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Why Engineers Switch Specialties: The ‘Pull’ Factors

April 26, 2020 by Sam Holland

Following on from our first article—‘What Pushes Engineers to Switch Specialties’—we look at the other side of the same coin: what factors attract members of the industry to switch to new career disciplines?

These are known as the ‘pull factors’ in career switching, and the results of our qualitative survey of ex-engineers/engineers made it clear that they’re not always based on salary...


What Pulls Engineers Away from Their Original Roles?

In our earlier article, ‘What Pushes Engineers to Switch Specialties’, we introduced the ‘push-pull’ factors in employment and discussed a variety of ‘push factors’ in career switching that our surveyed engineers/ex-engineers gave when asked why they changed from their original engineering job to another position.


Seeking Fulfillment for Personal Talents and Potential

It appeared those push factors collectively fell under the umbrella of disillusionment (with engineers’ feelings of being undervalued sadly playing a large part). In this article, however, we show some examples of engineers who may have in fact felt comfortable in their original positions—but ultimately came to realise that they would be happier in another line of work.

In such cases, the effective career change was evidently spurred less by the push of disillusionment—and more the pull that comes with self-actualisation: ‘the realisation and/or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities’; plus, by extension, of course, the new opportunity that follows such soul searching.

Due to the qualitative survey-based approach to this research, note that all of the reasons given hinge on the nature of the surveyed engineers and their roles, so plenty of exceptions may apply. We revisit the significance of individual differences later on.


Many engineers who look for new careers may be welcomed into the legal field. Pictured: in a lawyer’s office, an interviewee shakes hands with their prospective employer. 


The Appeal of New Career Advantages

One respondent, for instance, was originally an aerospace engineer, but with time, such work opened their eyes to what their best talents are: they ultimately switched to the legal field (a common and surprisingly fitting career transition) ten years after graduating:

“[I] still do work that is closely related to engineering and have found [it] incredibly useful in my new life”, said the surveyed engineer. “[I switched industries] purely based on [my] better understanding the kind of work I was interested in and where my skills would be most useful.

“I still spend a lot of time talking to students about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and becoming engineers, so there is definitely no regret about originally becoming an engineer.”

On similar lines, a once-civil engineer said that the municipal, negotiation-based nature of their work made them realise that their “skill was negotiating with contractors and clients when things went wrong. [They] went to law school shortly thereafter … [and now] love being a lawyer”. The respondent also explained that they earn “five to six times” more than their engineering salary, so again, the ‘pull’ of new career advantages remains a clear factor.

An even more clear sign of the importance of one’s salary was exemplified by another very dynamic industry professional surveyed: in the space of ten years, such a respondent had gone from marine engineering to test engineering for the aerospace/defence industry (and all sorts of fields in-between, including automotive, biofuels, and so on).

They summarised: “I am always on the market, and as soon as better money, i.e. +10% salary [is offered], I jump ships regardless of industry”.


The Value of Job Satisfaction 

Despite the above points regarding salaries, it seems that an increased salary is still far from the leading pull factor in career switches: many engineers, like all manner of professionals, may in fact put their job satisfaction far ahead of their income.

For instance, the aforementioned EE graduate even said, quite admirably: “I did take a significant pay cut … (and four years later my salary still hasn’t caught up), but I have a great work-life balance”.


‘Soul searching’ is a key part of job switching for professionals, and engineers are no different. Pictured: a jobseeker sits at his laptop and considers his skill sets.


On top of this, most of the survey respondents made no mention of their salaries at all; rather, they explained that they found new career interests simply due to personal preferences.

This was particularly exemplified by a respondent who spent decades in military engineering, before ultimately going on to join the Prince’s Trust and become a manager of a business support centre focused on small companies. They said that the “military side was repetitive. [They] found there was more fun, and considered [themselves] more useful, whilst helping others in a business centre”.

There was also another respondent, a female mechanical engineering graduate who is now an associate consultant for a leading technology services company, who said that she was attracted to the chance to broaden her horizons.

Her reasons included the potential to “build up more transferable experience” and “gain a broader perspective on industries, businesses and the roles within them”. Her background and current experience seemed to ensure the best of both worlds, too, as she also praised her “option to work with engineering clients [while] not [being] limited to them”.

Clearly, then, self-actualisation and general soul searching once again play a large part in career decision-making.


Reaching a Verdict

In this article and its predecessor we have talked about the push and pull factors in career decision making, and the engineers who have switched careers after experiencing disillusionment, or, more positively, self-actualisation.

Again, though, such experiences are clearly personal, and therefore fall under an unavoidable variable in qualitative research: individual differences. This leaves the question of whether there is any ‘silver bullet’ answer to why people take up engineering and switch careers after the fact.

The answer, of course, is that there is none: many professionals are highly inclined to change occupations for all manner of reasons throughout their working lives, and, evidently, engineers are no different.

What does stand out, however, are the qualities that attract people to such a specialised field in the first place. After all, far from working only as a necessity, engineers are career-driven: they need analytical abilities, sophistication, and initiative.

It is no wonder, then, that many can afford to rise up (particularly when they’re feeling undervalued) and/or take the time to soul search—before ultimately finding a new discipline that suits them all the better.

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