What Influences Engineers to Switch Specialties: The ‘Push’ Factors

one month ago by Sam Holland

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers are of course vital. But that’s not to say that everyone should stay put once they’re a part of the industry.

Having carried out a qualitative survey on ex-engineers/engineers, we discuss some of the reasons why members of the industry may find pitfalls in their working lives—and why these make them feel ‘pushed’ to find new opportunities.

 

The ‘Push and the Pull’ Factors in Career Decisions

In such cases of career switches, engineering professionals (or STEM graduates) remain, at the least, a part of the industry but move to a different discipline; and at the most, they enter new industries altogether (e.g. they go into the legal field, as we’ll touch on later).

What, then, are some of the reasons behind these varying degrees of career shifts? 

To tackle this question, it’s worth noting that (in any profession really) the factors in career switching—be they related to the workplace culture, salary, career fulfilment, and so on—fall under the umbrella of ‘push-pull’ factors in employment.

 

Put simply, a person’s level (or lack) of interest in staying in their existing job often hinges on one or both of these factors:

  • They are pushed away from their job due to negative experiences, e.g. they feel pressured to quit due to poor staff treatment

  • They are pulled away from (i.e. they feel enticed to leave) their job due to positive opportunities, e.g. they are persuaded to quit due to the attraction of a salary increase. 

 

A graphic depicting the decision to leave a position for a new career.

 

Accordingly, this article covers just some of the ‘push’ factors in engineering career switches (and, upon publication, you can read about the ‘pull’ factors in this article’s successor, ‘Why Engineers Switch Specialties: The ‘Pull’ Factors’). Each point is based on what engineers and engineering graduates said when asked why they went on to pastures new.

 

Due to the qualitative survey-based approach to this research, note that all of the reasons given hinge on the nature of the surveyed ex-engineers/engineers (collectively referred to as ‘respondents’) and their roles, so plenty of exceptions may apply.

 

What Pushes Engineers Away from Their Roles?

Perhaps the most core push factors in all job switches fall under the umbrella of disillusionment: that is, ‘disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be’. In this case, they are issues that an engineer could only experience after signing up—and putting the hours in—to their job.

In addition, some surveyed engineers became disillusioned, not so much because their job itself wasn’t ‘right’; rather, it wasn’t right for them. A mechanical engineer-turned programmer, for instance, explained why they’re now interested in becoming a nurse. Before finally citing that the money in nursing can be equal to (and sometimes even better than) engineering, the respondent said this:

 

“I wanted … work [that] was actually fulfilling and [about] making a direct difference in people’s lives. …  I don’t have the typical ‘engineering personality’, which makes it extremely difficult to relate to coworkers, especially the older ones. I’m a naturally empathetic person, [and] that trait doesn’t seem to do well in engineering.”

 

Promisingly, no other surveyed engineer suggested that working in engineering had given them quite that level of a ‘square peg in a round hole’ feeling. Nevertheless, the aspiring nurse’s opinion reflects a predominant part of job disillusionment: personality clashes—whether they’re with the job itself or the people there.

 

Personality clashes in the workplace. Pictured: in a meeting, one worker points a finger at another his colleague, who appears defensive

Personality clashes in the workplace. Pictured: in a meeting, one worker points a finger at his colleague, who appears defensive. Image Credit: Bigstock.

 

Exemplifying the latter example of a personality clash, one respondent’s reason for leaving boiled down to a common smoking gun: a bad boss.

The surveyed engineer, who was a software-turned-aerospace engineer (before they ultimately took up civil engineering), was already interested in leaving software in favour of a more hands-on, more outgoing position. However, “the final straw”, they said, was not the role itself, but being assigned to a project led by a disagreeable manager.

On top of this, there are also those engineers who don’t agree with how their firm is managed on a more general level. Fortunately, however, the engineering field itself may remain attractive to them: “Don’t leave the trade”, said one surveyed engineer at a computer firm—“Leave the company”.

Fittingly, another respondent, namely a graduate in Electrical Engineering (EE), stayed a part of the EE field but changed their employer and occupation. Specifically, they went from a semiconductor test engineering role to one that involves facilities engineering in an electrical division (before recently being internally hired for a logistics engineering position, where their EE knowledge remains crucial).

 

Engineering can be a stressful industry, particularly in mission-critical fields. Pictured: an engineer diligently works on military technology

Engineering can be a stressful industry, particularly in mission-critical fields. Pictured: an engineer diligently works on military technology. Image Credit: the U.S. Army Acquisition Workforce.

 

That respondent’s reasons for leaving their original job reflected a chief push factor in engineering job switches: the industry’s demanding, and sometimes thankless, nature:

 

“I was working 80 to 90 hours a week without any overtime payments, [while still] being told that I wasn’t working hard enough to meet impossible deadlines. I also had moved to a very high cost of living area for the job.”

 

And then, of course, there are those engineers who just generally find that their job no longer excites them chiefly on a personal level. This is sadly a common experience in many workplaces, and another example of that core factor in career switching: disillusionment. Take one surveyed software engineer interested in a change, who frankly explained: “[My] reasons? Work is boring. [You’re] sold in school you can make rockets and exciting stuff. I make boring create, read, update, and delete websites, [and] that sucks the life out of me”.

 

Taking Stock of the ‘Push’ Factors in Engineering Career Switching

Evidently, not every engineer’s occupation works out for them at first, and the perceived ‘push’ to change one’s career may stem from all manner of personal reasons.

Clearly, though, disillusionment from that ‘square peg’ feeling, bad bosses, being overworked, and just generally wanting to find more fulfilment, are key push factors in engineering career switches.

Nevertheless, engineers’ ‘reasons for leaving’ only tells half the story if there is only a focus on what puts them off staying in their original role. Conventional wisdom means that many people are pressured to leave their job only when they have a new role secured, after all, so we are left with the ‘pull factors’ in career switching. That is, the qualities of the new opportunity that attracts the given engineer to their new position.

This leads us to this article’s successor, ‘Why Engineers Switch Specialties: The ‘Pull’ Factors’, where it’s made clear that a lot of those attractive qualities are on the other side of the same coin to the ‘push’ of disillusionment: they are the ‘pull’ that comes from self-actualisation.

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