Advice to Young Engineers: Know Your Worth and Balance Your Work

By Mohammed Bala

I’m writing this article for consciousness young engineers looking to advance in their careers while maintaining some type of work-life balance. Like many folks working in STEM fields today, my path was fairly clear growing up. As the child of first-generation middle-class immigrants, expectations were always present on school, work, and studying. Although never explicitly laid out, the plan was always understood — study hard, perform well in school, graduate from a decent university, find a stable job with a large corporation, save up for retirement. Despite the fact that this dogma might induce vomiting when actually spelled out, there is a reason for its an existence — it works, it’s safe. For all intents and purpose, following the path should be analogous to preventative measures which keep one from falling ill in the future. Unfortunately, never discussed are the side effects of training yourself to excel and take on a Type-A personality.

Photo by Steven Houston on Unsplash

So you do well in high school, ace your standardized tests, enroll at a prominent institution in an esteemed engineering program, and finally land your first full-time job at a large engineering firm. Your path is set. You excel at your work, your enthusiasm and work ethic is well received, people jump at the opportunity to provide you with constructive feedback, and watch you grow. It seems that you're developing exactly as you should, however, days, months, and years pass and you fail to do one thing — take a step back and take stock of your life. Being in the early stages of your career, it is imperative that you break apart your time and look at exactly how you are managing your most precious investment. Growing up with a Type-A mentality can many times mean we work hard first and ask questions later. Young engineers can easily fall into the cycle of working 60-hour weeks, being paid for 40-hour weeks, and killing the rest of their free time with others doing the same.

No matter the circumstance, it is important to always look at the bigger picture. Understand that as a young engineer you lack certain qualifications, experiences, and are compensated as such. It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking you are slow or unknowledgeable at your work, a train of thought that rapidly leads to investing your personal time for the benefit of a corporation. What needs to really happen is the establishment of a mutual set of expectations between you and your employer. First and foremost, remind yourself you have a relationship, the basis of which is the exchange of a certain number of hours weekly for a set level compensation. Given the mutual understanding of your relationship, you must come up with a clear work structure within which you will accomplish a set of deliverables for your employer.

Defining a relationship which clearly denotes the exchange of hours for compensation with your employer is absolutely critical for project-based work. Engineers, particularly ones working on large construction projects, can find themselves feeling accountable to multiple parties whether that be a client, local authorities, or subcontractors. To those engineers, I say recognize that you are not the corporation with which you have a contract. As an individual that has always produced above average work, it can be challenging to pause and look at the bigger picture, it can be easy to feel the need to go above and beyond the call to action, although you owe it to yourself to evaluate where and when you are being exploited for your time. Most importantly, know that for most Fortune 500 corporations, you are not much more than a line item at the end of the day — accordingly, extra (volunteering) overtime hours will have negligible impact to the company bottom line, although likely a major impact to your personal life.

One thing I have been fortunate to experience since leaving university was massive layoffs at the corporation with which I am employed. Highly skilled technical professionals who have spent their careers in one field (oil and gas) and invested decades with one company laid off at the blink of an eye. These people made a decent living for themselves while employed, but essentially got comfortable and were pigeon-holed into one field and one discipline of work. If the business line of the corporation you work at begins to slow in development, layoffs are to be expected, and any additional (volunteering) overtime hours will not make a difference in that decision.

Thus, you must align your priorities accordingly and begin to utilize your most important investment. Take inventory of your current schedule, produce a number of hours associated with your current investment in a corporation, this should include everything from your 40 hours in the office, to ironing your khakis. Once you know how much time you absolutely need to be spending, quantify the amount that can be invested in other avenues, preferably ones which increase your assets. This is best accomplished by setting aside daily blocks of time which can be viewed as daily investments in your own journey to self-sufficiency. Daily investments ideally include working toward establishing some type of small business, or pursuing additional higher education, however, activities as simple as daily reading can compound to produce considerable benefit in the future. The goal here is to work on diversifying yourself as hard as you work at your place of employment, and the hope is to watch the seeds of your labor blossom in your backyard rather than someone else’s quarterly earnings.