Engineers Breaking the 40+ Hour Workweek

1. Jul 22, 2014

zachfoltz

Hey everybody, I'm looking for some general guidance about breaking the 40 (or more) hour workweek as a chemical engineer. I'm currently majoring in chemical engineering, and so far I really enjoy learning the material and can see myself happily perusing a career in chemical engineering after I graduate. One thing that troubles me though, is that I hear a lot of engineers in general have long hours and workweeks. I really don't want to end up spending my entire life working away(I'm sure everybody else too), fortunately I am quite content with not making a lot of money. The solution to this isn't obvious though because I assume most careers are working for a large company where you don't get a say in how much you work.

My question to you is do you have any tips/ advice on what type of work I could do as a chemical engineer to work less hours for less money. For example the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports median salary for ChemE's is 95k annually. I would be much happier making say 60-70k for a 25-30 hour week. Is there a way to work towards this dream or am I doomed to little free time like everybody else?

2. Jul 22, 2014

phinds

Professional jobs do not entail time clocks. You can work as much or as little as you choose, but if you choose too little you will, at the very least, not get choice assignment and not get promotions nearly as quickly as otherwise, and you might even be let go if the company faces any layoffs.

The problem w/ 25-30 hr work weeks is that a company has a lot of costs of having you on board (office space, medical insurance, etc) and if they have to amortize that over 25 hrs/wk vs someone else who is working 50 hrs/week, that's not very attractive to the company even if you do a good job in those 25 hours.

3. Jul 22, 2014

Travis_King

Getting an office/desk job with a larger company gives you a higher chance of working your standard 8-5, 40 hour week for the most part. Though this can be dull for many (myself included) for others it is perfect. As Phinds said, professional jobs for salaried employees don't generally have time clocks. You work the amount of time you need to work to fulfill your duties.

Though many/most employers expect to see you in the office for those 40 hours, there is often leniency about when you can do this (work 9 hours M-Th and take off at lunch on Friday, or something). Mostly, it is frowned upon to work strange hours. Sometimes you hear of people who want to get in at 4 am and work until 1 or 2 pm. While this is sometimes allowed, as an engineer you have to work with people to get your work done, and they have to work with you to get theirs done. That means being available during the time that most people are actually working.

If you are only working 25-30 hours per week, you won't be available very often and two things may/probably will happen. First, you won't be relied upon. People will find ways around you, and that's never good for your career. Second, people will come to think you don't care about your work, or the company. While you may be doing great work, if you are only there half the time, people (including your bosses, even if they ok'd the schedule) may start to think you are just doing what's necessary to get by. Also not great for your career.

Getting a job on site at a plant/facility/mine/oil field/etc, or with a smaller company will almost certainly mean over 40 hours per week. Usually around 50-60 for a normal week.

4. Jul 22, 2014

zachfoltz

Ok thanks for the advice! I guess it's a little bit unrealistic to work so little hours when you need to cooperate with other employees, I hadn't thought of that. It just seems that 40 hours a week leaves one with limited free time and I hear people talk about how they wished they worked less when they were younger because the money and promotions weren't worth it.

5. Jul 22, 2014

AlephZero

If you take out 8 hours a day sleeping time, that still leaves 8 hours a day free time on Monday to Friday and 16 hours at weekends.

If you want to work 25-30 hours a week, I think you basically have two options: either take a job-share in a low-skilled (and low-wage) job, or first build up enough real world experience (over a timescale of say 10 or 20 years) so you can add as much value to your employer's business in 25 hours as an average employee can in 50. In other words, get into a situation where the company prefers to let you work half-time at half-pay, rather than losing you altogether.

Of course that strategy may also halve your medical insurance benefits, company pension contributions, etc. Taking a voluntary pay-cut isn't the right option for everybody.

6. Jul 22, 2014

D H

Staff Emeritus
In most companies, it would most likely zero out medical insurance benefits. My experience is that medical benefits are either there or they aren't. Less than 32 hours is not considered "full time employment" in the US. Some companies that specialize in paying subpar wages take advantage of this fact and schedule their employees for less than 32 hours of work per week and as a result give no medical benefits.

The real trick is to find an employer who is willing to let one work 32 hours and still give full medical benefits. The employee has to be very, very good to be able to pull off this trick. The employer also needs to be very good as well. Most employers don't want the bother. They want full-time employees, period.

