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Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance
15

Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

(OP)
Since I graduated college with my ME (about 3.5 years ago) I have been working in manufacturing as a production engineer. The deeper I get into it, the more it seems long, inconsistent hours are a core part of this field. Most projects can't really move past the planning/quoting/etc phase except outside of production hours, but simultaneously, you are required to be available to support production during the day (and possibly night if working at a 3 shift operation). On top of that, if a major piece of equipment goes down and maintenance can't figure out what is wrong, you are stuck troubleshooting it until it is back up and running, regardless of how late that ends up being.

My primary goal entering engineering was to enter a career where I could make enough money to support my family, but to also be able to be there for my family. As long as they are taken care of, I would rather have more time with them than fatten my paycheck a little more.

I know not all engineers face this problem, though it does not seem to be uncommon even outside of PE. Can anyone point me in the direction of a good career path I can start on as an ME that has little to no overtime requirements (preferably 5 hrs/week or less)? Obviously, I'd rather not have to start from square one, but at this point, I'd be willing to have to take a few steps back to get my career going in the right direction.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

Is this the same lifestyle that your coworkers also live or are you an anomaly?

I worked crazy hours when I started my career but only because I wanted to. When I started a family, things changed. My work adjusted to accommodate my desire to be with my family (home by 5:00) but I also made adjustments to suport my work (started early mornings when my kids would not miss me, would schedule work travel after the kids were in bed to minimize my time away from them)

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

(OP)
It's pretty par for the course. In fact, there are plenty of guys that work significantly more hours than I do. I've been able to cut back some from what I did when I first started, but since I can't interfere with production, even a relatively minor change requires me to wait until after shift to test it. Sometimes I can get away with something real small during a lunch break, but if it has anything to do with a major system, I can rarely retest it without a chance of taking the line down if I'm not done by the time they get back. Even a minute of downtime from this is pretty taboo. Most changes, by the time I've applied the change and retested the process typically take at least an hour or two and if production ran any overtime that can easily add a half hour to an hour to the wait time.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

From my experience newer engineers work more hours to get more experience faster and more pay. If your not keen on working a lot of overtime you will need to get creative.

If you have to wait till after shift to test something then take off early and run errands, gym, shopping whatever you want, and go back when it's time to test. If you need to be available in case of breakdown then split the coverage with coworkers and sit there for your days on call and don't work past your expected work day.

Your employer doesn't intend to work people 80 hours per week (4000 hr/yr) or even 60 hours per week (3000 hr/yr) as a regular occurrence. This leads to burning out staff. They are better off to hire more staff at 40 hours per week (2000 hr/yr), especially if there is an overtime rate of pay. If you need to get a piece of equipment back up and running and you work 16 hours on Monday work less the rest of the week or take Friday off. Your employer expects you there for 40 hours and to pitch in on occasion and not as the regular.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

From my friends that have gone to work at production facilities (all late 20s/early 30s) that seems to be the norm. The pay seems to be higher than consulting but the hours can be brutal when things go wrong or during outages.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

Sounds pretty normal for the case where your employer's product is other than engineering.

"My primary goal entering engineering was to enter a career where I could make enough money to support my family, but to also be able to be there for my family. As long as they are taken care of, I would rather have more time with them than fatten my paycheck a little more."

. . . It took me 10 years to find something like that and I still get the occasional emergency.

I used to count sand. Now I don't count at all.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

(OP)
@GregLocock, that's actually one of the main avenues I'm looking at since the DEs around me don't seem to have that problem. DE is interesting to me, though I am curious if there are any other branches that are the same way.

@SandCounter, what did it take for you to get to that point? Different company, different branch of ME, or is it something you gained through seniority?

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

Part of this is situational and part of it is a personal choice.

Get out of production/operations and into design, as already suggested. I learned that I'd make a poor operations engineer way back during my co-op experience so I learned that early...Not that I couldn't do the work, but that the hours and demands on your life can be nuts. Then draw a line in the sand about what is work time and what is family time, and stick with it. It might cost you financially. It might cost you the odd job too. But it will enrich you in ways that are far more valuable.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

Doing 1.5x more grind work won't make you that much better than someone who is only doing 1x and companies are more than happy to let you grind away for as many hours as you want. If anyone ever says "you have to pay your dues", that is usually code word for not giving you work that is keeping up with or expanding your skillset. No up and comer has a resume filled out with grind work. It is always a wide breadth of experience and involvement on special projects. Most overtime in my experience is not work that expands on your skillset.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

The situation you are describing is just like the one that I am in. Usually normal until something hits the fan or there is a project to install and then all of the sudden lots of unpaid overtime. The suggestions made here are pretty much exactly what I am doing. Go slow, be selective, but find better work that matches first your desired family life and then second your career.

