Are government engineering jobs good? They can be, but depends on your personality – test the private sector first though.
You see, when you’re young and eager, you’ll want to level up your technical skills as much as possible. And the private sector is perfect for that.
To give you the inside scoop, I’ll draw from my own experience working as a contractor under government agencies. I’ve also chatted with friends and colleagues about why they chose government jobs over private-sector gigs. Here are the top reasons they gave:
- Unbeatable job security
- Fantastic health benefits and pension
- Enviable work-life balance
- Stress-free work environment
- Manageable workload
- Less complex design work
- Generous vacation time
These insights will help me shed some light on the government career path for young engineers.
Important Note: Some government jobs do involve a fair amount of technical work, like positions at the National Engineering Laboratories. In these roles, you can flex your technical muscles, but at a more leisurely pace.
Type of work done in government engineering positions
Sure, some government engineers do technical work, but it’s often in a less efficient environment. Most of them, however, manage projects without ever getting their hands on design work. That’s because public agencies usually outsource design tasks to the private sector.
And the downside? Your hard-earned technical skills might start to fade away.
As a person who’s led design projects for all sorts of government agencies from the private sector, I’ve seen the typical roles of government engineers:
- Project management
- Defining and clarifying work scopes
- Reviewing design work
Most of the heavy lifting was on our side – and that makes sense. The government hired us (and paid us well) to handle their design work.
But here’s the thing: government work can be painfully slow. I’ve had times when I worked around the clock to complete a last-minute change order, only to wait months for the government engineers to review my work.
That’s one reason why many engineers steer clear of government jobs, at least in the early stages of their careers. They’d rather get down and dirty in a challenging, fast-paced, dynamic work environment.
Of course, there are some seriously talented government engineers out there. And on the flip side, you’ll find private sector engineers who could give sloths a run for their money.
Government work culture for engineers
It’s no secret that government work comes with its fair share of red tape. This bureaucratic maze can make everything move at a snail’s pace, as I mentioned earlier.
To dig a little deeper, this slow pace can lead to lots of thumb-twiddling and mind-numbing administrative work, especially when you’re managing contracts with the private sector.
For ambitious engineers craving challenging work, this can be a frustrating reality. There’s a popular saying that sums up the difference in attitudes between the public and private sectors:
In the public sector, they say,
“We need to wait for…”
In the private sector, the mindset is,
“We need to do it now!”
A big reason for this discrepancy is that the government tends to reward mediocrity. Doing the bare minimum can secure your job, but going above and beyond won’t necessarily earn you the same recognition and rewards you’d find in the private sector.
The learning environment for engineers
Let me tell you, I’ve met my fair share of government engineers who haven’t done any design work, like, ever! So, if you’re hanging out with them, you might not learn a ton of technical skills.
But, you know what? The best way to grow as an engineer is to learn from your peers. I’m constantly learning from the amazing engineers around me, and it’s been a game-changer.
Take Elon Musk, for example. That guy leveled up and started SpaceX by surrounding himself with the brightest minds in aerospace and rocket engineering. He soaked up their knowledge like a sponge, and look where he is now!
If you compare the workplace culture at Elon Musk’s companies to a typical government job, they’re like night and day. That’s one reason why SpaceX is so much faster than NASA, without sacrificing quality.
Important Note: Many large private-sector companies can be just as inefficient as government agencies. The difference? Inefficiencies in the private sector eventually bubble to the surface. Low-performing employees can only hide for so long before they’re shown the door, or the company goes belly up.
With government jobs, however, inefficiencies tend to stick around. That’s why a free market employment model is essential for cutting out the fat.
Your career plan as an engineer
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to trash government engineering jobs. I’m a huge fan of organizations like NASA, and I’ve even written about the lessons engineers can learn from their mindset.
I’ve also met some incredibly talented government engineers with amazing skills.
I just want to give you a general perspective on government engineering careers. People don’t talk about the realities of career progression in government work enough.
I know some engineers are dead set on landing a government job right after graduation, eager to start racking up those sweet pension benefits. But if you want to max out your engineering skills, I recommend starting in the private sector. Get your hands dirty with complex design work from start to finish, and put your schooling to good use.
Trust me, the private sector is where it’s at for sharpening your technical skills. Spend your early career there, when you’re young and full of energy. Then, when you’re older and benefits matter more, consider moving to a government job. You’ll have more time for your family, and it’s a pretty common career path among engineers.
Important Note: It’s rare for engineers to switch from public to private sector jobs. So, if you’re trying to maximize your skills early in your career, keep that in mind.
The door to the public sector will always be open, but switching back to the private sector might not be a piece of cake once your technical chops have faded and that cozy pension has lulled you into complacency.
Maximizing a government engineering position
If you transfer from the private sector to a government job, you’ll be in a better position to excel. You’ll know the ins and outs of private sector work and be able to spot design issues and call out any bullshit from other engineers.
Plus, you might even bring some of that private sector work culture with you, lighting a fire under any government benchwarmers.
“Are government engineering jobs good?” wrap up
When it comes down to it, the sector you choose hinges on your personality and engineering aspirations.
If you’re all about that stable life, with awesome hours and benefits, then a government job is perfect for you. But if you’re hungry to max out your engineering prowess, you’ll want to chase the private sector, especially if you’ve got that go-getter spirit.
And remember, you can always make the switch from private to public later.
My two cents for young engineers? Try interning in a government position to get a taste of what it’s like. Remember, no job is set in stone. You have the power to explore new horizons and make a change whenever you’re ready.
What’s your take on government engineering jobs? How rewarding do you think they are?
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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.