By Raymond J. Wojcik
Raymond J. Wojcik, a P.E. and Life Member of ASME, is a retired supervising engineer for the City of Newark, N.J.
I recently completed a full-time mechanical engineering career spanning 44 years, which included employment with five organizations. They were: Foster Wheeler Corp., PSE&G, Burns & Roe Enterprises, Tighe-Firtion-Carrino, and City of Newark.
My clients were the City of Buffalo, N.Y.; Dupont, N.J.; Springfield, Mass.; Central Hudson Gas & Electric, Roseton, N.Y.; Big Cajun Electric Corp., New Roads, La.; South Carolina Public Power Authority, Georgetown, S.C.; USAID, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; Jersey Central Power & Light; Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey; Princeton University, and the U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Division.
The lessons I learned over this period should be of interest and benefit to a mechanical engineer early in his career. Here are some of them.
Listen to your supervisor. Engineers have many opportunities to make decisions on their own. If your supervisor gives you a specific direction, follow it. Remember that the supervisor normally evaluates your performance on an annual basis and when he retires, or moves on, he recommends his replacement. Management pays strong attention to these recommendations.
Be careful when requesting a transfer to another department. At Foster Wheeler Corp., my first assignment was as a proposal engineer in the steam department. After working approximately four years in this department, I gained specific knowledge about the design of power boilers, select burners, and pulverizers from very experienced engineers.
I did not have boiler operating and start-up experience, which was important for future development in my career. I came to the conclusion that I needed to work in the service department to gain the insight I needed for future growth.
I requested a transfer to the service department without explaining why I wanted the change. My department manager resisted this transfer because he would be losing one of his seasoned engineers. The personnel department overruled him, and I was transferred to the service department, where I learned how to start up and adjust equipment, and conduct ASME boiler performance tests. This was excellent training.
My supervisor, the district service manager, advised me that I was being groomed as his replacement. After six months of service in this department, I requested a transfer back to my original office for family reasons. My supervisor told me that management does not like to make transfers on short notice and this could possibly have an adverse effect on my career.
Here is a better way to go about it.
a. Carefully think out all the ramifications of a transfer, including special conditions, such as consideration for dependents, travel allowance, company car, etc.
b. Put your request for transfer in writing.
c. State your reasons for the transfer: Transfer to the service department to gain boiler start-up and operating experience for a one-year period; after this period, return to the steam department.
With the decline in ordering of new fossil plants, the last 26 years of my career were largely dependent on my service department experience.
Double-check simple arithmetic. The last thing a supervisor wants is an error in your arithmetic. These errors show that you are careless.
When preparing calculations, check them yourself. If you complete a calculation, put it aside for a day, then recheck your calculation. For engineering calculations dealing with sizing equipment or structural support, an error in this calculation could have legal ramifications from an economic loss or structural failure. Most companies will have another qualified engineer recheck your calculation.
When doing a fast-track project, do not delete rechecking calculations and design drawings. The first time I worked on a fast-track project, my supervisor told me that all engineering checks and drawing checks must be completed prior to releasing a component for fabrication. If we make an error early in the project, it cannot be easily changed during the design of the project and may cause us to miss a project completion date.
Never resign from a position unless you have a new one. It is very hard to find a job if you just resigned from a position. It is important to maintain continuous employment both for monetary and career reasons.
Do not be afraid to make field inspections yourself. Sites to be inspected can be dirty. You may be required to crawl into confined space or climb a ladder. The result of your field inspection can have legal and financial ramifications. An error missed by improper inspection could delay plant production. Do not depend on others to make your field inspection.
Make tough decisions. Working as a supervisor for four mechanical engineers, I reviewed design drawings and signed off as the licensed professional engineer.
My supervisor stated that our engineers were very good and I did not have to review their design drawings. He told me to just sign off as the licensed P.E.
Overnight, I decided that this action was in violation of the rules and regulations governing a licensed professional engineer and I could not do this. It took me approximately three weeks to locate another position and leave the organization.
You cannot afford to be without a professional engineer’s license. You will normally work for more than one employer over your engineering career. A license will help your mobility. If two engineers are being considered for a position and all things are equal, the licensed professional engineer may be given preference.
