The Untold Skill: Do Engineers Do Hands on Work?

Do engineers do hands-on work? It depends on your job. Some engineers do a lot of weekly hands-on work, while others do none in their entire career.

But when given the opportunity, I believe all engineers should do hands-on work.

I’m talking about stepping outside of the comforts of your office. Then going to project sites, factories, and manufacturing plants.

Thereafter, doing any physical activity that involves the use of tools, and materials. Or at the very least, learn about the real world through your very own eyes.

Hands-on work is not always about turning a wrench. Rather, go see what a successful design looks like.

Without real-world engineering exposure, you’ll never maximize your abilities as an engineer.

To drive this point home, I’m going to go over the importance of hands-on skills for engineers.

Important Note: some jobs require zero interaction with the physical world. In these jobs, there’s no benefit to hands-on work. 

Think of a lot of the software development jobs, and then even some chemical engineering work. 

But how about if your job only involves 5% work in the physical world? I believe you’d still do yourself a disservice as an engineer if you never got hands-on experience. 

Real-world experience as an engineer

On paper, many engineering designs look complete. So much so, that you may come off as a genius because your work appears amazing.

But you can’t count your chickens before they hatch.

In other words, the ability to create an easily implementable design is what’s key. It’s not uncommon for a design to look perfect, but in the real world, it’s not practical.

An example is placing an underground conduit at a river’s edge in your design. You place this conduit without a solid protective encasement too. Because on paper, the conduit line looks perfect running parallel to the river.

As a result, come installation, you’d compromise the conduit in the weak soil. The conduit would eventually break from the mud and force of moving water.

If you’ve never seen the force of moving water on nearby soil, you wouldn’t know this.

The better choice is to run the conduit at a safe distance from the river.

In the end, hands-on experience allows you to kill two birds with one stone. You learn what a successful design looks like, but also you develop common sense.

This is why I believe engineering work experience trumps formal education. Especially when it’s real-world work experience.

What’s more, this experience will then tie together all the concepts you’ve learned in textbooks.

I find this to be the fast-track method to quickly learn what’s good and bad design.

It’s no different than reading endlessly about how to shoot a basketball through a hoop. Until you try shooting a real basket, you’ll never properly learn.

You can even read every basketball book ever printed. Yet, someone who hasn’t read a single book, but has been practicing shooting for 1 month will be better than you.

My experience as a practicing power engineer

incoming line into hydroelectric facility
The incoming line into a hydroelectric facility

I had read a ton of books on power engineering on my own time. So naturally, I thought I understood most things.

When I was a young engineer, I thought so-called mastery over theory would be enough to know. I could then design almost anything.

Boy was I wrong.

I quickly found out how little I actually knew. Half the time in my design work, I was scratching my head in confusion. I asked myself, “how am I to know any of this?! I was never taught any of this!”

Only through the experience of senior engineers, I gained the necessary insight.  Just as important was visiting project sites.

The lightbulb suddenly then went off in my head, and I understood why I had to design a certain way.

I realized staring at schematics in books can only take me so far.

I compare it to making spaghetti and meatballs. You can’t make the best spaghetti and meatballs if you only know how to make spaghetti. Even if you’ve read ten plus meatball recipes.

What’s more, I learned, even more, when I  job shadowed other professionals. I followed journeymen, technicians, and construction workers around project sites.

Their ability to seamlessly navigate projects opened my eyes to a whole new world.

The combo of real-world skills and textbook theory helped me level up as an engineer.

Engineering problems from lack of real-world experience

One simple issue I come across a lot is the installation of ground rods. Ground rods connect the ground systems of your electrical system to Earth.

The National Electrical Code (NEC) states the following on ground rods:

“The electrode shall be installed such that at least 2.44 m (8 ft) of length is in contact with the soil. It shall be driven to a depth of not less than 2.44 m (8 ft)…”

Also, the NEC states that ground rods can’t be less than 8-feet in length.

As a result, I often find ground rods installed where the top of the rod is flush with grade. These installations are code compliant. BUT, it’s bad engineering practice.

Because the ground we walk on naturally erodes over time. Imagine what happens after a wet heavy rain winter season.

The ground rod will eventually poke through the soil sitting perfectly exposed.

Now, what happens if a car drives right over the exposed ground rod going 40 miles per hour? Without a doubt, it’s a huge safety concern.

