Economics Engineering Learning Life Work

On Job Losses and Stem Cell Engineers

Like any good mortgage-fearing first-time home buyer, I worry about my income sources and my job. I don’t have any fears based on performance, but just general fears. It seems that the possibility of recession I wrote about back in September is here and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere for a while. So what can I tell you to try and put your mind at ease (“you” of course being an engineer or someone interested in the fate of engineers…I have no authority on other job types). I can tell you what I was told when I was nervous today:

You’re going to be fine. (Helpful, right?)

The great thing about being an engineer, and specifically a relatively inexperienced engineer, is that you’re desirable because you’re flexible (mentally, of course, unless you’re one of those weird gymnast/engineers). You can easily come into a new role that you may know very little about and quickly learn the task. This is not to say that others are not capable of doing the same; many individuals are very good at this concept and are known as “polymaths” (people who excel at many different disciplines, a great example being Leonardo DaVinci). No, I speak of engineers as being mentally malleable because that is the main skill they are taught in school. If an engineer learns nothing more in school, they should learn to teach themselves.  This is why I think of new engineers like stem cells; they naturally adapt to those around them to perform a similar task. However, the longer they stay in a position or field, the harder it gets to leave that field.

So in an effort to calm me down (he did), my friend pointed me to a piece of advice he received from a former colleague, who I also knew. This person was and is a great all around engineer (mechanical by title, but knew his way around electronics) and had the following to say (paraphrased):

As long as you’re willing to work hard, you’ll be OK in the end. At times, you might not like every aspect of your work you’re doing and at other times, you won’t get paid what you deserve. But come good and bad, if you work hard and are open to learn whatever is required to get the job done, you’ll be OK.

My friend told me that this talk he had with the experienced engineer has stuck with him and it’s easy to see why. A veteran engineer who had re-invented himself many times over was living proof that when times get tough, the tough get learning. I guess in the end this is kind of stating the obvious; if you are willing to do anything to get by, you will get by. But I think it is interesting in the context of this blog because when engineers lose a job or are stuck working only contract work, they think there are no other options. Instead, they could be looking at non-traditional roles for engineers, explaining how they can apply their past experiences and hope that the hiring manager recognizes the flexibility most engineers have and puts them to work. I think of a situation where a power engineer cannot find work and ends up in a power line technician position. Not only would the engineer be temporarily employed, they would be able t experience many of the problems that their customers or end-users experience every day. In the best case scenario, the engineer would be able to take that knowledge back and design a better product.

So what do you do if you are an engineer and out of a job currently? Perhaps try a related field that can be used as leverage at your next job. I think of my time working in a semiconductor fabrication facility this way; I was not working on the design of the product, but I got some hard skills (mostly statistics), some soft skills (working in a high pressure environment independently) and some undefinable skills (a sense of where the semiconductor business is heading and how it could affect the market). If you happen to work in a field that is so niche that you cannot find anything remotely similar to what you prefer to work on, maybe try taking a traditionally lower level job in your field and try working on more hands-on type activities (similar to the power line example above). You can work to hone your existing skills and hopefully rise quickly as you show how proficient you can be. However, if there are not any engineering positions available, it is likely there will not be these lower level jobs available either. So in the most dire of straights, try for something completely different. Since starting my blog I have become increasingly interested in marketing and how to create a brand. If there came a time that I could not find engineering work, I would try and target marketing as a near choice–not because I have any relevant experience (I don’t)–but because I think that the skills I would pick up would be helpful at unknown points later in life.

As for non-engineers out there, I can only speak good things about engineering and the job prospects throughout a recession. As I always do with younger people asking about engineering, I can quickly lay out some reasons to become an engineer (and would be willing to do so more if you have more questions by email). You have the flexibility to do a wide variety of tasks and have the opportunity to positively impact the world. You can choose among a wide variety of professional fields or stay in school and teach others engineering skills or do research in a university setting. There are many naysayers who claim that you will not be in charge on projects, but you could always choose management if you want to run the show. Others will say that you will not get paid what you deserve; but I think that remembering engineering is about helping people is important. Not only does it discourage those who are only in engineering for the money, it also helps remind you that your goal should be to help others.

So I know this post spanned many aspects of engineering but I think the main idea is that as an engineer, you can survive a lot of what the economy throws at you. Hard work and mental flexibility will let engineers re-invent themselves if necessary and prosper in the most volatile of economies. If you have experienced job safety or, conversely, have been pushed off an employment cliff thanks to your engineering degree and you’d like to share, please leave your thoughts in the comments.