Are Government Engineering Jobs Good?

Are government engineering jobs good? Can be, but go to the private sector first. Then later in your career, transfer to a government job.

Because as a youngster, you want to maximize your technical skills. And this is best done through the private sector.

In my discussion, I’ll use my private-sector experience contracting under government agencies. But also, I’ve asked acquaintances why they chose government jobs over private-sector work. The following were the most common answers:

  • Unparalleled Job security
  • Amazing health benefits and pension
  • Incredible work-life balance
  • Low-stress work environment
  • Light workload
  • Limited complex design work
  • High 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.

Important Note: some government jobs include plenty of technical work. This is in workplaces like the National Engineering Laboratories. In these government positions, you can do a lot of technical work but at a slower pace. 

Type of work done in government engineering positions

government paperwork in engineering

Some government engineers do technical work but in an inefficient environment. Most though, do project management without ever doing design work. Because most public agencies, contract their design work to the private sector.

So any technical skills you’ve picked up, can quickly erode away.

Now, I’ve led the design on many projects for different government agencies. The following is the general role of the government engineers I’ve worked with:

  • Project management
  • Define and add clarity to work scopes
  • Review design work

Almost all the heavy lifting took place on our end, and understandably so. The government contracted and paid us handsomely to do their design work.

In the same vein, generally, government work moves at a sluggish pace. In several instances, I worked near 24 hours straight to finish a hot requested change order. But then, I sat and waited for months, for the government engineers to review my work.

This is one reason why many engineers avoid government jobs, early in their career at least. They rather get their hands dirty in a challenging fast-paced dynamic work environment.

To point out though, there are some amazingly awesome technical performing government engineers. On the same token, there are private sector engineers who you could mistaken for a sloth.

Government work culture for engineers

Everyone knows government work includes endless and unavoidable bureaucracy. In return, this makes all government work painfully slow as I touched on above.

Now to delve into greater detail, the slow pace leads to a lot of thumb twirling. Plus, you’ll do a lot of mind-numbing contract administrative work. Because you’re managing the work contracted to the private sector.

This can lead to frustrations, if you’re ambitious and want challenging work. 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!”

One big reason for this discrepancy is because the government generally rewards mediocrity. If you do the bare minimum, you can keep your job. But if you go above and beyond, a structure doesn’t exist to reward you like the private sector.

The learning environment for engineers

I know many government engineers who NEVER have done any design work. Thus, you won’t pick up many technical skills if you work around these engineers.

And let me tell you, the best way to level up as an engineer is to learn from your peers. I learned and I continue to learn every day from engineers around me.

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 workplace culture is for the most part the polar opposite.

This is one huge reason why SpaceX moves much faster than NASA today. All without compromising on quality of work.

Important Note: many large private sector companies are inefficient. Just like government agencies.

But over time, the inefficiencies of private sector companies bubble to the surface. These companies fire low-performing workers, or they’ll go bankrupt. Low-performing employees can stay under the radar only for so long.

With government jobs though, inefficiencies perpetually remain. A free market employment model is absolutely necessary, to carve out business inefficiencies. 

Career plan as an engineer

career plan as an engineer

I’m not trying to paint an ugly picture of public-sector engineering work. Not at all, despite what it may seem.

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.

Rather, my goal is to give a real-world perspective on government engineering careers. Because 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, to maximize your engineering skills, I suggest first getting a private-sector job. Get experience doing complex design work from start to finish. Leverage what you learned in school, and gain hands-on engineering experience.

Again, you can best maximize your technical skills in the private sector. This is why I suggest at least working in the private sector while you’re young and full of energy. THEN, if you like, transfer to a government job when you’re older and benefits are more important to you. At the same time, you’ll gain greater freedom to spend time with your family. This is a very common career path among engineers.

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, once you’re technical skills have eroded. 

Maximizing a government engineering position

You’ll better perform as a government engineer if you transfer from the private sector. This is because you understand the ins and outs of private sector work. You can better spot technical issues in designs you’re reviewing. Plus, you can call out the bullshit of other private sector engineers.

As an added benefit, you’ll carry over the work culture of the private sector to the government. This may 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 personality and engineering goals.

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 always switch from the private to the public sector.

I suggest all young engineers to intern in a government position to see what it’s like. In the end, no job is permanent. You can always switch and try something new.

What are your thoughts on government engineering jobs? How fulfilling do you find government engineering jobs to be?

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