Author Topic: Job Prospect-Civil/Structural Eng. emphasis but all advice is welcomed.  (Read 3198 times)

EngiNerd

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I know this is a completely personal decision but I feel like just sharing my thoughts and reviewing the feedback will help me make the decision. 

I currently work as a Structural Design Engineer at a state DOT.  I have roughly 3.75 yrs of experience doing this work but am a PE through prior experience in a different type of civil engineering (waste disposal and land application).  I am competent in almost all of the types of design work we do, however I am still learning and becoming a better design engineer with experience.

However, I have the opportunity to take a job within the DOT that handles maintenance and repair of large bridges.  This job is appealing to me because it would not be as repetitive and I would spend more time out of the office (read not doomed to spend 8 hours at a desk each work day).  Also the design of repairs would be more specialized and maybe in-depth. 

Design Engineer Pros:
*Predictable 40 hr/wk Schedule good for work life balance and for pursuing side hustles
*Low Stress
*Good work environment/coworkers
*I can stay proficient in current design codes and software
*Senior Engineers (I'm probably1-2 yrs away) make 80K
Cons:
*Will probably become repetitive and not as challenging within the next 5 years
*Desk Job, I'm a health enthusiast and hate to think about what sitting and looking at a screen/drawings all day is doing to my health
*Promotion past Senior Engineer pretty competitive, considerably more job responsibilities and stress, probably 15 or more years away: 90K (not very appealing anyways)

Maintenance Engineer Pros:
*Interesting work, more hands on and active
*repair design work would be more specialized and in-depth
*Involves management which may be a con since it is not a skill of mine, don't really enjoy the thought of it, but something I should probably look forward to learning how to be good at instead of avoiding
*Senior Engineer (Probably 1-2 years away) Make 80k with access to a vehicle for commuting.
*Promotion past Senior pretty much a given, slightly more responsibility but interesting work could be as little as 2 or up to 10 years (depends on retirement of would be boss): 90k plus a truck. With another guaranteed promotion to 100k+  with a truck
Cons:
*Less predictable schedule
*Work Experience may not be as marketable if I were to leave the DOT

Basically I would take the maintenance position if I was positive I wanted to stay in this state.  I like the DOT (govt. work seems like a more traditional mustachian path, get paid a little less but work only 40 hr weeks and focus on the important things in life, often with the security of a pension so you can retire relatively early), it provides secure work with good life balance, it has a solid 457 plan, hsa, and the pension plan (I pay in 6% of my salary and it compounds at 6%.  I can retire with 28 yrs of service and would get a pension of 28 (yrs of service)*.022 *AVG of 3 highest earning years or retire whenever and roll over my contributions and growth to an IRA)  Now waiting for the Pension would mean I retire at 52 which isn't that early. However I plan on having kids and my savings rate priority could easily change once I start raising a kid or 2, and 52 would roughly be the time that they would be 18 or 20 so working while I have dependents then retiring with a full pension and million or 2 in investments would be pretty fun empty nest scenario.  The issue is my fiance and I are considering moving to another part of the country (anywhere touching the rocky mountains!) just to try something different in a few years.  I fear that looking for work with say  3.75 yrs of design work and 2 years of maintenance engineering would be considerably more difficult than with say 5.75 yrs of design work.  Are there any civil/ structural/ or bridge engineers that care to comment on that concern, is maintenance engineering experience pretty much wasted in the view of most engineering firms?  I like to think I could account for that by selling myself in an interview but pragmatically I just don't know how relevant maintenance type work would be for a non government entity.  I know it's crazy to make a career decision now based off possibly deciding to move in the future, if I had to guess I'd say there's a 60% chance of us staying put to stay close to friends and family.  But the reason I like living well below my means, investing, and making side money is I like to keep options in future as open as possible and I wonder if continuing the design work would do that for me. 


dmiraclejr

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I feel I am very qualified to give my opinion on your situation because I have worked for the KY Dot for 25 years as a PE as both a designer and construction/maintenance engineer.  Basically I believe I have lived the life you are contemplating and will try to convey some insights as I saw them.  Here goes.

