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Career Advice - Class I Railroad vs. Design Consultant, Entry Level

Career Advice - Class I Railroad vs. Design Consultant, Entry Level

Career Advice - Class I Railroad vs. Design Consultant, Entry Level

Hello bridge engineers,

BLUF: Take a field bridge maintenance/construction job with a Class I railroad; or try to get a job with a design consulting firms?

What do you think as bridge engineers?


Me: PE, will have MS in structural engineering Tier I school (not being pretentious, just saying), field experience (but not bridges or R.R.), no design experience. Want to do bridge design, or structural design; that is why I am struggling to get the MS.

Wish I could do field work, and hard core design; but in 2016 this is impossible. Can do lots of traveling, can manage blue collar labor, can sit in a cubicle and design, don't care about location, realize I am getting too old to switch careers tracks again. Care about job security, sometimes wonder if chasing the "design" dream is not worth it long term, definitely would pick Class I R.R. if company culture and company overall was the only deciding factor.

I see the country (US) as going overall downhill, not optimistic about the future. I have a family, so that certainly is a factor pulling me in the RR direction. Maybe I'm too pessimistic, I don't know.


Design Firm: Pros - Actually use my engineering knowledge to fullest extent; squeeze the most knowledge out of my PE and MS; my dream is to design.

Cons - Hire and fire culture, low job security, "real stress", i.e. real deadlines that lead to you getting fired if not complete, billable hours...in a nutshell, capitalism, haha.


Class I R.R.: Pros - Rock solid job security, amazing benefits, amazing pension; basically like working for the government but in the private sector...with greater demands as well, of course. Really like the culture of the company, the history, and it fits my previous job experience very well. Doesn't seem to be "real stress", i.e. I doubt they'll quickly fire you if you slightly under-perform. Also, if business goes down, management, and their engineer management are some of the last to be fired.

Seems like a "goose that laid the golden egg" kind of job. They hardly hire any managers proportional to the size of their company.

Cons - First 2-5 years are in the field, i.e. no design experience. Been there, done that, as far as construction management goes...it's not engineering (no offense to CMs, just cutting to the chase). I went back to school to be a "real" engineer.

After 2-5 years you may get a job in the in-house design office. No real hard core design is performed. Just manage design consultants and check them (how you can really do that with minimal design experience is hard to tell), i.e. project management.

In house only does limited design, and that is only the easiest, cookie cutter bridges. All the cons have been verified.

FYI, in house design engineers I talked to all transitioned from private consulting firms to R.R. and did not come from the field. Seems like a trend and I suspect it has to do with their ability to actually perform design work and therefore actually check the consultants. Once they got into the R.R., of course, they stuck to it...the benefits are hard to beat.

Finally, I pick RR, I close the chapter on ever being a real "structural" or "bridge engineer". I'm too old to go back to the design side, and I would never leave the company bar something catastrophic. My previous job was rough and I highly doubt even the RR can beat that...so I can handle corporate, blue collar, whatever bulls*** comes up.

Please let me know what you all think.

RE: Career Advice - Class I Railroad vs. Design Consultant, Entry Level

Sounds like you made up your mind for the railroad. My gut feeling: it's the right choice. You don't say how old you are, how much experience, what type of experience you have. Truth be told I wouldn't hire a middle aged engineer with no design experience unless he was going to work for an entry level salary; no offense that's the consulting business in a nutshell.

I had a similar situation. Recently I was offered a job with a DOT. 20% pay cut, 7 hour day versus 10, better benefits, no stress, no billable hours, easy life, job security. I turned it down because I would have to work 10 years to get a pension, a meager one at that. I want to retire in the next 3 to 5 years.

If you want to start at the bottom take the consulting job. RR sounds more promising.

RE: Career Advice - Class I Railroad vs. Design Consultant, Entry Level

First off -- I don't agree with the impossibility of combining hard core design and field work. After all, that sums up my day pretty well. But it is difficult to find.

I also don't agree with attributing hire and fire culture to the consulting world and not the the RRs. Railroads definitely go through layoff cycles. Many consulting firms do as well, especially those on the "contract" model -- but it's possible to find consultants (and probably RRs) that don't subscribe to the "brutal" side of capitalism. Either that, or they just plan their hires well and don't subject themselves to boom and bust volatility in their backlog.

Not relevant to your dilemma, but your comment about checkers doing so with minimal design experience -- that is the unfortunate reality of 2016.

RE: Career Advice - Class I Railroad vs. Design Consultant, Entry Level

I spent the first four years of my career for a certain large western U.S. state DOT. At the time, I too wanted to get out of field work and do some "real" design. I got my wish, and have had only sporadic stints in the field in the last 20 years. Often, I still miss it. Barring unusual situations or emergencies, field work is usually more consistent in terms of workload. You're less likely to be caught up into unreasonable budgetary and schedule demands from clients. Your family will appreciate this, and you won't miss the stress.

