Working Hard for the Money

I would imagine most people envision an engineer at work behind a desk and in front of a computer screen all day long. Maybe there are some office jockeys who are able to get by like that, but it’s not been my experience.

Looking back, I had a warning sign the first summer I worked for Halliburton as an engineering intern. An opportunity to experience the ‘real’ world of oil well servicing opened up and I learned we had to wait to be called to the field. Conditions had to be just right for the Halliburton team to do their work. Turns out conditions were excellent around midnight.

Working in the chemical industry, I’ve often had to work holidays, which I’ve related in a few of my past posts. I was married at the time and my kids weren’t even the proverbial twinkle in my eye yet. Working a Fourth of July or Labor Day was no big deal. I was allowed to trade that holiday for a day off around the next non-holiday weekend, so my husband and I would take off for the beach on that weekend, away from the crowds and restaurant lines. I actually began to look forward to working those days.

Fast forward a few years and now I’m a working single mother of two boys. I worked as a project engineer at chemical plant that ran twenty-four hours a day. Once a year the plant shut down for three or four days so that major maintenance could be performed. Of course, the engineers were expected to be in attendance. While I didn’t work overnight, I did work thirteen to sixteen hour days. My mother stayed with my sons while I worked, ate and slept.

My aerospace career has also provided ample opportunity for crazy hours. Take this week, for example. I worked a second shift Monday and two early morning shifts Wednesday and Thursday. Yes, my sleep clock is off, but here comes Friday!

The refueling tanker program I supported in Wichita required night flights, so my day didn’t start until very late in the afternoon and ended up sometimes at two or three in the morning. Of course I did get to fly around the wilds of Missouri and was treated to a box lunch during a lull in the testing. And there was that fighter jet that we refueled during the evening.

Yea, I was on something like this.

I know there are a lot of people who either chose to or have to work even longer days and nights to make a living. I’m not expecting sympathy. I just want those who are looking to get into engineering to realize some of the downsides to this career. Yes, the money is really good. But if the worst thing you are asked to do is to sacrifice a holiday or two or a few extra long days then I’d say your engineering career isn’t half bad.



About stemzandroses

I'm an engineer and writer with a built-in need to share my nearly 40 years of experience working in a male-dominated field with the rest of the world.
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2 Responses to Working Hard for the Money

  1. Kim Curry says:

    My current job is mostly sitting at a computer, working “standard days” on first shift. Occasionally I’ll work longer days, or work a weekend, but not as much as I used to. Right now, most of my unusual hours come from traveling, early or late flights, and time changes.

    In my previous position in Houston, hours could vary significantly.

    The opportunities for the Space Shuttle to launch to the International Space Station have always been limited. Most of the launch windows are only 5 minutes long. If the Shuttle does not launch in that 5 minute window, then we have to wait at least a day to try again. Also, the ~two weeks that the Space Shuttle was in space, the ground teams worked around the clock monitoring systems and solving problems.

    I worked through Thanksgiving, one year, for STS-113.

    As the point of contact for our Russian partners and their systems, I had a lot of telephone conferences with Moscow. Moscow’s time is about 18 hours different from Houston’s, so in order to meet at a “reasonable” hour for both parties, many of those teleconferences were held at 4 or 5 am Houston time, about 3 or 4 pm Moscow time.

    As the software integrator, I also occasionally needed to speak with the Japanese software experts. Those meetings were held at 6 or 7 pm, Houston time, to catch the beginning of the Japanese work day.

    There were a few times where I had to speak with both our Russian and our Japanese counterparts, on the same day, both at 5 am and about 6 pm.

    Or Space Station hardware would do something interesting at 4 pm, and we would head over to the engineering back room of the Mission Control Center to spend hours helping figure it out. Sometimes those became multiple-day “work, eat, sleep, work” cycles.

    Depending on the job description, engineers can be On Call too. I was fortunate that most of the times I was called in to work real-time issues, was during my normal workday. But not always.

    • I’ve had some friends who worked the space programs, as in up in space, not in design like my experiences. You guys do put in the weird hours for sure and it’s a good thing we have you there. It’s never fun, so you dig deep for the reward. I remember when pagers came out and they were looking to give them to the engineers. I dodged that bullet. Now with cell phones, it’s a little different! Hang in there and have fun! Thanks for your comment, Kim!

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