The highs and lows of an engineering career

Deciding if engineering is right for you? GradAustralia shares with you the pros and cons for graduates in engineering, including quotes from real grads!
Ryan Matthews
Team GradAustralia

No career is perfect, and the way in which you define your own career satisfaction will come down to a range of personal preferences. Do you want a career that involves travel or a long-term role in a fixed location? Do you prefer high pay or stability? Are you willing to spend a few years learning the ropes as a graduate or do you wish to rise through the ranks as quickly as possible? How important to you is involvement in socially engaged work? Would you enjoy a career that intellectually challenged you but made it hard to maintain a work-life balance? Do you want to diversify your skillset or hone in on one particular aspect?

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to such questions, and what might sap the motivation of one engineer could very well thrill another. So, although we’ve listed the pros and cons of engineering below, read on with a critical eye and the intention of evaluating things insofar as they suit you. For example, yes, it’s great that engineering offers many opportunities for travel, but it’s perfectly fine if you’d prefer to develop a strong network of colleagues and friends in one place. Ultimately, career satisfaction as an engineer is something that is, itself, engineered – and there’s nobody more qualified to do so than you are.

Good news

Pay for graduates is generally very competitive

Historically, engineering has been a well-remunerated profession, and this remains true even today. According to a 2017 report by Engineers Australia, private sector salary packages in 2016 ranged from $72,160 for level one engineers (graduates) to $198,885 for level five engineers (senior positions). In the public sector, salary packages ranged from $84,109 at level one to $178,835 at level five. This compares very favourably to the national average graduate salary of $52,000.

Bear in mind, however, that, since 2000, average annual salary growth has been slower for engineers than other professionals. Whether or not this trend continues will depend largely on the future composition of the labour market, with a high proportion of baby boomers in senior positions due to retire within the next ten years. In any case, it remains true for now that graduate engineers can look forward to being paid very competitively for their skills and talents.

‘The remuneration package is excellent!’

– Graduate, Sydney, Caltex

A wide variety of job opportunities both in Australia and abroad

As we’ll see in the next section, there are numerous roles in which an ambitious engineering graduate might aspire to find themselves, from lucrative partnerships to globe-trotting roles with international firms and businesses. For now, it’s enough to say that, as an engineer, you’ll be entering a global profession that identifies you as the custodian of a versatile and sought-after skill set. Should you decide to use your degree outside of engineering, you’ll quickly discover that engineering graduates fill coveted roles in consulting firms, education, the public sector, and various other industries.

‘Even within oil and gas, you can work both an unconventional asset and a conventional asset within your first two years of working. You can also work on assets from around the world, in Australia, Trinidad and Tobago, the Gulf of Mexico, and in the US.’

– Graduate, Sydney, BHP

Learn on-the-job quickly

Our insiders at major engineering firms all agree that the learning curve tends to be steep for graduates. However, they mostly see this as a good thing – as a graduate yourself, you’ll be able to get involved quickly, learn new skills via dedicated training programs, and get a better sense of where you’d like to end up later on in your career. Some of the most enthusiastic feedback came from Microsoft graduates who had trained all over the world; Cochlear graduates, who were quickly involved in community-oriented work; Arup graduates who were encouraged to take on new responsibilities; and Boeing Defence Australia graduates, who were expected to roll up their sleeves from day one.

‘When I started with Arup, I assumed that I’d be working behind the scenes, but I actually ended up in a client-facing role very quickly. We look out for projects that have a positive impact on society or the environment, which allows me to feel like I can make a meaningful contribution even early on in my career.’

– Graduate, Brisbane, Arup

Regular exposure to new and challenging work

‘I get to do a variety of tasks, such as designing and building prototype circuits and circuit boards, performing lab experiments and testing, and architecting integrated circuits and specifying requirements. I really enjoy the diversity, as you are never bored and you’re always learning something new or how to do something better.’

