Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines, and author of two self-published titles on Amazon.
What studying engineering was like
If I could travel back in time, I would have been a lot less hard on myself. And I would have spent more time trying to cultivate a few skills during college, which could’ve been side hustles by now. But the past is all history, and what I’m left now is to reflect and share my own perspective on where mechanical engineers end up after graduation.
But first, let me tell you what studying engineering was like.
We were taught that the foundation of everything we would do in our future jobs were founded on both math and science. And I believe that this continues to ring true until today. We weren’t taught how important cultivating professional relationships would be, but I guess that’s what the whole idea of being in a university is for – for you to know how social dynamics play out in the real world.
Studying engineering, I didn’t spend a lot of hours studying. And none of us did. It was more about practicing problem solving and getting to know as many problems as possible. The more variety of problems you encountered and the more you practiced executing the solution, the more likely you were to get high marks. Some of us fell in love memorizing formulas and then forgetting them after the exams. And looking back now, formulas do indeed matter, and they do help in real life.
In terms of course content, working my job now is quite different than what I studied for. But in terms of approach, the engineering foundation is quite helpful. The principles of elimination, trial-and-error, creative problem solving – all these workarounds to a problem become a big help in real life and in work life.
Early career ideas
We were always taught that the future was all about green energy and that in a few years, we would leave all these ecologically unsound energy sources behind. Nonetheless, the theories behind coal, steam and diesel power plants were furiously and repeatedly hammered through our thick skulls. We would have these late-night Friday classes with a progressive professor who couldn’t stop talking about ‘solar refrigerator’ or ‘solar-powered tricycle.’ And then come Monday we would be in the classroom by seven in the morning solving diesel-cycle word problems.
But mechanical engineering job prospects for me weren’t just about preparing myself to become a staff in a solar or diesel power plant somewhere. There were also career ideas that came because of how I grew up. Since both of my parents worked for the government, work in the public sector was an early prospect. But seeing them work in their offices, I had this bias against government work of it being the most boring job available.
I would learn years later that working for the government was a dream job for many.
Also, another career idea was that of becoming a designer. The prospect of working as a design engineer was often painted as the best and most enviable career path. As a design engineer, you get to apply all those math and engineering science courses you worked so hard not to flunk. And when you think of design work now, you think of Jony Ive and designing for a tech company, which makes it even more enamoring.
What I didn’t like about my college education
Looking back, I wish we had a lot more exposure to present-day industries. It was difficult for us to get exposure because the locality where our school was located was not very industrial. Living in a highly urbanized city now, I’ve learned that schools in industrial cities gave their engineering students so much valuable exposure. As an example, one of the top tech companies in the world, NCR Corp., is located right across Georgia Tech. Think about how lucky those engineering grads from Georgia Tech are.
I also wish my education was more specialized. Being a mechanical engineer, you’re thrown into the mix of ‘general engineers.’ This means being good at a lot of things, but not really specializing in anything.
My peers taking diverging career paths
Some of my peers went into commercial real estate management. Often referred to as ‘building engineers’ or once promoted, ‘property managers’ I’d say this career path is one of the advantages of being a general engineer. Working as a building engineer, you’re required to be confident in a variety of subjects. Maintaining generator sets, making sure all sprinklers are working, monitoring the temperature of panel boards, keeping maintenance schedules on track – as a property engineer, you’re expected to take care of the building and treat it as a well-oiled machine. I know three or four of my peers working in this area. And I was in fact in this area early in my career.
I diverged because it didn’t help me sleep at night (worrying about what might happen to the building).
And some of my peers hang around in power plants. There’s this big geothermal energy company back home and four or five of my peers work there today. I don’t know for sure what they do, but I’m sure the pay’s good enough for them to hang around in a power plant where nothing really happens.
And some lucky few of my peers end up with engineering design jobs. The firm I currently work at is a research and design firm, and the engineers here are designers. They’re designers of products that are out in the real world. And I won’t lie that there isn’t a day where I’m not a little jealous of what they do.
And then there are a few who went into sales. Selling automotive parts, solar panels or machine parts – there are mechanical engineers who work these jobs. Especially with the specialized subject matter involved, you need some guys who enjoy this stuff and enjoy selling.
And lastly there are those who work for the government, which is apparently the dream job nowadays, given the coronavirus pandemic. A job offering security is now way more valuable than a job offering huge bonuses but could be a week or two from disappearing. Public sector workers, because the government sets its budget the year prior, are so far the least affected in this pandemic.
In the end, where you end up really depends on what you truly love doing
I was on my way to a government job, had I stayed longer. But it doesn’t sting me as much as it did before, knowing that I’m in a job where I’m allowed to do what I love. Don’t get me wrong – I’m still a couple of specialized data science courses away from being able to work my dream job. But it doesn’t mean I’m stuck in a job that I don’t enjoy. I hope my peers do enjoy their current jobs. It’s been six years since we all graduated, and by now most if not all of them should be in jobs they enjoy.
What does this pandemic mean for engineers?
As far as software engineers go, they absorb the least amount of damage from the pandemic. We mechanical engineers take the pandemic damage in various ways, depending on the type of work we’re in. But one thing’s for sure – the government workers continue to get paid, while contractors are often left counting the days left on their contract (if they’re lucky). The more businesses remain shuttered, the less opportunities there are for everyone, and that includes mechanical engineers.