7. Jul 22, 2014

JakeBrodskyPE

I work salaried. I usually put in 45 hour weeks. HOWEVER, in addition to alignment with federal holidays, I get 26 days of vacation every year. That's more than five weeks of vacation every year --literally one day every two weeks.

So, yes, while I occasionally work long hours (sometimes with 10 to 16 hour days), I do get to take lots of time off.

Note that it took 15 years to get to the point of having a "typical" engineering salary and 5 weeks of vacation a year. I was patient about all this, however. If you are seeking something like this from the start, you might be able to negotiate a deal of this sort after about five to seven years of work.

As a recent graduate, even with a Master's degree, you won't be making that $95k right away. I don't know what it will take at the place where you land, but we expect to spend at least three years getting new graduates familiar with the bureaucracy, the routines, who is in charge of what, the safety procedures, the technologies in use, the HR policies, and a whole lot of miscellaneous stuff. Until then, you won't be contributing your full share of the effort and you'd be making a lot more like$55k.

If you're making more than that, you need to know that there are probably good reasons:
1. The work is hazardous
2. The job security is poor
3. The work location is undesirable
4. The hours are long

All of those are commonplace, and there may be other reasons.

Good Luck, and I hope you find what you're looking for in your new job. It is always nice to be proven wrong about such things.

8. Jul 22, 2014

analogdesign

One way to get the kind of lifestyle you want is to become a consultant. This is easier said than done, of course, because to be a consultant or contractor you need to either have unique skills (which would take decades to acquire) or you need to work in a niche that is very hill and valley in nature. One example is IC layout design. I knew a layout designer who would work like a dog for six months, then take several months off. This is possible because a lot of IC design companies contract out their layout.

There may be other situations similar to this in other fields. Other than that, the advice given here is good.

In my experience even though theoretically you could work less than 40 hours as long as you get your work done, in all my jobs there was too much work to do in 80 hours, let alone 30. Of course I didn't work 80 hours, but I never got all the work done I wanted to.

9. Jul 22, 2014

D H

Staff Emeritus
This is to everyone but Jake. (I would assume Jake knows this.)

This is how most professionals work in the US. They are "exempt employees", which means employers are exempt from the rules that apply to hourly workers.

Again I am responding to everyone but Jake (since he knows exactly how much paid time off he gets). There are three ways to get this much paid time off:
- Work in Europe.
- Work for many years for the same employer.
- Negotiate!

The best time to negotiate is when you land a job. In the US, everything is negotiable when it comes to exempt employees: Salary, benefits, paid time off, hours. Don't ask about those things during the initial interviews. You won't pass those initial interviews if you do. Ask about them very much after you've passed those initial interviews and it's clear they want you. Once you've taken the job your salary won't increase by much unless you get a promotion. Your benefits will increase based on years of service and your salary.

What you negotiate when you first take that job has long term impacts.

10. Jul 22, 2014

TMFKAN64

In particular, "exempt employees" are not paid 150% of the hourly rate for hours over 40 per week.

11. Jul 23, 2014

elkement

I agree with analogdesign - one of the reasons I have been self-employed for a long time is exactly this. I have never thought about it in terms of "pay cut" but for me it was rather about not having to meet (insane) corporate numbers in terms of revenue as an employee when I would be personally more than satisfied with earning less. And of course that includes doing a very cautious calculation and forecast of social benefits, taxes etc.

But as he says (and AlephZero had stated the same before in relation to employees): It works well if you have found a niche and built up reputation, and that niche and type of projects need you to work in this way. And you will hardly work something like exactly 30 hours every week - but more like 60 in some weeks and only a few hours in others. Many freelancers work that type of long-term intense projects analogdesign describes.

Caveat: If you are successful you need to learn to cherry-pick projects, to say no, and to pick the type of clients and projects that "make sense" in relation to your life-style. In the first years of running my own business I was not really working less than before - but it felt much better to say yes or no to every project consciously. Having working like crazy all the years before it took some time for that "work as much as you can" mental pattern to melt away.

I had negotiated for reduced hours before as a employee but it was tough. Typically companies don't want is generate a "precendent" and allow especially the top earners to work like this.... which is sort of an obvious idea if you earn more money than you can spend. I am from Europe and here this idea is not that uncommon.

12. Jul 27, 2014

Staff: Mentor

I disagree with both of those. In consulting engineering, hourly rate work is common particuarly at the lower end because it feeds into the business model well. But no one would ever knowingly accept a professional empoyee working less than 40 hours unless there was a reallly good reason for it. And "I don't feel like working more" isnt one.