Are government engineering jobs good? If you’re young, it’s best to go to the private sector first. Then later in your career transfer to a government job.
My analysis is from the lens of maximizing your technical skills in the workforce. The keyword is “maximize.”
In my discussion, I’m going to go over what many government engineering jobs are like. I’ll pull from my 15 plus years of private-sector experience. I’ve worked with many government agencies over the years
Also, I’ll pull from my real-life acquaintance’s experiences. These are engineers who’ve worked and currently work in government jobs. More specifically state jobs, versus federal jobs.
What’s more, I’ve asked my acquaintances why they chose government jobs over private sector work. The following were the most common answers:
- Job security as it’s near impossible to get fired
- Pay is less but amazing health benefits and a cushy pension
- Clock in at 8 and leave at 5 each day for an incredible work-life balance
- Less stressful work environment
- Light workloads
- Minimal complex design work
- More vacation time
These answers will set the stage for my analysis. My goal is to add transparency to the government career path for young engineers.
To point out, there are exceptions to my discussion points. I understand this and I know I may overly generalize some analysis elements. So after reading this article, go do your own research if you need to.
Important Note: some government jobs include a lot of engineering work. This is in places like National Engineering Laboratories. In these government positions, you can do plenty of engineering work but at a slower pace. Overall though, I haven’t found any government positions that are super-efficient.
Also, for young engineers, I find these government positions to be few and far between.
Type of work done in government engineering positions
Some government engineers do technical work but in an inefficient environment. But most do project management work without touching many technical elements. Because a lot of the public engineering work outside contractors do.
So any technical skills you learned in school or on your own can quickly become rusty. And let me tell you, engineering is like any other profession. The less you practice, the worse you become.
It’s why so many retired pro athletes struggle after they return to their sport even after one year.
I’ve worked with many government customers, doing all their design work. In the design process, the involvement of government engineers was the following:
- Detail for me their scope of work and shed light on any work scope confusions I have
- Answer my work scope questions in the design phase of the project
- Collect requested information from their existing resources
- Review submitted designs at various submittal stages and provide comments
So, ALL the heavy lifting was happening on our end. Without a doubt, your technical prowess will dip if you quit design work altogether.
To make matters worse, I need to constantly follow up over project elements.
Sometimes, I worked 14 hours straight for several days to complete a design. This is from start to finish. But the government reviewers took several months to review my design or even reply back to me.
This is all very common. But, it’s important I mention this happens with private sector customers too. I’ve just more commonly experienced it working with public sector customers.
Overall, I find this to be one reason why certain engineers avoid government jobs. They rather get their hands dirty in a challenging fast-paced dynamic work environment.
Government work culture for engineers
Everyone knows government work includes endless bureaucracy.
What’s more, government bureaucracy is unavoidable. In return, this makes all government work environments painfully slow.
Thus, you can become overly frustrated by doing a lot of sitting. Plus, you’ll do a lot of unchallenging work like completing contract administration tasks.
For this reason, there’s a popular saying when it comes to getting work done in the two employment sectors.
In the public sector, they say,
“We need to wait for…”
Whereas in the private sector the attitude is,
“We need to do it now!”
The public sector attitude can be soul-crushing if you’re ambitious and have a go go go attitude.
One big reason for this is because the government rewards mediocrity. If you do the bare minimum you get to keep your job. Then if you work above the minimum, you’re not awarded.
The learning environment for engineers
I know many government engineers who NEVER have done any design work. Nothing at all.
As a result, you won’t pick up many technical skills if you find yourself around such engineers.
To point out, I learned and I continue to learn every day from other engineers around me. I find learning from other engineers to be one of the best methods to learn complex subjects.
In fact, this is how Elon Musk leveled himself up and started SpaceX. Elon surrounded himself with the smartest minds in aerospace and rocket engineering. He then soaked in all their knowledge one after another like a vacuum.
One step further, check out the workplace culture rules of Elon Musk companies. Now realize, government job workplaces are ALL the polar opposites.
This is one reason why SpaceX moves much faster than NASA today. All without compromising the quality of their work.
Important Note: many large private sector companies are inefficient. Just like government agencies.
But over time, the inefficiencies of private sector companies come to the surface. These companies fire low-performing workers, or they’ll go bankrupt. So low-performing employees can stay under the radar only for so long.
With government jobs, this rarely happens though. A free market employment model is necessary to carve out business inefficiencies.
Career plan as an engineer
I’m not trying to paint an ugly picture over public sector engineering work. Not at all, even though that’s what it may seem like.
I’m a huge supporter of agencies like NASA. Heck, I wrote about NASA engineering mindset lessons for all engineers.
Also, I know some amazing government engineers who have exceptional technical skills.
My goal is to give you a real-world perspective on government engineering careers. As I find the career progression in government work isn’t discussed enough.
Now I get it, some engineers are dead set on getting government engineering jobs. In fact, some don’t want to even waste any time in the private sector after graduation. They want to quickly start accruing their monthly pension benefits.
BUT, if you want to maximize your engineering skills, I suggest you get a private-sector job first. Get experience doing actual complex design work from start to finish.
Leverage what you learned in school, and learn even more outside of school. This high level of learning can only come through hands-on engineering experience.
I find this maximization of technical skills is best found in the private sector. Especially for young engineers.
So, a good plan is to work in the private sector while you’re young and full of energy.
THEN, if you like, transfer to a government job when you’re old and benefits are more important to you. At the same, you can focus more time and energy on your family.
This is the route I find many engineers take in their careers. They do hardcore engineering work at a young age. Then, they transfer to more management-type work in their older age in government positions.
Important Note: I find very few engineers switch from the public to the private sector. If you’re early in your career trying to maximize your skills, this is something to consider.
Because the opportunity to go to the public sector will always exist. The same isn’t always true in reverse.
Maximizing a government engineering position
It’s difficult to maximize your technical skills if you go straight to government work after graduation.
I find government engineers who transfer from the private sector perform better. This is because they first form a strong technical design base in the private sector.
So, if they’re reviewing private sector design work, they can more easily spot issues. Just as important, they can call out the bullshit of other private sector engineers.
At the same time, they’ll carry over with them the work culture of the private sector to the government. This can help ignite a flame under any benchwarmers in government agencies.
“Are government engineering jobs good?” wrap up
The employment sector you choose depends on your goals as an engineer.
If you want the best hours, stability, and benefits, a government job is for you. But if you want to maximize your engineering skills, then it’s best to go into the private sector. Especially if you’re a mover and shaker.
Later on, you can switch from the private sector to the public sector if you want a change in lifestyle.
I suggest all young engineers intern in a government position and see how it’s like. Only then, decide if the work is for them.
In the end, no job is permanent. If you don’t like a job, switch and try something else.
What are your thoughts on government engineering jobs? How fulfilling do you find government engineering jobs to be?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.