I graduated with a BSCE and MSCE with an emphasis in structural engineering.  The MSCE did me no good what so ever working for the state but I guess it could have at some point with a private consultant.  I had a short stint with a consultant after graduating and realized real quick I did not like their lifestyle and stress that went with it.  Bottom line is that I chose to work as a public servant for lower pay but a better defined pension.  This choice was both a lifestyle and long term financial choice for me as you will see below. KY is one of  the worst funded state pension system in America (still no regrets, yet!) and I could write a novel about that but back to your situation. 

My career path was as follows:

2 years bridge design
4 years as a resident engineer (highway/bridge construction)
4 years planning (corridor studies etc, not my thing but loved the people)
4 years highway design
1 year maintenance/construction "section engineer" and
10 years as chief project cost estimator for all the projects KY puts out to letting.

I have tried a lot of everything DOT and here is my take on it.

I will tell you that you have already identified very well the pros and cons of office vs field work.  Family considerations drove most of career path in the following ways.  Early in my career before kids I loved being in the field and seeing things built and ensuring it was built correctly as designed.  Believe it or not those construction guys no a lot more about building something than a green engineer.  I learned a lot from them and loved the job.  But the bad thing was the time commitment. 

Even though I got paid for my overtime at 1x it still took away from my time with my wife and soon to be kids.  Once we had our first I realized I did not want to work 12-16 hours a day for 8-9 months out of the year.  Kids have ballgames, practices, dance, etc.,  etc, and I would have to miss a lot of them to continue to work in the field.  Most field jobs here require a lot of overtime during construction/maintenance season.  So..... I transferred to an office design job.

In the office job I felt like a caged cat most of the time for the first couple of years but I got to go to all my kids activities and there was less stress not having to supervise 20 or so Dot inspectors in my crew.  Spring was the worst since it was great weather outside and I longed to get back out there.  But in the end I have spent around 80% of my career in the office but really consider myself more of a field engineer.  By the way, I always said that the very best job possible for me would be to design bridges/roads in the winter and then go out and  supervise/inspect the projects during the construction season.  No such job exists in KY, you have to pick one or the other at any given time.

Now that you know a little about me here is the meat of my opinion on your situation:

Field jobs offer: the great outdoors, interesting work and people interaction, exercise, freedom from being chained to a desk.
Field jobs require:  long hours away from family, missed family activities, sometimes more personal liability exposure (I have seen this even with supposed state immunity), supervisory responsibilities, and stress.

Office jobs offer:  less stress usually, air condition, interesting work, very consistent hours, more time for family and activities, and at least in KY more chances for advancement.
Office jobs require:  being inside most of the time, much less exercise during the day, less freedom by being chained to a desk, and generally more office politic BS.

As I have said I have done both and took the office job with consistent hours over my preferred field job for family reasons.

Moving on to your pension, from the formula you describe it sounds awesome for today's day and age.  Basically the same as I have except I have a high 5 calculation.  I stayed in state government for the benefits/pension and lifestyle (lower stress, more certainty, time off, etc.)  My advice would be to decide if you want to work public or private before you are 10 years in because that pension will be hard to leave after that point in your career.

Finally as to the hire-ability of design vs maintenance vs a mix, I would say it all depends on the needs of your prospective employer.  Personally, after being in both the field and design areas I would not consider hiring a seasoned designer without field experience or a seasoned field engineer without design experience.  Many consultants/contractors see this as a plus.  But knowing what I know about the engineering jobs around here I would say their are many more design jobs than field so more design experience would most likely be more marketable.  Also it goes back to the office vs field dilemma.  Field engineers in the private sector will often be working for construction contractors working long hours away from home.  Many times the work is far away from home and you won't be even able to go home at night.  I know some designers work from home so in that way designing can be much more flexible.

I hope this long winded reply is of some use to you and good luck in your career and "staching".


