The Myth of the Multi- Tasking Engineer Part I: What’s the Problem?

Almost 20 years into my engineering career now and having worked at both small and large engineering corporations I continue to hear some of the best and brightest engineers I know tell me how they are burned out and how much they dislike the industry they work in.  Many of them wonder if they made the right choice of careers to begin with.  Surprisingly, when you really get down to the foundational question, “Do you like what you do?” the answer is often times “yes”.  Civil engineers enjoy designing, analyzing, and problem solving.  In fact, I might argue that engineering could be one of the most satisfying career fields one could choose.  Why?  Ask yourself how often do experts in any profession not only get to solve a problem, but actually see what they have come up with built and know that what they designed provides benefit to hundreds, thousands, or potentially even millions of people.  That’s pretty cool.  Don’t get me wrong, I see other careers that certainly can provide job satisfaction as well, but my underlying premise here is that engineering isn’t the problem.  So what is burning out the best and the brightest I know?

The answer for most, if you ask them, lies in the job expectations laid on them by the corporations they work for.  This blog post is not meant to bash any of those corporations as I see corporations as neutral in all of this in that organizations can be managed in numerous ways some of which lead to long-term success and others which lead to burn-out.  The term is sustainability.  Is the organizational structure of a consulting services corporation sustainable?  Does it encourage long-term commitment by the employees or just fair weather employees looking out for the largest paycheck they can get?  The bottom line is that the bottom line has resulted in pushing engineers into jobs and management positions that some of them are either not ready for, never really wanted, or weren’t trained for.  Additionally, asking them to perform multiple roles as they move up the career ladder essentially puts them into environments that promote burn-out.