Go with the RR for the reasons you mentioned. Never underestimate the value of field work. You say you've done it, but not for bridges or RR. All field work is good, and field work relevant to the "design" you want to do is exceptional. It will make you a better designer. When the time comes, move inside to the in-house design and checking role. You'll be able to learn and remember what you need for designing, but you'll be able to add a perspective missing from the young "career" designers: constructability. That will be important whether you're doing your own design or reviewing someone else's. Nobody notices when things go well in the field, but they sure do when it doesn't.

RE: Career Advice - Class I Railroad vs. Design Consultant, Entry Level

Maybe I am still junior (with regard to my experience) to comment, but I'd say do NOT limit yourself by saying years of experience you had in any field or what to cater by the time I turn age....

I did short term structural works upon graduation and then started my PhD in bridge stuff, that's when I got fascinated by bridge design and I am still learning (you could see that from my posts :D). I reckon if you're really into field related works, then go for RR.


Shoot for the Moon, even if U miss, U still land among Stars!

RE: Career Advice - Class I Railroad vs. Design Consultant, Entry Level

Thank you for the advice, it's real good. Hopefully, you enjoy thinking about possibilities as much as I do.

FYI: I will be 28 when I start my new job, whatever path I choose. The RR places a very heavy demand on my time, i.e. working through the week and coming home on weekends. It is not a DOT as far as working hours are concerned, and everyone I talked to clearly states that it will hurt your family life. The job security is indeed excellent; most layoffs occur in the union labor force, and the benefits are great too.

I found it interesting that most of you seemed a little more keen on the RR option. I would have figured folks here would be more inclined towards the consulting option.

Personally, I am leaning towards the design option. Sometimes I feel like it's a bit of a "sunken cost" mentality that drives me towards design, but here is the deal. My previous line of work had great job security and good benefits, but hardly any real engineering. I took a gamble, a paycut, and am struggling through a MS program in order to become a "real" engineer.

I don't like using the term "real" engineer too much because even if you don't design doesn't mean you aren't a real engineer, but you all know what I'm getting at.

Anyhow, if I had been a few years younger, or didn't decide to go back to school, or didn't invest so much and gamble so much just so I could try my hand at design...I'd be much likelier to go down the RR route. When you have this itch, this weird drive that gets you excited about reading a code, or calculating the reinforcement in a beam...it's hard to let it go. If I did not have the design itch, not only would I probably still be in my old job, but I'd be all over the RR opportunity, no question about it.

RE: Career Advice - Class I Railroad vs. Design Consultant, Entry Level

You should've said up front you're 28. 6 years into a career is nothing. Something else to consider: Do you have children? If so, being on the road a lot is not good for them or you.

RE: Career Advice - Class I Railroad vs. Design Consultant, Entry Level

Haha, I don't like saying my age because people don't take your questions as seriously...for lack of a better expression. I really wanted to lie and say 35, haha. I feel like I'm 35 anyway.

Here's the thing, by the time I'm done with school and really into whatever job I chose I will be in my early 30s. So the next step is important; I'm not changing tracks unless I somehow really hate it, or the job security is so poor I'm fed up.

I may be 28, but mentally, I am really tired. I don't want to say "exhausted" or exaggerate, because many here are much older, but I am tired. Whatever I pick, I'm sticking with it and am done.

As for school, it is awful. Same stupid games, same lack of pedagogy, same useless classes with extreme levels of difficulty, same useful classes with pointless extremes of difficulty, same freakishly smart foreign students, same weird people, same depressed and stressed students, same old lack of leadership, same old same old. I'm on a scholarship, if I was paying out of pocket, I'd be likely to quit.

Truthfully, I don't like my school and every day spent here is crushing my dreams of becoming a designer and making me want to leverage my earlier experience, make good money, and as my friend says (who is a super technical type), "get up at 3:30, construction starts at 5, go home by 5...you don't do any real engineering, just know that's a concrete beam, that's a steel beam"...makes me laugh, just a little true, haha.

Time will tell.

RE: Career Advice - Class I Railroad vs. Design Consultant, Entry Level

I suspect you have bigger problems than deciding what job to take.

RE: Career Advice - Class I Railroad vs. Design Consultant, Entry Level

I've worked for private consulting firms for the 11 years out of my 12.5 year career. I've never one time had anyone give me a hard time about billable hours nor have I ever worried about job security. Job security is a myth anyways. The way I see it there seems to be a shortage of bridge engineers.

If you are worried about a "hire and fire" culture that is easy to avoid as well. The companies who do that are well known, and easily avoided by doing some homework.

Everything I've ever been told about the RR is to be prepared for long hours and being away from home.

You'll find that the number of "real" engineers (those that are technically astute and have a large amount of design experience) are probably less than 50% of the total number. There are plenty of engineering positions that have very little to do with design.

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