Management oversight may require a P.E. license as a qualification for a particular position.
A consulting engineering firm normally requires a P.E. license for a senior position.
A P.E. license qualifies you as an expert witness on legal cases.
If you do not know the answer to a question, say so. Do not toss the bull.
Do not think you are indispensable to your job: Take care of your family business first. My father retired in 1973 with 30 years of service as a plant accountant for Westinghouse Electric Co.’s lamp division. He also was a union trustee. A retirement party for my father was arranged with a luncheon and a plant tour. At that time, I was a lead engineer on a large project under construction and did not feel I could attend because I could not be spared from the project for a day. How foolish I was: Nobody is indispensable. Even today, I regret that I did not attend this party.
If you have to take care of business, always have a backup engineer available. It may be your supervisor.
When leaving a company, do not criticize anyone. You may have to work with this person in the future or you may return to the old company.
When selecting a position, look at using your best engineering talents. During an interview with the City of Newark, the director of engineering wanted me to be the assistant director of engineering. I accepted the supervising engineering position because I had more experience as an engineer and could make more money as an engineer because overtime pay was available. Overtime cannot be paid to the assistant director of engineering.
Do not be afraid to put a price on yourself. I was loaned to a power plant as chief engineer and was well treated by my current employer. The customer wanted to hire me directly. I felt that accepting a position of chief engineer on a permanent basis would be good because I was well liked by plant personnel. This position required no remote field assignments and I could retire in this position with benefits.
Request a salary that you can accept. Shoot for the moon. You might get it. Ask upfront about the following matters: relocation allowances, living expenses, assignment of a company car, pension, medical benefits, and overtime policy.
Do not refuse an employee’s request for a transfer. Ask the reason for the transfer. If a reason is given and you can correct the situation, do it. More money, a change of working hours, reduced workload, etc.
If the employee gives no reason, grant the transfer because this person probably does not want to work for you or the group.
Do not steal from your employer. If you steal anything from your employer, you are telling your supervisor that you are not ready for further responsibility.
Other employees would love to report to management that you are stealing something. If you want to take scrap material or bolts and nuts from the hardware stock, ask your supervisor for permission first. Perhaps offer to reimburse the company.
Management will tell you only what it wants you to know. My supervisor told me that he had to assign me to a U.S. Army plant because they were having trouble with the natural gas-fired rotary kiln for a 10-week outage, out of state.
If I didn’t accept this assignment, I would be laid off. I was assured that I would have full responsibility to correct problems as necessary during the 10-week outage. Once at the site, I was told by plant staff that I was selected to replace the engineer in charge of the mechanical engineering section. Yes, it was true. I was at this site for approximately two years. My annual performance evaluation was always outstanding.
Enroll in ASME’s life insurance plan. When you have dependents, you need to protect them against your death, for repayment of a home mortgage or college education for your children. This insurance plan has the lowest rate available for term life insurance. Cancel this policy when you no longer need it.
When starting to work with a new employee, form your own opinion. I was newly assigned to a project engineering group. I was told that the two secretaries in this group were not hard workers and used a lot of sick time. The secretaries’ duty was to answer the telephone and perform typing for six individuals. My approach was to keep an open mind, assign priorities to my work, and be reasonable. The secretaries immediately decided that I should alternate typing between them. Normally, my work was done in 24 hours or less. One of the secretaries would type the letter as I wrote it and she would then type a second version of the letter based on her long experience with the organization. The second version of my letter always read better and had a better format. It does not get better than this.
Annual performance evaluations over time can be an important tool for self-evaluation. When your supervisor does a performance evaluation, ask for a copy of the evaluation on the spot and keep a file at home. Periodically, review your performance evaluation file.
If it does not feel right, do not do it. Your hunch when you are making a decision can be an important warning sign. You may need more information; there could be an illegal act or financial risk; the design may not look right, etc.
If you upset a person over a statement you made, you should be big enough to apologize.
My engineering career was generally very challenging. During my employment with Burns & Roe, my son Michael said that “I did not see Dad very much.”
Take time to plan your career, but be sure to include your family needs. Spend time with your wife and children.
If you have any comments or suggestions, I can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Special thanks to Alvin Zach, P.E., for his comments on the first draft of this article.