For me, and perhaps you as well, SandCounter's comment is right on the money. I want the product of my labor to be solid engineering work. That will take time to learn, but it will be learned at a snail's pace in a production (i.e. not engineering) environment as compared to a company whose sole product is engineering work.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

How do you define overtime? 40 hours/week IME usually doesn't happen outside of mediocre companies which don't typically pay well nor allow good growth opportunities to their staff. Ultimately the decision is yours but I would expect 45-50/week as the norm working for others in private industry. I also wouldn't expect a work/life quality improvement moving from production to design, IME the production world is much more laid back with better hours the majority of the time. Yes, the impetus to get the line moving can be stressful but beyond that the production world is closer to 40/wk as it centers around shift work.

If you're truly looking for fewer hours, you may want to start targeting either working for yourself or finding a government job, those are the best two paths to that end IME.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

2
familyman731, it took a change of company which was a step back in position, pay, and benefits.

I went from an average of 72 hrs/week (no overtime pay) and 50 plane rides a year, 50% travel, company truck (that I could use however I wanted with gas fully paid by the company), grimy/greasy hands, health insurance that paid 100% for anything, great 401K match with profit sharing, max 15 days paid vacation.

to

a consistent 42.5 hrs/week, a 13% pay cut, 5% travel, minimum reimbursement for company travel in my own car, health insurance that fights every claim, clean hands in air-conditioned cube, no 401K match, a 2-tier demotion, home every night with my family, home every lunch to wrestle with my boy and close enough to school to drop my kids off at school every morning, 20+ days paid vacation.

Bottom line, it's a trade off and a decision you need to make based on what you value and how you define success.

I used to count sand. Now I don't count at all.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

(OP)
@SandCounter, what you describe moving to is basically what I am looking for. I love engineering, I enjoy the work I do, but at the end of the day, my family matters more. I'd rather my kids remember they time I spent with them than the things I was able to buy them. What I am looking for now is the path to get there. It sounds like design may be a good approach, though it sounds like I'll still have to be careful to select the right company.

Does anyone have experience in any other sectors besides design that have found good/life balance? One that I've been curious about is testing/lab work. Not sure what there is out there for an ME in this kind of environment. Not really interested in quality engineering, though they also seem to have a good balance from what I have seen. Are there any branches that haven't been brought up that anyone can speak to? Just want to be sure I'm not overlooking a good path before I really ramp up the job application process.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

I am going to take the counter view to everyone else here.

I have been in process engineering in a water and wastewater utility for a long time and really solidly, full time, full on for about the last 20. The hours are sometimes long. You have to deal with stuff at inconvenient times. Take phone calls on week ends. Look at stuff after hours when things break down or processes have failed. I live real close to two of our plants but others are up to two hours drive away. I am really busy.You get dirty sometimes. This stuff is not cool.

But I get paid reasonably well. I get to to do lots of interesting stuff with interesting equipment and have met lots of interesting people. I get to do research, pilot trials, participate in redesigns and modifications. I have written a few papers, been invited to speak at conferences and have some recognition for the work i do. Not too many people annoy me.

I have a family. My two boys have grown up well adjusted and always took an interest in what i was working on at work. Occassionally they would go to plant i was working on for a school project or just to see what was happening. One has become a software engineer. The other son is technical as well but in other fields. My wife an I are still married. I don't play golf, or go on fishing trips with the guys from work, so that i have time with the family but i do have some outside interests as well.

All in all, I like getting out of bed in the morning and look forward to the challenges , planned and unplanned that the day will bring.

What i have been very long winded in saying is that maybe "Production Engineering" is not for you, but maybe you are just looking at it the wrong way.
There would not be too many 3.5 yrs out of graduation engineers that would have many of the responsibilities , challenges and opportunities that you have. So your "projects" have to be tested out of hours. At least you have the opportunity to try something. Many would not. Likewise you are called on after hours to troubleshoot and fix problems. These are great opportunities to develop , learn and grow. Production engineering has many unique challenges and a lot of it is not cool. You can either walk out and get a job in design (which may be good or bad) or you can suck it up, keep your head down, work hard and accept the unique challenges and opportunities that this sort of work offers.

