Top Ten Career Options for Engineers

Cover image attribution: Robert Kneschke via Adobe Stock (File #84153130 )

Before I founded Engineers Rising LLC, I worked as a structural engineer. As someone who has taken a non-traditional career path, I am often asked about possible career paths for engineers. Most often, this question comes from college students considering their major, college seniors looking for their first jobs, and professionals who don’t love their current role and want to make a change.

Many engineers start with the pre-conception that they have limited options. I can’t tell you how many times an engineer has said to me, “I have this technical role which I enjoy, but I need to get into management since that’s the only way to move up.” Or, “I’m not excited about the technical work I’m doing, but I don’t want to go into management. I guess this field isn’t for me.”

Your options are only limited if you want them to be. The skills you’ve learned as an engineer are valuable in many different areas. You could go into a different field, or look for a comparable job at a different company if where you are working is not a good fit for you. But, you could also explore a number of different options where you get to use your training, problem-solving skills, and analytical prowess in a slightly different capacity, all without going back to school or working for peanuts.

This blog details ten possible career paths in the Architecture, Engineering, Construction, Civil Engineering, and Architectural Engineering communities. Many of these will apply to other types of engineers also.

None of these options are theorectical. I have either personally taken some of these paths (#1,#2, and # 10), or personally know engineers who have. I am married to an engineer who took an alternate path as well, so this is an area I’ve done a lot of research in as the two of us explored various options.


CAREER PATH OPTIONS

Option 1: Design/consulting for a structural engineering or civil engineering firm

This can take many forms and the type of work is variable depending on your geographic location and your area of specialty. In my area of the country (PA), engineers that design bridges ONLY design bridges. Engineers that design buildings (usually) only design commercial buildings, or only design residential buildings.  Very few do all these things well, so if you go into consulting make sure you pick a firm that has the type of projects that will keep you engaged long- term. 

Experiences of engineers working in consulting vary as much as people do; if you go the consulting route and you don’t like your first job, be sure to try a few other firms. Often, it’s simply a matter of finding the firm that’s the right fit for you. This sector is what many would consider a “traditional” route, but can be suitable for any type of engineering personality. If you find the right firm (this is key!!!!), most engineers can thrive in this environment.

Option 2: Design/consulting for an architecture firm

I went this route immediately after college (before going to option #1 above three years in). I worked in the structural engineering department of an ENR 100 architecture firm. This was fabulous exposure to truly understanding what the client wants and understanding the holistic process of putting a building together since you are literally sitting next to architects (who became my clients when I went to work in a type #1 firm).  I have never been invited to so many owner meetings in my life, which once again is awesome exposure to not just what architects want, but what clients want too.

Based on my own experience and in talking to other engineers who went this path, you should be aware that many architecture firms treat the engineering department as an ugly stepchild. Firm leadership is often 100% architects, who may or may not prioritize things like staying on the cutting edge of engineering. You should be aware that job openings for engineers working in the architecture firms that do have a reputation for being on the cutting edge will be fiercely competitive and will require extra effort on your part.

If you know early on that you may want to go into management, business development, or are considering starting your own consulting firm down the road, getting this perspective will be invaluable later in your career. Similar to option 1, most engineering personality types can thrive in this environment if they find the right firm.

Option 3: Work for a Contractor (and no, I don’t mean a Freelancer, although we’ll get to that one also.)

Some large building and infrastructure contractors hire engineers. Some have visualization departments (the ones that specialize in BIM/3D modeling) that include both building engineers and computer engineers. If you are interested in construction management roles, this is your route. This option is also considered one of the more lucrative opportunities available right out of school if your degree is in a construction-related field (civil engineering or architectural engineering).

However, if you want to get your PE in the future, I will advise to go a design route first because you must work under the direct supervision of a PE in order to sit for the PE exam.  It is much more difficult to go to construction first, then back into design if you were to change your mind, than to go the opposite route. Most of my friends who went the construction route ended up staying there, and most do not have PE's. It’s simply not necessary if you are planning on spending your entire career in this area. This sector attracts extroverted engineers, as you will be working closely with other people most of the time.

Option 4: Academia

You'll need a PhD for this to NOT turn into a dead-end path, but if you are willing to get that extra education, there are plenty of engineers who enjoyed research and/or teaching so much that they either went straight to academia or they worked for a year or two and then went back. You can’t beat a tenure track position for job security, however competition is fierce (even in engineering), and non-tenure track positions don’t typically pay as well as other options. You’d also need to get good at writing grants and be OK with the bureaucracy prevalent throughout higher education.

If you love research or teaching, and don’t mind bureaucracy this is a great path for you. You’ll find all types of engineering personalities here. I know many educators and researchers who absolutely love their jobs, although from what I understand the path to tenure is very difficult, and in some institutions is peppered with decision-makers who come from old-school models of work-life balance (aka the person seeking tenure has a stay-at-home spouse who is covering everything at home). For the engineering ladies, please talk to someone who has gone this route to learn about the realities of having children and tenure if you are considering this option!

