Or would you have gotten to this point regardless of this global crisis?
I’ve been one of those who has been fortunate enough to have been able to work from home for most of the pandemic. I’m a Mechanical Design Engineer and even though I relocated from Manchester to London and got a new job midway through the pandemic, most of the work that I do has been office based, so after setting up my work PC at home, I rarely really needed to go back on site for anything.
I’ve learnt the amount of time work takes from you is wildly downplayed. Nine to five may only be eight hours, but when you add the hours that you lose while commuting and preparing for work, that easily turns what should be a 40-hour work week into a 55 hour one (or more depending on how long your work prep and commute is), but you are only ever paid for the 40 hours. In Manchester, I used to have to squeeze onto packed trains and trams, with people standing nose to nose to each other to get to and from work during rush hour. It’s honestly a wonder how we weren’t hit with such a pandemic sooner.
I personally have found that the major benefit in working from home for me was seeing a massive increase in the amount of free time I have. No longer a busy robot just rushing around trying to get things done. I was no longer chasing time because I suddenly had it. Time for hobbies. Time for exercise. Time to think.
Even though in reality it hasn’t been that long, I feel as though I have changed so much and learned so much about myself during this whole ordeal. I spent months alone in my apartment during the first lockdown in the UK, and it changed how I see things. I couldn’t see my friends, my family or even my partner. Work was no longer theoretically eight hours; it really was eight hours. The seasons changed and the days became warmer, brighter, and longer and I went from having increased personal (non-work related) efficiency to eventually beginning to struggle to find things to do with my extra time. I had tried out so many new recipes, and tried the workout challenges, changed my hair care and skincare routines. Then again. Then gradually, I began to contemplate and reflect on my experiences, something I previously did not have the time to do with such a busy mind and schedule. I had gone straight from Uni into my new job, which I had to relocate for, so yeah – my mind didn’t have the time to process what I really wanted next. I went from Uni, to work, to Pandemic.
But after a lot of reflection, I am now at a point where I am questioning the usefulness of my Aerospace Engineering degree. Not because Aerospace Engineers aren’t useful, but because I am no longer 100% certain a career in engineering is what I want for myself in the long run or maybe even in the now. Perhaps this thought process was not caused by the panoramic but was instead accelerated by it – it’s possible that I would have reached this point anyway. I am an overthinker, so at some point I would have come to realize that the Engineering industry may not have been able to offer me what I wanted in the long run, or even in the short term.
To put it plainly, I want more free time than I believe the engineering industry offers young Engineers like myself. I naturally pour a lot of my energy into my work and take pride in that, because I enjoy problem-solving. But in doing so I need time to recharge, and two days after a very draining five is too often not enough time.
Leaving for work at 6.30 am and getting home at 6.30 pm means that there is little to no time to do much at all during the week, not without using days from an already small holiday entitlement anyway. All the ‘Life Admin’ tasks like cleaning, dentist appointments, home repairs, and ‘self-care’ days get pushed to the weekend. You spend what little time you have left on some good ol’ R&R, and before you know it, it’s been a while since you’ve been to the gym, worked on that passion project, gone out for a date or hung out with the girls. And of course, there will be people who think the issue is entirely down to time management, and even those who don’t see any issue at all – each to their own. But it sure isn’t what I want for myself.
From my perspective, the only way to increase your salary beyond certain limits in this industry is to move from technical to managerial roles, a shift which even though increases salary expectations, will likely increase the amount of time spent on/at work even more. In my engineering experience, I have never envied any of my managers, they were the first to arrive in the office and the last to leave, hardly ever took days off, and basically had to be everywhere at once. Often, even on weekends and bank holidays. They were constantly stretched thin.
Another point worth mentioning is that my managers were all men, and as such it’s perhaps possible for them to maintain traditional families while spending all day at work damn near every day, because the childcare and ‘home economics’ tasks are often taken care of by the Mother in traditional families. But as a young woman, I am not convinced that a career in engineering will afford me with enough time to actively raise a family in future. Perhaps, I would feel better about it if I personally knew women who had done it, or if I was able to see many examples of women who have done so within my field, but I don’t, and I haven’t. It’s common knowledge that the further you move along the path of Engineering, the less women you will find. By the time you get to senior and managerial roles, women are so few and far between that women in the field are used to being the only woman in the entire engineering department, not unlike myself. Factor in being Black and Nigerian and it only compounds the solitude.
In addition to this, I have come to understand that through my experiences both within education and outside of education I have acquired and developed valuable skills and talents that can be applied in numerous industries and fields, and that I have a better chance at coming closer to my ideal work-life balance in some of those other fields than I do in engineering. Even though I mostly enjoy engineering, I no longer believe I have to remain in the field in order to have a successful and fulfilling professional life.
I remember catching up with my cousin, and he was telling me about his journey to discover what he wanted out of his profession (and therefore what his profession should be). His journey was unconventional, especially for the son of two Nigerian parents, but it made sense for him and even though it couldn’t have been easy, he stuck to his guns and followed his intuition, and I am so proud of him for having the resolve to follow through. I want to have that kind of pride for myself at some point too.
I don’t know what this change will end up looking like – it could be a small change from Design Engineering to Test Engineering, or it could be a much larger change from engineering into a completely different field. But I know that regardless of what the change ends up looking like, its about damn time I made it.
Has the pandemic got you rethinking your career path too?