EngiNerd

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I really appreciate your input.  I know what you mean about deciding on public vs private before the pension influences your decision too much... And honestly being young and with a high savings rate already due to frugalness and a timely home purchase private sector has little appeal to me.  If I stay in this state I would choose the lower hours/stress but still fair compensation over more stress and hours that might only pay off if you climb the ladder in a consultant firm.  However after establishing myself financially and learning about investing and how good of a life I can live on a fraction of my income I would prefer a matching 401k to the pension.  For the more mobility and freedom to hey I'm going to up and move because I want to and not stay based on work reasons. 

I read an article a few weeks ago about the status of state pensions and my state was in the middle.  I'll post the link later.  I feel like nowadays there is a negative stigma attached with working for the government and I admit that influences my interest in leaving govt work.  Has that always been there and I just didn't know it? However, if the pension system does fail as long as they give me my 6% plus growth back it would still be a gain, just more tax protected money each year.

The position I am concerning is specifically heavy bridge maintenance so I don't think I will have to work as many hours as a construction engineer in the construction season but I also don't know if the exp will be as valuable for me as a designer as I know being a field engineer for constructing a bridge would be.  However designing repairs for a damaged bridge would be great engineering work.
« Last Edit: July 15, 2017, 04:52:17 PM by EngiNerd »

dmiraclejr

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I believe the design experience is always going to be more marketable in the private sector.  With the internet today, design work can be done almost anywhere too.  So not only are there more design jobs, you also have vastly more potential employers if they are willing to let you work out of the office.  But, and it is a big but, most consultants want you there in person to meet with the "team" and for some firms video conferencing will work and others it won't.

That being said I got tired of designing bridges after 2 years.  Same thing everyday.  The consultants got all the interesting work which made me want to go work for them.  I would then remember the lifestyle their engineers lived and that feeling would quickly subside.

Working for the state as a public employee has always had somewhat of a stigma attached to it.  Sometimes it is deserved (image of 3 inspectors leaning on shovels watching one work comes to mind) and sometimes it is not.  People associate "orange barrels" with state engineers and say we are always getting in their way.  The public has no idea what it takes to keep a highway system going and the amount of work and dedication it takes.  I have always said it is like we are the "offensive line" in football.  We only get noticed if we screw up but not when we are doing a good job.  Don't let that perceived stigma affect your decision.  Most of our retirees go to work for consultants after retirement and do just fine.  To me, it all comes down to what kind of life you want to live.   A low stress life with little worries of being laid off during the next business cycle and time off for family and friends, or one of high stress with someone looking over your shoulder all the time, strict deadlines, and the worry of being laid off at anytime.

I also like the idea of having a matching 401k instead of a pension which would allow you to be more mobile.  You can have the same thing with a government job except without the match but also without the stress of a consulting job.

For me, I usually take the safe route and would therefore stay in state government and find a job doing what I like if it allowed me to be home for family actives.  If I have to choose between doing what I like vs being home for family.... family wins every time.  I have no desire to lead the life of a consulting engineer.

EngiNerd

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I have been working and investing like it was a standard 401K without the match, I just wish I had the match lol.  In fact I even made a spreadsheet to see where the break over point  in # of years of service is (with reasonable assumptions) where it becomes beneficial to leave the funds in the pension and wait until I can start receiving the reduced pension at 55 and the full pension at 65.  It looks to be about 17 years, which means if we have a large enough investment portfolio and low enough annual expenses and I work 20 years I might retire before I am pension eligible and just leave my money in the fund and count on drawing it at a later date.  Regardless I bet I would be more secure and could retire early if they matched my 6% instead of putting 12% of my earnings into the fund (their formula for funding is employees pay 6% in and they put in 12%).  Here is the spreadsheet if anyone is interested:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1kfZ-ozrd4HndPUIK4sVS1tsoakI7GCXlhVjRfbmJaPQ/edit?usp=sharing