Personally, I was a TA in college and considered going this route. The deciding factor for me was that I knew the bureaucracy would get to my independent spirit eventually, and I wasn’t loving what I heard from women who were seeking tenure (they had no life outside of work while this was going on). I also loved the teaching aspect but not the research part, which ruled out all major research universities. So, the downsides outweighed the upsides for me personally. Everyone is different, which is why it is so important to explore the path most suited to you!


Option 5: Government

For civil engineers, this includes working at a DOT (Department of Transportation), a local municipality, or even NASA. Many types of engineers are employed at places like NASA, DOD or Defense Contractors. I’m not going to go into detail here; there are plenty of other websites where you can explore those options, and jobs are posted publically.

Many engineering personalities can do well here, and I know engineers who thrive in this sector, as well as ones who tried it for a short time and quickly went back to design or another option because it didn’t suit them at all. The ones who thrive enjoy the access to the immense resources the government offers, particularly when it comes to defense, research, and development. Others who thrive enjoy the challenges of public policy. You won’t find that level of resources, or the potential impact the public in any other option, particularly in civil or architectural engineering which is notorious for the general lack of R&D throughout the industry.

For me, the time I’ve spent writing the paragraphs for this option encompass the entirety of time I’ve personally considered this one. Bureaucracy and chains of command are not my cup of tea.

Option 6: Engineering-associated vendors or non-profits

In my industry, examples include ASCE, ACI, AISC, SWE, Engineers Without Borders, Side plate, Hilti, Simpson, etc......There are many many more which I haven’t listed here.

Two of my friends (and a number of engineering acquaintances I've run into recently) left design work to pursue this option. Job functions often include technical engineering support in that they answer questions from other practicing engineers. Some of these types of jobs require much more travel than design consulting, which can be good or bad depending on your preferences. Some of these positions require you to do sales and marketing, and are much more limited as to the amount of engineering you are doing day-to-day. Every engineer I know who has gone into this area I would consider to be a “people-ish” person. They aren’t necessary extroverts, but they enjoy talking to and meeting with people.


Option 7: Engineering Design for a few years, then move into software

My husband is a civil engineer who went this route; I know at least 4 other structural engineers that went this way, multiple civil engineers that went this way, and I suspect there are engineers in virtually every industry - especially outside of computer engineering - who are making a lucrative living here. All of the engineers I know in this area worked in design for a few years. They aren’t computer engineers or coders by training. They generally stayed in the area of their engineering degree until they got design experience and their PE.

Then, they went to a software company. In the new role, they generally act as a liaison between the engineering users (which they used to be) and the computer engineers doing the programming (who know computers, but don't know the engineering industry from the user perspective). Their engineering license, and the fact they have experience using a particular software as an engineer, gives them immense credibility to the engineering users.

These engineers (at least the ones I know) range from “people-ish” to full on extroverts. They enjoy talking to engineers who use software. They enjoy trouble-shooting issues, and in some cases they take on a sales or training role also. They also tend to be personality types that can think quickly on their feet and thrive in a faster-paced, innovation-focused environment than your “standard” engineering firm.


Option 8: Engineering Design for a few years, then move into Management or Training

Engineers firms have many levels of managers. Some engineers excel in project management, while others are excellent business strategists and aspire to rise up the ranks to run an already-established engineering firm. Still others have knacks for specific soft-skill areas such as business development, developing leaders, mentoring, or public speaking.

There is also an entire sub-industry in engineering related to continuing education. Engineering technologies change quickly, and you’ll quickly become obsolete if you don’t keep up. To address this issue, large engineering firms may have in-house continuing education departments run by engineers. For one example, I have a friend who is in charge of the training department for one of those firms, and moved from design to project management and then into her current role.  People skills are a must for this career path, and design experience is usually required.


Option 9: Work for an Institutional or Manufacturing Client

In the construction industry, many large institutional clients such as oil and gas companies, manufacturing facilities, hospitals, and universities have their own in-house engineering departments to handle or oversee their engineering needs. Engineering is NOT their primary function, but these companies have found it more economical to have in-house engineers as opposed to hiring out.

For a specific example, I live in a college town where there are many engineers working for the facilities, maintenance, or IT departments at the university. They are all considered support staff to the university, so most have a Bachelor’s degree only. Daily tasks are generally of the project-management variety, and some previous design experience was required when they were hired. People will move here specifically for those jobs due to the work-life balance (typically better than most private-industry firms), job security, and benefits such as major tuition discounts for yourself and your family.

This option attracts engineers comfortable with people, and bureaucracy can be a challenge. Pay and hours can vary greatly; for some of these jobs you’ll get paid a lot and be expected to be “on-call”. In others, you’ll be paid less than other engineering jobs, but you have regular hours and great benefits. Just like any of the other options, there are trade-offs and you need to decide which works best for you.

