Your First Salary Doesn’t Matter

One of the most satisfying parts of getting your first job is that your degree is finally making you money. All of those hours you spent sitting in a classroom and cramming for exams is finally paying off. And since you’re engineers, it tends to be pretty good money.

While this is a great thing, money should not be your main focus at the very beginning of your career. In short, the money will come in time. However, I find a lot of new engineers worrying a lot about salary and comparing their salaries to that of the engineers they graduated with.

Fortunately, salary is not a good measure of how valuable your first job is. There is so much more to it than that. Maybe further down the line, it will mean more. In fact, I’m almost certain of it. But the first job is different in so many ways and salary is no exception. But first, you need to think of why you became an engineer.

Are You In It For The Money?

If all you want to do is work your 8 hours, come home, watch TV, go out on the weekends and repeat — then maybe your first salary is important. Maybe you’re not too picky about where you work or what you’re doing. You just want a secure job that will keep you financially safe.

If that’s the case, then maybe you should find a job with the highest salary. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’m not trying to demean that lifestyle. In fact, some of these employees tend to be the best at their job because they value consistency and structure. This makes for a good, reliable engineer.

It’s just not for me. I’ve got aspirations for where I want to be someday as an engineer and it is not at the employee level. I want to own a company and create my own products and designs. Therefore my first job needs to keep me on a path towards reaching those goals. If I ever reach the point where I stop learning or start drifting off my path, I’m going to find another job.

If you’ve got similar goals, then follow along. It doesn’t have to be to own a company but maybe you want something bigger. Maybe there’s an industry you want to break into, like space or robotics. These tend to be tough jobs to get right out of college but you can certainly work your way there throughout your career. If that’s the case, then the non-monetary benefits of your first job are probably more valuable than you think.

Consider This

There is already a pretty good chance that whatever your first job pays, it will be more than you’ve made in your life. Consider that a victory right there. Now consider the other benefits of your first job. Think of all of the knowledge you will gain simply by being present in the workplace and in an environment that promotes learning. Your first job is a massive learning opportunity that is not only free to you, but you get paid for.

This is where you’ll find the true value of the first job. The money is a nice bonus, and of course required if you want to keep living. But when you consider how much you learn on the job, it’s hard not to think about the money a little less. Someone is actually paying you to learn. You’ve spent thousands of dollars on education to get here. Now it’s finally your turn to reap the benefits.

Since your first job can make such an impact on your engineering trajectory, it’s even more important that you find a job you like. It needs to be something that inspires you to want to do better and keeps you focused on your end goal.

Since I would someday like to develop a product, I want to learn as much as I can about the engineering lifecycle of a product. What exactly does it take to design, prototype, test, and manufacture something? These are all things I learn at my job and therefore it is of value to me. I actually didn’t realize how much value it was until I almost switched employers.

I was offered a job about four months ago at a different company that developed automated machines. Not only was it an interesting role, the position was for significantly more money. After being offered the job, I had to reconsider what it was I would give up at my current job, even if it was more money. Ultimately, I decided this job, although very interesting, would not help me to reach my end goal.

This was because the work I would have done was very specific. It was a design role in which I would be working in Inventor all day. I like working in CAD software but I would miss out on the other parts of the engineering process. I liked seeing my designs make it onto the shop floor. I like testing the machines I build, refining them, and monitoring them during regular production. I wouldn’t have gotten this sitting at a computer all day.

So I declined the offer and honestly, I don’t even consider the money I could be making right now because in the grand scheme of things, it was not that significant. I imagine not too far in my engineering career, I’ll be making far more money than either my current job or this potential job would pay. It’s more important for me now to learn all that I can to become the engineer I want to be.

Here’s a couple other benefits of a job that don’t have to do with salary.

Learn the Processes

If you’ve had internships, you might be a little more familiar with the way a professional workplace operates. I’m sure you would agree that it is much different than the classroom. Specifically, there is a lot more communication that goes on. In the classroom, the professor assigns you a task, you do the task, you hand it in to your professor and go on your way.

A job doesn’t work like that. You have to collaborate with others and reach agreements on the way you will accomplish your task. The larger the project, the more people involved. You’ll have to get used to going to meetings, contacting contractors and vendors, all the while making sure to keep your superiors in the loop.

It’s not an easy task and it certainly takes some getting used to. But like most things that take time to learn, once you get the hang of them, you don’t really forget them. Consider this a benefit of your first job. You learn how to act like an engineer.

I remember how awkward I felt asking vendors to send me samples of some of their parts. You do this when you’re thinking of ordering a large quantity of parts and want to get one or two to make sure they work the way you want them to. I thought I was just asking for free stuff and they would think I was crazy. But sure enough, I got free parts.

Several times now, I’ve had troubleshooting calls with a $25,000 robot over the phone. Once I got home after the first time this happened, I remember thinking how weird that was. I never thought I would have wound up there. So there’s an adjustment that has to be made when transitioning from college to the workplace. This takes time to do and you’re going to make mistakes. Therefore, consider it a benefit of your first job.

Learn Expensive Software

It’s hard to find cheap software in engineering. When you consider all of the CAD software, microcontroller software, simulation software and all of that, it gets expensive quick. Since there is a fairly limited selection of engineering software on the market, anything you learn will carry on to future jobs.

I’m sure you came out of college knowing a fair amount of these pieces of software but once you start using them every day, you get better quickly. And it’s really nice learning to use software while getting paid for it. I remember feeling bad at work spending a few days to learn a new program but it’s worth it to your employer as well. They spend a couple days paying you to learn but you retain the knowledge to use throughout your employment with them.

Breathing Room

This maybe a less talked about but absolutely true benefit to a lower salary. With less pay, there is more breathing room. It is unlikely that you will be a 100% productive employee at your first job. You will still have to ask for help more than experienced engineers. You will still take longer to complete tasks that others can do quicker. You may even cost the company money at times. It is nice to have that breathing room for reasons like this.

You need to remember that every hour you are under their roof, you’re getting paid for whatever it is you’re doing. Now, as we just discussed, learning on the job is part of your first job. The employer knows this when hiring an engineer out of college. A new engineer will take longer than other engineers to accomplish the same task. So there’s a little slack in this extra time but not a lot.

If you spend weeks learning something before you complete the project, the employer is not going to be happy. If you negotiated your salary to high or promised you could do things you can’t, you’re going to be in for some trouble. Even though the employer really shouldn’t hold your pay against you, if you’re getting paid a lot and producing only a little, it’s going to work against you.

The Money Will Come

You may be making less money now but in the end, it may still work towards your advantage. If you do a good job during your first six months, ask for a raise. It’ll be easy to use your hard work, quick learning, and newly found confidence as proof that you deserve more pay. If you’re turned down but still enjoy the job, wait another three months and ask again. If you’re not crazy about the job, start looking for another.

Speaking from research and experience, you make bigger pay jumps when switching jobs than you do by getting raises. Don’t be afraid to find a job that will value your time and knowledge. This is why I say your first salary doesn’t matter that much. You’re gaining as much from them as they are from you. AND you’re getting paid. So during that first job, learn as much as you can. That’ll more than make up for what you may lack in pay.

Don’t Worry

The bottom line is to not judge your first job solely by the size of your paycheck. The educational benefits of the first job are greater than you realize. When I think of how much I’ve learned after my first year and a half on the job, it’s incredible. I know more now than college could have ever taught me.