It sounds like you do not regret making a career out DOT work.  And I have heard repeatedly how stressful the life of a consulting engineer can be but I do not know anyone personally with such a stressful job.  I know some guys at smaller firms that make less than me while living in higher cost of living areas and working more however they say the job is pretty good.  (this is like site development type work and other general civil)  And I know guys in environmental who went to consulting after being with a state regulator that claimed the work life was way better.  People were happier, more productive, and took more pride in their work.  Not that that is saying much when compared to state regulators...  Saying all that, I have looked at average salaries on glassdoor.com and other sites our senior bridge engineers get paid more than the national average while residing in a relatively low cost of living area and with sick/vacation/and holidays I am sure they work considerably less. 

Here is the article I mentioned discussing state pension plans.  And you are right, KY is consistently ranked 49th, hopefully any changes they need to make will not effect you.  AR seems to be ranked around 20-25 so I should be able to see what changes might be coming if/when states start modifying their pension plans. 

http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2015/07/the-state-pensions-funding-gap-challenges-persist

Thanks again for your thoughts.  I am leaning towards taking the position, more years of design may be more marketable but I think I will actually learn more by getting in the field and managing some then I would by spending additional time designing bridges.  And if I stay with the DOT I believe it will offer a better career.   
« Last Edit: July 27, 2015, 05:35:23 PM by EngiNerd »

EngiNerd

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I take it no private sector civil/structural engineers care to give their thoughts?  Maybe civil/structurals are not that prevalent in this forum.

forummm

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Quote
I can retire with 28 yrs of service and would get a pension of 28 (yrs of service)*.022 *AVG of 3 highest earning years

So if you make $100k those last 3 years your pension would be $61k? Is this right? That's a pretty nice pension. How long do you have to work before it vests (i.e. you get a pension at age X regardless or whether you continue working)? If you quit early, does the salary base get adjusted for inflation, or is it just the nominal value you earned those high-3 years?

EngiNerd

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That's right, 61.6k if you retire as early as possible to immediately draw the pension, 28 years.  You are vested after 5 years, your pay is not adjusted for inflation but once you start drawing the reduced pension at 55. The .022 factor is reduced by .008, it starts to be adjusted by 3% per year.  Once you hit 60 the reduction is less and when you hit 65 there is no reduction. 

forummm

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That's right, 61.6k if you retire as early as possible to immediately draw the pension, 28 years.  You are vested after 5 years, your pay is not adjusted for inflation but once you start drawing the reduced pension at 55. The .022 factor is reduced by .008, it starts to be adjusted by 3% per year.  Once you hit 60 the reduction is less and when you hit 65 there is no reduction. 

Cool! With that kind of a scenario, and without doing the math myself, you're probably better off waiting until 65 to take it. But you can use the early availability of it early as a safety net for if you are unlucky and your main retirement portfolio dries up too early. It's a nice benefit to have.

EngiNerd

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Oops I guess I didn't explain thy clearly enough.  Taking the reduced pension at 55 does not effect the amount at 65, you just cannot receive your full pension until you are 65 or work 28 years

Terrestrial

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I take it no private sector civil/structural engineers care to give their thoughts?  Maybe civil/structurals are not that prevalent in this forum.

I can chime in from the exact opposite position as the other poster, I am a civil who works on large scale pubic works projects.  Education is a BSCE and an MBA, i've worked for consultants my entire full-time career, but did intern for a large DOT in college. I'm an engineering manager for a mid-size regional company and a junior partner in the firm.  I didn't read the entire thread (quite lengthy!) so forgive me if I missed somethings that were said, but I think I get your general areas of concern and can shed some light from my perspective.