Regards
Ashtree
"Any water can be made potable if you filter it through enough money"

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

2

Quote:

My primary goal entering engineering was to enter a career where I could make enough money to support my family

My primary goal entering engineering

Spoiler:

was to do engineering. Motivation to learn and grow resulted knowledge and skill. This manifested itself, among other ways, as opportunity and options.

I have no advice for people who simply want to do less but get more.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

3

Quote (TheTick)

I have no advice for people who simply want to do less but get more.

I don't think that's the case here at all? OP seems to understand that consulting and other career paths may have lower pays but deems it worthwhile because he'd rather be with his family.

Your comment seems to imply he wants more money and less hours which isn't true.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

Blah blah blah imply money not listening grimly determined to miss the point thanks for calling

"Work-life balance" is an illusion used to sell books to unhappy people, second only to "soul mate" in terms of self-destructive potential.

Life is dynamic. There's never true balance. There is a constant reallocation and redistribution of not-quite-enough time and energy.

I specifically avoided mentioning money. "More" comes in many forms. The ultimate "more" is freedom. You want more choices? You need to become more valuable. That means acquiring skills and experience and industry knowledge. That's not the kind of thing that "just happens" as one "supports his family".

I've made many choices that resulted in less money and more time. But my family has also supported me in those dark moments where all my time was inhaled by my job. It works both ways.

My wife understands that my career is vital to my family's well-being. She has also received no samll amount of support from me on all fronts as she reignites her career. Sometimes work comes first. But always with an eye toward family. Work serves me, not the other way around.

As for the kids, they'll be adults all too soon. They need to grow up with good examples of marriage and career, regardless of what path they take. My kids are privy to many of our discussions about money and work. They also see us work together on a daily basis.

If your job is not advancing your career and hurting your family, I am among the first to tell you to get out. But if your family is an obstacle to building its own security, then there's a bigger problem to fix.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

I don't understand your first sentence but okay. No one is saying life isn't dynamic and no situation is 100% perfect 100% the time; no one is implying that.

But to say that "work-life balance doesn't exist" is insane; there's tons of people who work long hours at crappy jobs for subpar pay and are miserable. That's a poor balance and a bad situation.

From the sounds of OP, he's working in the production field which typically has a worse balance due to outages and the necessary activities to keep production going. He wants a more consistent job so he can be with his family. It doesn't sound like his family is "an obstacle" rather than its the priority.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

Quote:

Your comment seems to imply he wants more money and less hours which isn't true.

Not more money, but more time off which may be a bigger ask. As 15 years that may not seem like much, but after 3.5 I would wonder how a junior engineer is going to begin to learn a new role every 3-5 years. Per the quote above, I could understand why some would think he wants a job not a professional career.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

In my opinion, work should not be the only thing in your life. He's asking for a job that doesn't involve a ton of OT like production typically does. Consulting or other areas generally fit that description. Every job has things that come up and need to get done on time; I doubt he's saying he can never deal with staying late to meet deadlines.

I know production engineers who've worked six 10-hr days for 3 weeks straight during an outage. It's not unreasonable to try to get out of that if you have higher priorities than work.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

I started in design engineering and have experience in production and in quality control before returning to design engineering and consultancy. Taking all factors such as over-time, work life balance, money, enjoyment, freedom etc into consideration, production and quality were the worst.

I gave this quite a bit of thought when I was shifting my focus back to design engineering and determined that, for me anyway, the difference was frequency of deadlines: In production and quality control, product had to go out the door every day - daily, often hourly deadlines meant you had to act immediately to fix problems, whatever that took. "I was in late yesterday so I am going home early today" doesn't cut it if the product still isn't moving.

In design engineering my deadlines have been weeks, months, in one case even 2 years apart. Of course there are milestones and sub-deadlines and everything that goes along with keeping a project on track but there is generally more flexibility to say "I need to knock off early today but Ill make it up next week". In truth, the most overtime I ever worked on average was with the 2 year design project but the flexibility and I guess a certain amount of predictability made it much more acceptable.

