Engineers May Earn Fat Paychecks—But Not Every Kid Is Meant To Be One

A university admissions expert takes on America’s obsession with the notoriously stressful field

You may have heard about how, year after year, engineering majors lay claim to the highest average starting salaries for recent college graduates. But as a former assistant director of admissions at an elite university, and as a former first year English instructor at a state university, I can tell you that doesn’t mean every teenager should be pushed into the field.

Whether on the opposite end of an admissions interview or chatting in the hallways after class, I’ve worked with hundreds of bright, driven students as they transition from high school to college, trying to convince themselves that engineering is their destiny.

For some of them, engineering is a natural fit. But the ones who say that a high entry-level salary is their main career goal (especially if they’re doing it mostly because they “like cars”) are the ones I fear for most. When our culture overemphasizes the idea that engineering is the best—possibly only—option for wealth, success, and respect, then students may opt out of considering all life paths, without considering the field’s high rate of overwork and burnout that has, on more than one occasion, resulted in worker deaths.

Instead, students should channel their energies into learning enough about themselves to select the most fulfilling career possible. If they still want to go into engineering, that's great. But rather than tell you how to help students land those coveted STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) jobs, I’d like to offer ways we can better assist young adults to make informed decisions about their work and career paths—even it means they’ll need to choose a less-than-luxe mode of transportation.

1. Help students reflect and analyze their interests and skills

Asking students, “Why is a large starting salary important to you?” might yield jokes at first. Following up a deeper question such as, “If all jobs paid $100,000, what would you be interested in trying?” can reveal deeper desires. Shifting the conversation from needing money to doing what they really want, to finding a job that encompasses the actions they want to take can be eye-opening.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]No amount of money can trick someone into loving engineering when the skills, thinking, and projects bring them no joy.[/quote]

2. Help students think about money and salaries in the context of a lifetime of work

From breaking down yearly salaries into monthly budgets to talking openly about the price of an intended lifestyle—a used car versus payments on a luxury car, not to mention the car insurance differences—can help students move beyond idealizing a certain salary and thinking about the needs of the life they hope to live. It is safe to say they’ll be working hard for what they need and want, regardless of salary, so finding a job that brings fulfillment beyond money earned is important. Engineering is a difficult enough field even for those who love it. Ultimately, no amount of money can trick someone into loving engineering when the skills, thinking, and projects bring them no joy.

3. Break down the education requirements and entry-level job duties

If students have a university in mind, suggest they look at which courses a third-year chemical engineering major has to take, or contact the university’s career center to find out what someone in an entry-level job in mechanical engineering actually does every day. While some students may be discouraged to find out that the career they’ve selected is no longer a good fit, the sooner they know what they don’t want to do, the sooner they can start figuring out what they do want to do. It’s even better if this discovery process does not require two years worth of student loans toward an engineering degree before realizing that engineering is not the right fit.

4. Suggest students research parallel fields

If the reasons students are drawn to engineering stem from a misunderstanding of the career itself, looking at related fields can help them find the right fit. In the early stages of researching and potentially choosing to pursue higher education, it is important to find a dream job, rather than reshape dreams to match a job requirement. If students are drawn to engineering because they enjoy drawing cars, perhaps transportation design, architecture, or even illustration could be a better fit. Similarly, working at a specific car company could mean anything from coding an assembly line machine to being a human resources manager or corporate lawyer.

5. Utilize backwards career research

My final and perhaps most frequent suggestion is that students find people who currently hold their dream job or similar ones, and trace their career and education paths back to the beginning. If anyone in these dream positions has a published biography, students should read it with their own goals in mind. The common threads of hard work, times of struggle, and even times of financial stress cover many career paths, however successful and financially stable that person may eventually have become. Research shows it is increasingly normal for people to have multiple careers in a lifetime, leaving plenty of room for the ups and downs that come with both direct and nondirect life paths.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Find a dream job rather than reshape dreams to match a job requirement.[/quote]

STEM education is important, and encouraging all students to try out coding, lab research, or engineering build competitions is a good thing. However, there is more to life than STEM, and there is more to STEM than engineering. Ultimately, when it comes time to interview for jobs, it will be clear which graduates are passionate about the day-to-day aspects, and which are hoping that the excitement will kick in after that first payday.

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