WORK DEMANDS: I would say it is true that I have worked 'more' than my government counterparts through my career, but I can say that it really depends WHO you work for.  I have colleagues at a wide range of other companies as well as many clients/friends at DOTs so I can kind of gauge where mine falls in the spectrum.  I work for a mid-size regional that places an emphasis on trying to provide a decent work life balance for people and pays OT/Comp time.  Yes there are some periods where I am working/traveling quite a bit, but there are lulls as well where I take off early, take some long weekends, take a long lunch to have with my kids, or extend a business trip a day or two for pleasure, or am able to take my wife with me.  I found I had a reasonable amount of this flexibility even earlier in my career, but have quite a bit of it now.  Overall it's not terrible by any means.  My friends who work at 'mega-corps' seem much less enthused about how things are handled.  The larger the company, the more 'government like' it seems to be run in terms of bureaucracy, and the less autonomy you can expect.  Overall I'd say the satisfaction level of the people I work with is on average about the same as the satisfaction level of the DOT workers I know.

EARLY CAREER SALARY:  I think early in one's carer there is not a ton of difference in compensation, though for all our entry level engineers that are hourly they can rack up a good deal of time and a half (not sure if you get the same, some DOT's here are either budget strapped and can't pay over time or have more than enough people that nobody needs to).  Enough OT that guys (including me) who have put their nose to the grindstone for a few years have funded the down payments for their first house out of it.  But more than money, this more provides what i feel is the real benefit of doing consulting early in one's career: setting yourself with the knowledge and experience to move up in consulting LATER in one's career by having mentors through which you can learn the intangibles that you may not be exposed to in government, the business and marketing side, which is more what engineering managers and execs spend a lot of their time on.  I will say it's rare for us to hire a DOT engineer into a senior management position because of those skills.  The most 'likely' way to get hired into a consultant at a high level after spending a career at the DOT is to have CONNECTIONS there that make the likelihood of that translating into work enough to overcome a lack of knowledge in other areas, so if you will stay at the DOT but want to leave the possibility of consulting open, focus on building strong internal relationships with the key decision makers.

LATER CAREER SALARY:  Good job doing your research on glass door, and I will admit every market is likely different in the pay so this may not universally apply, but at least in mine good senior engineers can make a pretty solid premium, because in consulting you may have had the opportunity to stack many years of better than 'average' raises on top of each other that more reflect your true value and contribution, and are not stuck in a more rigid longevity 'step/grade' type system like many governments use for 'fairness' (you may be able to tell i have always hated this concept).  In short, while a glass door average might not be a ton above what DOT engineers might make, the range is almost certainly much wider.  In the basic sense, when we do business planning we essentially set salaries by what we can negotiate for billing rates and what kind of multipliers we need to achieve.  This doesn't mean everyone gets paid the same, or even close to the same.  All we need to make sure of is that the position on the whole for a certain classification is hitting the right average, but we can be as far above that (or below) as the individuals contributions would dictate.  If we can allocate say 4% raises this year across the whole payroll, Superstar Steve might get 6.5% because he kills it and Dudly Dave might get a 1.5% cola.  Steve probably also got twice the bonus and stock compensation that Dave did.  Over time that starts to really add up.  And if Steve is 10 years younger than Dave but way better, he's going to get promoted faster because we do whats best for the business not based on who had been around the longest. It's not unreasonable for the top of a range to earn a pretty large premium to the 'at/below average' guys.   I will also say I think the ceiling at the higher ends is a lot higher for private work than govt, especially after you start getting into position where you are getting a heavy distribution of profit sharing/bonus/equity.

PENSION:  I didn't read the specifics of your pension plan and it might be quite good, I will just say i have never been overly enamored with the whole pension thing (I have both perspectives, my wife is a teacher who has to contribute to a pension).  It can take a LONG time to qualify for a reasonable benefit, it ties you to one employer/state/etc, depending on the terms (and if you want to voluntarily reduce the payout) it may or may not be passable to your children, the government can run into financial issues causing them to reduce the pension payout.  Just a lot I don't really care for, and I feel that for financially saavy people (i.e. investors not spenders) if you take the difference in compensation and consider your bonuses, equity, etc, you can do just as well socking money away for yourself with a lot more flexibly.  For myself we will be FIRE well before I would ever qualify for a pension, helped largely by me rising in the company and earning a good deal more in compensation than I could get switching over to a DOT now.  Just my 0.02. 