So my advice is look for a role that works with longer projects timescales and fewer, farther apart deadlines. You won't get a fulfilling well paid job in engineering with low hours, especially not with your low experience, even 2 out of 3 can be hard to find so flexibility is key

Declan Scullion CEng
www.leandfm.com

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

There's always a level of risk in any action/inaction. Someone who consistently puts in no more than the minimum required effort may have trouble with both performance reviews and layoffs. Always putting in the extra effort may or may not buy you any additional job security, so you need to be flexible and determine how you will be graded. As with being chased by a bear, you don't need to be the fastest, just faster than the ones that'll get eaten.

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies forum1529: Translation Assistance for Engineers Entire Forum list http://www.eng-tips.com/forumlist.cfm

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

(OP)
I am fully aware there will be a give and take with this transition.

@D Scullion, you hit the nail on the head. I don't necessarily have an issue with OT itself, mainly the unpredictable nature of OT in PE. Having worked on both sides of the fence, do you have any suggestions how I can smoothen this transition? I've only worked in a production environment since graduation. Are there things I can be doing now to prepare myself to work in design? How would you recommend I (for lack of a better term) "sell" my manufacturing experience when applying for design jobs?

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

If a more predictable work schedule with little overtime requirements is your goal, a position in R&D would probably meet these requirements.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

(OP)
Thank you for the suggestion Maui! R&D is definitely a route I've been interested in. It seems like there are a lot of different directions you can go with it so I haven't been able to see a clear path to get there, especially with just a Bachelor's. I've thought about working on my Master's to improve my odds with this, but an unpredictable work schedule makes it pretty difficult to get to classes consistently. If you have any suggestions on breaking into this field, I'd be very interested to hear them!

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

Your manufacturing experience is a massive advantage but not all Design Engineering departments fully appreciate that yet. I work independently now, basically providing coaching for Engineers who are missing that experience and helping to bridge that skills and experience gap for the companies who do appreciate the value of manufacturing experience. IME when companies do realise the value of manufacturing experience in their Design Eng department, they never look back, it either becomes an essential criteria in recruitment or graduates recruited without manufacturing experience are given over-alls and put on the factory floor for a month.

So I wouldn't worry about trying too hard to sell your manufacturing experience, for the right company it will sell itself. You need to focus more on finding the right companies. Generally speaking I find that if a company has a dedicated Production Engineering department then they do not see the value in manufacturing experience in their Design Eng dept - they don't need it because the PE dept is a safety catch net for all the bad sub-optimal design they put out. So look for companies with no dedicated PE dept, just a Design or General Engineering dept and this tends to be smaller companies (10-200 employees)

You also need to show that you are a well rounded Engineer that can move into design or R&D. Focus in on any specific experiences you have that are relevant. For example any research you have carried out and solutions you have designed to address manufacturing problems and anything relevant to project management

Declan Scullion CEng
www.leandfm.com

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

I'll second D Scullion that manufacturing experience is a big advantage in a design role. When I switched from maintaining to designing manufacturing equipment, my spiel during job interviews essentially boiled down to "I've seen how manufacturing machinery is used and misused, how it breaks, and how it gets fixed. I also have an intimate knowledge of the pressure to keep product flowing out the door, so I understand how important reliability is to the customer." You just have to figure out how to spin your experience to match up with the job you're applying for. And if it's a totally different industry and someone questions whether your experience translates, I'll pass along some advice from a millwright I used to work with: "It's all just nuts, bolts and grease."

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

I'm sorry, but anyone who thinks that work-life balance doesn't exist is just trying to justify workaholism as if it were a healthy lifestyle choice. It isn't. Being passionate about your work is great, but setting boundaries in life is NECESSARY and failure to do that has a name- it's called addiction.

Work addiction often arises from problems with self esteem. And work addiction is a self-fulfilling prophesy: work expands to fill all the time into which the rest of your life should fit, and the rest of your life shrinks away to nothingness as a result.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

While knowing the workings of manufacturing can be a boon, if that's your only experience, that would seem to be a bit of a negative to me, i.e., everything looks like a nail to a hammer. As with most everything moderation and breadth is highly desirable and possibly required.

