there are a shortage of skilled workers for some jobs but there is a disconnect between the location of the job and the location of the person looking for employment. (And I’m not referring to just long driving distances.) I think as the tech community gets more efficient and more people leave rural areas, there will only be some opportunities for living in rural communities and people that have to cover a large business/support area are one.

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