I was also going to write something about marketability as I am directly responsible for hiring my team so I have done a fair amount of it, but I ran out of time.  The short version is that for senior engineers I'm much more likely to heavily consider design experience because that's how we go about making money. Field experience gives nice well roundedness and can absolutely make people better engineers but at the end of the day I make money by producing technically correct design plans in the most efficient manner possible, engineers that are experts in design usually accomplish this better (though I am in the design side of the business so it's about what you'd expect, not a huge shock).  I agree with the other poster that those with primarily field experience will likely find themselves more likely to work CM or for a contractor...this isn't bad its just different.

Good luck
« Last Edit: July 30, 2015, 07:52:00 AM by Terrestrial »

EngiNerd

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Thanks for the input Terrestrial!  I figured there were some content private sector CEs on this board.  I have come to share your view on pensions, and I used to think it was a good benefit of working at the DOT.  As to marketability I figured as much and dmiraclejr agreed that in this day and age design expertise will give you the most opportunities.  I'm still very conflicted, because short term it would be very exciting to change up my day to day.  And long term if I stayed with the state this position would give me great job satisfaction.  But the pension does seem to reverse the leverage.  I imagine as you moved up, became more valuable and earned a higher salary you become closer to FI.  The company probably is probably more concerned with losing you than you are of moving on.  However, as one gets closer to qualifying for a pension they tend to get more worried about doing something to lose the pension at retirement.  I don't really like the concept.  And I hate to say it but I haven't experienced the consultant side so I cannot say that the work life balance is that much better, it's just something people tend to repeat. 

On a different note, did either of you 2 or any other CEs ever use your license to make some decent money on the side?  Like designing retaining walls/ site layout etc?  I have a ME friend who designs HVAC for firms and he says they pay SE's tons of money just to come out and look at the building and tell them if the structure can support the HVAC system they designed.  Obviously that would take some time to build up expertise, most likely need to find a mentor, and a network but that type of work would be basically instant retirement.   

Terrestrial

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On a different note, did either of you 2 or any other CEs ever use your license to make some decent money on the side?  Like designing retaining walls/ site layout etc?  I have a ME friend who designs HVAC for firms and he says they pay SE's tons of money just to come out and look at the building and tell them if the structure can support the HVAC system they designed.  Obviously that would take some time to build up expertise, most likely need to find a mentor, and a network but that type of work would be basically instant retirement.

My partnership agreement precludes me from doing it, and before i was a partner it was formally 'against the rules' anyway.  The reason is primarily liability.  It's unlikely that you are carrying your own E&O insurance coverage, if you screw something up the person is going to try and come after the deepest pockets that they can, which in most cases means your employer, even if they had nothing to do with it.  The argument will be made that even though it's 'on the side' you are acting as an agent of the company, and they are thus responsible. 

I know a few people who do stuff like that...either their companies are more lax about it or they dont care and do it anyway, I've never asked which. For my 0.02 there is more to be lost than gained....it only takes one thing going wrong to not only wipe out the few thousand bucks I make on the side but the rest of my NW i worked so hard to build.  I have done stuff for my own building remodels or for close family (and for NO compensation) but that's all. 

If you are going to try you should either get E&O or at the very least an umbrella policy, though i'm not sure if most typical umbrella policies will protect against professional negligence, I tend to doubt it.   Just something I learned a long time ago, it doesn't even have to be your fault, when something goes wrong EVERYBODY gets sued.  You dont want to be trying to pay a lawyer to defend yourself....it can still cost alot of $$ to prove you didn't do anything wrong. 

This isn't to say that you can't successfully start a legitimate business doing what you describe, there are plenty of guys I know that own niche firms of just themselves or a couple guys and go out and do stuff like that - but they have taken the appropriate measures to protect themselves.
« Last Edit: July 30, 2015, 07:32:04 PM by Terrestrial »