And while making things easier to manufacture is definitely a good thing, manufacturing improves because of challenges; to wit, 40 years ago, experienced IC manufacturing experts all predicted the demise of the UV photolithography for silicon ICs for sub-micron designs and all thought that directed energy approaches such as e-beam or x-ray lithography were required. Several startups even began to sell x-ray lithography systems. So, 40 years later, we're doing 7-nm processing still using UV LITHOGRAPHY, albeit extremely complicated UV processing. Nevertheless, this was in response to the direct challenge of extremely expensive x-ray litho processing, so people came up with workarounds.

As an engineer, you need to make the critical trades between design constraints and manufacturing constraints; that means that your toolbox has to contain more than a manufacturing hammer.

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies forum1529: Translation Assistance for Engineers Entire Forum list http://www.eng-tips.com/forumlist.cfm

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

Interestingly contrary viewpoints. If I had to rank fewest to most hours I've worked in various depts I would start with production as the fewest, then product development, then research. Other than the occasional equipment failure production is typically ~40/wk as your schedule is mostly dictated by hourly wage-earners working 8/day shifts which includes lunch and breaks. So long as the line is running and product development is being supported then management's happy. Sure, it hits the fan occasionally but if you've got a good maintenance schedule, good staff, and good communication then summer and winter shutdowns should be about the only time you're real busy. The product development office OTOH usually mandates 8+/day minimum of work with an additional 30-60 for lunch, essentially 9+/day and you're constantly juggling projects with contradicting schedules. On the plus side, you get more autonomy to make decisions and dictate your schedule when projects don't - If you've got a slow week then enjoy the downtime bc the following week is probably going to include some OT as all three of your projects suddenly go from somebody else's back into your court. Research is another world entirely as its largely political, projects don't typically have a specific end goal beyond "evaluate performance of XYZ technology for future products" so its difficult for the business folks to see potential ROI. When a project gets a budget, you work your backside off trying to learn as much as possible (aka run out of money) before your budget is reallocated to something that earns profit. IME that's 10+/day (often 12+) with a ton of travel to interact with suppliers, attend conferences, etc. Also, whereas in the production world advanced degrees are somewhat rare vs product development where theyre fairly common, expect to be the token BS_E in any good research dept with attitudes often stereotypical of the degreed hierarchy.

As to defining limits and work/life balance, I would suggest some introspection and review of your personal habits if you're having issues. I often hear from others how you cant work longer hours and not miss important events. I say bs to that, usually the folks giving that advice waste a ton of time every day and would still miss most events if they retired tomorrow as their problem is laziness, not work. I average ~50/week, have spent the last year commuting another 10/wk (looking forward to that ending soon), and am one of those guys that when someone wants me, I'm there. I very rarely miss an evening event or even an afternoon doctor's appointment, working the hours gives me the flexibility to take an hour or three and flex as necessary to support family needs. I also spend 3-4 hours most nights working in my personal shop, 1-2 hours reading, an hour at the gym or running, and my wife insists on an old-fashioned formal breakfast and dinner at the table. Its amazing what you can get done when devices and television become nothing more than background noise to living.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

(OP)
IRstuff, do you have any suggestions on the best way to build that toolbox? So far, I've picked up one of my old machine design textbooks to start building that up, and I've been taking my lunch breaks to practice with Solidworks.

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

There may be some online courses that allow you to go at whatever pace you desire. You probably need to define specific projects and carry them through to get the full benefit of your working on them.

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
FAQ731-376: Eng-Tips.com Forum Policies forum1529: Translation Assistance for Engineers Entire Forum list http://www.eng-tips.com/forumlist.cfm

RE: Mechanical Engineering Careers with Good Work/Life Balance

2
This is a great thread. I was exactly were the OP is a year ago. Mechanical Engineer at a tier one automotive supplier. Expected to work whatever hours were needed to get the job up and running/cell fixed. Upper management didn't care about you as a person just get the cells making product. My supervisor would never tell anyone to go home early Friday if we worked 3 12 hour days earlier in the week. It paid well and had good benefits but I didn't care for the work or expected hours. I want to be home at 5 with my family. I found a smaller employee-owned company doing manufacturing/design engineering. Pay is a little less and the benefits are ok but we get tiered monthly bonuses if the company as a whole meets deadlines. Not a glamorous gig and I'm stuck at a desk a lot but less stressful and I'm home every night to raise my sons. To me, that's what defines me.

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