– Graduate, Sydney, Cochlear

There is no point at which any subdiscipline of engineering will engineer itself into redundancy: one of its overarching goals is continuous improvement, which is why the history of engineering didn’t stop once we’d invented the wheel and the bucket. Even in your career as an engineer, you can expect a flow of work that challenges you, exposes you to new ideas, and helps you to cultivate a range of new skills and talents. Indeed, this is not an unreasonable expectation to have if you’re embarking on a career in engineering – you should speak up if you don’t feel stimulated or challenged, because that could mean that you’re missing out on one of the things that makes life as an engineer so appealing.

Balance your creative and technical passions

‘One of the highlights of my time at Arup involved learning about our work on the Sagrada Familia, a basilica in Barcelona. It’s thrilling to put modern technologies, like computer-aided design, to use in helping to complete architectural plans that were written down more than 100 years ago.’

– Graduate, Sydney, Arup

The common stereotype of the engineer is a professional who wields a protractor, or a wrench, or some other tool, and is preoccupied with math and other technical considerations. Undoubtedly, this can be a large part of an engineering career. Given far less attention, however, is the way in which many engineers discover ways to feel creatively fulfilled in their day-to-day jobs.

After all, success as an engineer will often require you to solve problems that have no obvious solution – in such situations, creativity is the only way forward. It could also be that, like the Arup graduate quoted above, you end up working in collaboration with creative professionals, such as architects, product designers, artists, and more, or on projects with creative aims (such as the construction of a new city precinct, pharmaceutical drug, food product, and so on). However you go about balancing your creative and technical passions, one thing is certain – as an engineer, it can be done.

Do work that has tangible results

‘I really love the practical side to my job. Sometimes when you get a really big problem that seems insurmountable, you can walk downstairs onto an aircraft and take the time to understand that particular piece of structure, kit or system and look around to see how it interacts with the aircraft around it. There’s only so much information stress notes and a drawing will give you!’

– Graduate, Sydney, Airbus

There are various professions in which people are removed from the problems they are solving. For example, the challenges addressed by marketers, accountants, financiers, and communications professionals tend to be abstract – how to make the numbers add up, how to promote a product, how to connect a specific message with a specific audience, and so on.

While engineering involves its fair share of calculating, modelling, and theorising, it offers the appealing promise that, in most cases, this abstract work will result in something you can see, touch, and feel genuinely proud of – whether it’s an aeroplane that travels safely from one city to another, a device that restores independence to the disabled, a software program that runs without a hitch, a bridge that thousands of commuters use to travel to and from work every day, or something else entirely. Of course, there’s nothing inherently dissatisfying about abstract work. However, many of our insiders take pleasure in knowing that they’ll be able to point without hesitation to the fruits of their labour.

Things to consider before taking the plunge

The workload can be high and unpredictable  

‘There can be times where it feels like you’re drinking water from a fire hose to absorb all the information required to do your job. But with appropriate communication to your supervisor, time will be given to allow you to catch up and learn.’

– Graduate, Sydney, Boeing Defence Australia

Our insiders report that, as a general rule, engineering graduates work 40 hour weeks like other professionals. However, many were quick to point out that this is subject to change – imminent deadlines often lead to overtime, and one insider even reported that she had clocked an 80 hour week during her first three months!

The good news is that managing your workload during periods of high demand often gets easier with experience. It’s also encouraging to note that our insiders also often spoke in favourable terms of the supportive cultures fostered by their employers. ‘Everyone is friendly and willing to help each other where they can,’ says a graduate at Shell. Similarly, a graduate at BP reports that ‘There is a lot of work to be done, but also a good company culture and support network, including a network of young engineers.’

Engineering can be very competitive

If you’ve just had the experience, or you’re preparing for the experience, of applying for graduate positions at top engineering firms, then you probably already have a good idea of how competitive the process is. Many graduates don’t receive an offer until they’ve passed through multiple interviews, aptitude tests, and group assessments. However, the competition doesn’t end there. Most engineering firms are hierarchical, and your eligibility for promotions is often a reflection of your performance… as compared to others on a similar level to you. Furthermore, there is a high degree of competition between organisations that hire engineers, with the submission of tenders an integral part of the process whereby such organisations procure lucrative contracts.

Whether you’re sure or not about a career in engineering, you’ll also want to consider which type of engineering you should focus on. To find out which engineering specialisation is right for you, check out our article at GradAustralia.