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Option 10: Start a side-hustle as a freelancer…..and then turn your successful freelance gig into your own full-time business

Entrepreneurship is “sexy” right now, and it’s perceived to be a bit more glamorous than it is. The reality is that most successful entrepreneurs are in their late 30’s or 40’s and have had some experience in their areas of expertise before starting their own companies. Most entrepreneurial “overnight successes” are 10 years or more in the making. Unless you’ve got savings and/or someone else willing to pay for your living expenses until your business becomes profitable, the smartest route to entrepreneurship is NOT quitting your job and starting a company.    

Instead, start with a freelancing side gig, and grow it until you have substantiated your entrepreneurial idea with enough income to allow you to stop working for someone else. Use the income from your engineering job to support your side gig, like I did as I was writing and publishing She Engineers.

You must be focused and you may have to give up any binge-watching of Netflix temporarily, but it’s far less risky with many huge potential upsides, even for your employer. Looking to learn business skills? There is no better way to learn quickly than by starting your own side-hustle where you are responsible for everything, even if all it is when you start is your own blog or YouTube channel.

Starting your own business is the riskiest option of all………….but potentially the most lucrative, and much less risky if you start a side business first as I suggest. There are plenty of ways to both make sure your business is viable and learn the skills you’ll need to do well as an entrepreneur while you are working as an employee, but that’s a discussion for another blog.


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HOW TO CHOOSE

You have a lot of options. How do you choose? Let me make this easy for you by giving you two simple rules to follow:

Rule #1: If you are early in your career (students, I’m talking to you!) and you are at all uncertain of your path (which is most of us!), go into design first (either #1 or #2).

Why design first? I’ll give you four reasons:

1.      Even if you know you don't want to be in design forever, it keeps the most options open to you long-term. Many non-design options either require design experience as a pre-qualification.

2.      If earning your professional engineering (PE) licensure is required in your field of engineering (civil engineers I’m talking to you!), the design route is the best route to get your PE the fastest. You are required to have a PE sign off on your work experience in order to sit for the licensure exam, so if you go into a non-design option in which your manager is not a PE, finding PE references can be extremely difficult. It’s not a matter of asking someone you know with a PE to sign off on this, a PE must sign a form saying they have direct knowledge of your work.

3.      Design is the hardest one to get into if you've gone somewhere else first. It’s much easier to go from very technical design to a less-technical area. Personally, I know of no engineers who’ve gone the other way. That’s not to say they don’t exist…..I just don’t know any.

4.      Design is (usually) more lucrative starting out than most of the other options (except Option 3).

Rule #2: If you have a few years’ (or more) experience and don’t love your current role, it’s time to explore your options. It’s never too late to do something different.

No one – not your peers, your manager, or employer – expects you to stay in the same role (or even the same firm) for your entire career. Sometimes engineers are fortunate to find a company that allows their role to grow with them at their first job, but this is extremely rare. For the majority of engineers (including me!), we need to try a bunch of different roles and/or companies before we find one that fits.

To figure out which option is best for you, consider the things you love about your current role. Are there any activities that you’d be thrilled to be doing all day long (long lunch breaks don’t count)? Can you start doing more of those immediately? If not, can you find another path that allows you to do more of what you enjoy?

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Sometimes, it’s not the role you don’t like, it’s the company. If you no longer are excited about a role you used to find enjoyable, it may be time to find a similar job at a different firm. Why are you no longer enjoy your role? If it’s simply the case that you no longer feel challenged, a similar job elsewhere may be right for you. Or, if you’re in an environment with a non-supportive manager (the micromanager, or an environment that isn’t supportive of your professional growth), you are encouraged to find a new job or manager before your career stagnates.

In contrast, what if you’ve NEVER enjoyed a particular role? What if there are limited opportunities to spend at least 60% of your day doing what you enjoy most on your current path? What if the thought of doing something similar at a different company turns your stomach? What if you look at the daily activities of your boss (or boss’s boss), and you have absolutely no interest in following in those footsteps 10 or 20 years from now? In those cases, it’s likely time to explore an alternate option than the one you are currently traveling.


THE CAREER OPTION WRAP-UP

So that’s the engineer career option round up. It’s important to understand that some engineers stay in one option their entire careers, while others move between options. It’s even more important to understand that options that may work for you at one stage of you career don’t necessarily work in other stages. You can outgrow a role, or even a firm. If that’s you, I want you to know that’s not only completely OK, but it’s expected. You aren’t doing yourself any favors by being loyal to a firm that’s not supporting your continued growth.

I want to hear from YOU! Tell me which options you want to know more about!

Want to know more about any of these careers? Post which one you want to know about in the comments below, and we’ll do a deep dive into the topic with engineers who have gone into some of these areas.