For this reason, I always have contractors install ground rods 12-inches below grade.

This is a great example of why engineers can’t rely on everything they read. Textbooks and codes and standards don’t have every edge case illustrated for you. They will only guide you so far.

Thereafter, you need to visualize potential problems on your own. You can only do this by understanding real-world limitations and issues.

Important Note: it’s not an engineer’s job to install grounds rods. But understanding real-world problems and limitations will make you a better design engineer. You can then specify how you want a ground rod installed for a given project. 

Expectations from others on your hands-on ability

When you design something, people expect you to know a thing or two about the real world.

Because how are you going to tell someone to work with their hands, when you can’t do one simple thing yourself? This is how you end up designing something, that’s impossible to install.

Then the machinist or contractor will think you’re a complete moron. Imagine as a mechanical engineer if you design a nut placement where someone can’t fit a wrench.

What’s more, I’ve had projects where I was the only technical person on site. I had to figure out solutions with a bunch of people breathing down my throat.

For example, I had to troubleshoot why a device I designed wasn’t working in a control panel. Or why a high voltage piece of equipment I designed was signaling alarms.

It’s challenging and stressful work, but it can be fun too. As you test your creativity and skills, as you try to quickly figure out solutions.

The point is, you need to know your way around your OWN designs. It’s what’s expected of you.

Plus, this versatility makes you less expendable in periods of job cuts.

NASA’s Apollo 11 Mission to the Moon

apollo 11 1969 launch
Apollo 11 1969 launch (Photo Credit: NASA)

Werner Von Braun was one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. He was the forefather of the development of new-age rockets.

He led the development of the Saturn V rocket, which took humans to the moon.

Now, what does this all have to do with engineers and hands-on work?

Von Braun led the rocketry team in the Langley, Virginia research laboratory. From his first days on the job, he told his colleagues to,

“keep their knowledge up to date and judgment sharp by keeping their hands dirty at the work bench.”

Then another leading engineer with the Apollo 11 mission named Robert Gilruth, said,

“I do not want to have our people, our engineers, sit in their offices and only look at paper. I want them to get their hands dirty, understand the hardware, bring it here and test it.”

I believe landing humans on the moon was humankind’s greatest engineering achievement. It was the culmination of many engineering discoveries combined into one mission.

In short, it wasn’t a cakewalk mission. Far from it!

But the program leaders understood the work required to overcome the challenges. Engineers needed hands-on experience to maximize their abilities. It was the only surefire way to pull off this improbable feat.

Only then they could create practical space vehicles to safely take humans to the moon.

NASA deep belief in hands-on work

NASA engineers working on the GPM core
NASA engineers working on the GPM core (Photo Credit: NASA)

Beyond the Apollo 11 mission, NASA adamantly encourages hands-on work with their projects. Hands-on work has the following benefits from their lens:

  • Deep understanding: you become more familiar with subjects. As a result, you’ll better know how to improve future designs.
  • Increased engagement: seeing and touching designs will keep you more engaged. As a result, you’ll retain more information.
  • Sharpened skills: meshing theory and the physical world makes you a better designer. Plus, you can better troubleshoot problems.
  • Intuitive knowledge: the ability to recognize successful designs from poor designs. Thereafter, you can more easily pinpoint design problems that can lead to failures.

Without a doubt, the best engineering lessons come from those who work on the bleeding edge of tech. Even more so, if the technology is successful.

NASA and its contractors have both been successful and beyond innovative. So, taking their advice will only benefit you.

To point out, computers do more and more engineering work today. So this clearly means less hands-on work.

BUT, as long as we live in the real world, hands-on work will remain critical to engineers.

“Do engineers do hands-on work?” wrap up

Some engineers do hands-on work, and some engineers don’t. It highly depends on the type of engineer you are, and your job.

But when given the chance, all engineers should get their hands dirty.

I’m not saying you won’t become an amazing engineer without hands-on experience. But you’ll never maximize your abilities.

So go and inspect, touch, and see successful designs. You can finally connect the dots with what you’ve read in textbooks.

In the end, stepping outside of your cushy office is one of the best decisions you can make. You’ll maximize your engineering abilities, and become more confident in your work.

Do you find hands-on work is beneficial to engineers? For design engineers, do you think learning theory or hands-on work is more important?


Featured Image Photo Credit: NASA (image cropped)

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