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Career prospects for a CAD Monkey?

  1. Feb 1, 2012 #1
    What realistic value and job security does a true “CAD Monkey” have?

    I’ve been considering for some time now making a career move more towards embracing the idea of being a true “CAD Monkey” I think it may make the most sense for me at this point for the sake of long term job stability.

    I’m 31 years old, I have a degree in Industrial Design and 7 years of experience, but I’m struggling to find consistent employment and I have some serious doubts about my future in this field at this point. With the present economy and the way things have been trending even since I graduated in ’04, things aren’t really improving for job prospects in my field. Even in good times, Design departments in most companies are mostly small operations. 3-5 people is pretty average, not a cubicle farm full of staff like customer service, etc. As a person with experience aligning closest with a “Senior Designer” position, I’m facing competition from designers with years and years of experience and managerial roles, and I’m facing fresh graduates with more software knowledge and lesser salary demands.

    I’ve held 3 different jobs, and none of them have been for longer then 3 years. I’ve had to relocate 3 times for these jobs as well. Each time I’ve looked for work it’s taken no less then 6 months to find a new job, and up until I got hired last January I was unemployed for 8 months.

    I’m concerned that if I continue to stay in this field I’ll be plagued with having to “pick up everything and start all over” every time I’m looking for work again. I want to establish some sense of job stability, or at least the possibility that if I get let go from one job, there’s 50 other places in the same metro area I’m in that I could work for, not 3-5 places. If things continue for me the way they have been, I will continue to feel very uneasy about making major life decisions like buying a house or starting a family if I don’t feel confident that I can maintain my livelihood with my career.

    While I would love to strike out on my own as a freelancer or a contract designer, I feel like I lack the experience and the resources to make that happen at this point. I don’t have the experience, contacts, vendor relationships, or necessary tools to make this happen. Let’s face it, I could spend $10,000 on a proper computer and software alone.
    Failure seems more likely then success.

    So what I’ve been thinking about doing is becoming a true “CAD Monkey.” I know, Engineers and especially Product Designers like myself loathe the idea. We want to do the “fun stuff” like coming up with the concepts, or Engineering them, not sit behind a computer desk all day doing 3D modeling, or worse yet, making part drawings off of SOMEONE ELSE’S model for 8 hours straight.

    But the advantage I see is that if I do go out and get more experience in Parametric modeling programs then I would have the versatility to at least seek out contract work in more places. I would hope that overtime as I build up expertise and experience that it would give me a decent pay grade and some job security.

    I have experience in Rhino 3D (3D modeler geared towards surfacing), a specialized 3D upholstery program called Lectra Design Concept 3D that is a parametric modeler, I'm using AutoDesk Inventor 2010 right now, and I’m now taking a Solidworks course at my local tech college. I plan on taking a 2nd semester of it as well. If I find myself in a situation where I am unemployed again, I’ll try to get some comprehensive Pro-E training too.

    Yes, I do realize that I would probably start from the bottom being someone else’s B-word making tech. drawings all day and I probably wouldn’t even be modeling that much. I imagine that the hierarchy would be similar to my last job. We had about 8 people with 3D modeling experience at any given time. 2 senior engineers that had a long history with the company who had the most responsibility to modeling new designs, 2 intermediate guys who were contract CAD designers and did modeling and full assemblies, and at one point 3 straight up “CAD Monkeys” with non-engineering degrees that mostly sat there and did drawings from someone else’s model.

    The advantage I feel I would have though, is that even if they don’t hire me on to be an Industrial Designer, they can benefit from those skills that I possess. Unlike most Engineers I can express my ideas visually through sketching, 2D renderings, etc. and communicate my ideas quickly onto paper so that someone else can see and understand them. I can use photoshop to manipulate images of existing products to reflect what design changes would have on the product. I can communicate these ideas to customers and marketing people as well.

    While I do NOT have the experience and the knowledge of an Engineer to do an FEA analysis or calculate the strength of a part, I can make an “informed decision” based upon manufacturing principles or the advice of others. If you tell me the basic parameters of what the CNC machines or part molds can and cannot do, I will design a part with that in mind and do my best to make sure that what I’m designing is manufactureable.

    I’m also hoping that building 3D modeling expertise over time would give me the opportunity to freelance in design if I wanted to. I could become a specialist in 3D modeling parts that are harder to model, and turn those files over to larger companies or design departments. I know of people who are doing this already as a business with more 3D rendering and animation based work, or as Engineering Consultants. A good friend of mine has made a successful business out of software training in Pro-E and he doesn’t even have a full Engineering degree. His credentials and experience are good enough to gloss over that deficiency in training. He even jokes about telling people “I went to U of Georgia for Engineering, I didn’t say that I actually graduated too.”

    I’d also certainly consider getting a true Mechanical Engineering degree over time too, but I don’t see myself going back to get that degree before I start working though. $20K more in student load debt would kill me at this point, and there’s no guarantee that I’d find immediate employment with it anyway. There are plenty of unemployed Engineers too. I would happily pick away at it over time though taking a class or two a semester until I earn a degree.

    So anyway, what do you think my chances for success would be taking this direction?

    Am I just going to get the short end of the stick because I’m not an Engineer?

    Is there generally enough positions out there for contract CAD modeling jobs (even if they are 6 month to 1 year terms) to keep steady employment?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 1, 2012 #2

    jim hardy

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    plenty of cad work out there

    check roadtechs dot com
    and shotgun some resumes to body shops

    electric utilities are known for stability
    i'd say get into nuclear
    once you demonstrate your ability it's easy to "go direct"
  4. Feb 1, 2012 #3


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    There is probably some medium term security as a pure "CAD monkey" - provided you move to China or India, and plan to move on to say Bangladesh or Vietnam in a few years time.

    To be honest, I think "working as a CAD monkey" has about the same long term career prospects now as "working in a typing pool" had in say 1980.
  5. Feb 3, 2012 #4


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    At my place, when there's plenty of work on, CAD monkeys take home much more than the engineering managers. That's short term pay though. If you're a true contract CAD monkey, you have no 'career' prospects to speak of, you're just a contractor and you'll be first up against the wall come the revolution.
  6. Feb 3, 2012 #5

    jim hardy

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    ""If you're a true contract CAD monkey, you have no 'career' prospects to speak of, you're just a contractor and you'll be first up against the wall come the revolution.

    why i suggested nuclear is if you have any innate curiosity you'll learn about the systems you are drawing. A plant job would be perfect as you do walk-downs to verify and you'd be surrounded by people fluent on their design and operation..

    as you gain such insight your worth to the operation becomes more substantial.
    Many utilities will help out with working toward engineering degree.

    drawing update is ongoing in any nuke plant.

    might be a good door to put a foot in - ask around.
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