Dream Jobs - Who’s Got Them and How to Get One

April 24, 2008
As part of our annual salary survey, readers tell us what the ideal career looks like.

Victoria Burt
Contributing Editor

What’s the one thing that would convince you to switch jobs? For Machine Design readers, it’s a salary increase, followed closely by better work/ life balance. Does this mean engineering salaries are low? Well, average salaries are up to $78,300, compared to $76,900 from last year.

For 62% of respondents this was a 1 to 5% increase. But salaries stayed the same for almost 20% of design engineers. Fortunately 63% get a bonus, overtime, or special compensation mostly based on company profit sharing or personal performance. Thirty-nine percent say they got 1 to 5% of their base pay as bonus.

Elements of a dream job
Lee Hilgendorf is a lucky guy. He gets to work from home and can ftp his work to the office. He loves to design and build machines so much he doesn’t always charge customers for billable time. He designs commercial laminating machines for GBC Films Group using SolidWorks software and says he’s living his dream job.

Hilgendorf joins over 150 other survey respondents who say they have not just good jobs, but dream jobs. Not all of them opt to work for free, of course. But plenty of MD readers say they are doing exciting work every day. For example, Gary Goldstein helps save lives by developing defibrillator accessories for Philips Medical Systems. Rich Smith’s team at S&C Electric Co. recently won an award for designing a self-powered automatic circuit breaker for high-line power. Atle Bjanes started his own business, Gradient Engineering, which provides machine-control integration services. As such Bjanes gets to be his own boss. And Mike McClain of Albany Engineered Composites enjoys researching new composites that end up in aerospace applications.

So what exactly elevates a job into a dream job? When we asked about the key components of a dream job, 33% of survey takers said financial security. Another 18% say creative freedom, followed by a flexible schedule. Another 11% say the opportunity to discover something new would be the most important part of a dream job.

Almost half of respondents say they had a particular job in mind when they went into engineering. They wanted to design boats, fast cars, and robotics, or work for NASA. A few aspired to create the next big John Deere or a slick roller coaster. But, apparently, most people didn’t live out their dreams. Only about a quarter say they currently have a dream job.

For many, working environment marks the difference between a job and a dream job. Greg Robinson designs printed-wiring boards and their enclosures. He loves his job because of the people he works for. “I am provided the tools to get the job done along with flex time and benefits,” he says. One reader in the oil and gas industry says his is a dream job because he works for a “great company that makes quality sought-after products and strives to get better.” Brian Davis of Metokote Corp. says he appreciates being left alone as long as he’s doing his job. He also likes the challenges of staying current with state-of-the-art technology.

Another senior design engineer says after 20 years on the job, “What I really like is learning new things and making them understandable to others.” John Simonis also found his niche in instructing others. He teaches mechanical engineering as a senior lecturer for the University of Texas in San Antonio.

How did you get that great job?
Steve Hamblin will never forget the “wow” feeling the first time he saw an aircraft production line. “I’ve loved airplanes since I was young, and I knew I wanted to pursue engineering,” he says. “My current position is a great marriage of my love for aviation and engineering.” Hamblin works for aircraft manufacturer Cub Crafters Inc., Yakima, Wash., managing its general aviation design and engineering. “Working for a smaller company lets me participate in a broad scope of activities across the entire business from new design to customer support,” Hamblin adds.

He admits breaking into the aviation industry is hard. “Prior to working at Cub Crafters, I took an entry-level position with another aircraft manufacturer, though I had six years experience in a high-tech industry.” He got his job through networking. “A former coworker and I kept in touch over the years and when the time came to increase staff for the Sport Cub aircraft, my name was brought up for consideration,” Hamblin says.

William Larson was working 100 miles from his hometown when he found out a railroadtesting facility was staffing up almost in his backyard. Now he’s working his dream job as a senior mechanical engineer for the Transportation Technology Center Inc., Pueblo, Colo. “I like it because there’s an extensive variety of work,” Larson says. “There aren’t too many places I can think of where an engineer can be involved in projects that range from machine shop one-off designs, ultrasonic inspection techniques, and designing fuel-storage and transfer systems.”

Larson says his team supports testing of all things dealing with railroads. “I work on track components, rolling stock, and even the design of facilities including HVAC and fluid-transfer systems,” he says. “I rely heavily on my CAD and technical writing experience.”

Ulrich Neumann says he loves his job ensuring safety, reliability, and performance of wind turbines. The lead mechanical engineer of fleet support at GE thinks utility-scale wind energy is a young and developing industry with many technical challenges. “I like to think this industry can make a difference for future generations and help lessen the world’s dependency on fossil fuels,” he adds.

Neumann got his mechanical-engineering degree in Germany and spent most of his career working with heavy-duty power-transmission and hydraulic systems. He says he’s always been interested in alternative energy sources and actively researched job opportunities in the industry.


It doesn’t always pay to be the guy in charge. Vice presidents average a higher salary than presidents.


Ulrich Neumann is the lead mechanical engineer, fleet support for GE. He says the view from his office-awayfrom- the-office is awesome.


Engineers living on the coasts have higher salaries than landbound states. The Pacific region has the highest average salary of $90,300.


Steven Hamblin says his dream job came out of having a resume that highlights lean initiatives, general design skills, good communication and teamwork skills, cost-reduction projects, understanding of complex assembly lines, and the willingness to learn. He is Cub Crafters Inc.’s manager of general aviation design and engineering.


Thinking about getting that MBA to boost your salary? Results show that engineers with an MBA make only $1,000 more than those with a BS in engineering.


With age comes wisdom, and more cash. As readers gain more experience on the job, their salaries rise accordingly.

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