With all the attention on the gig economy these days, you might think the whole world has gone freelance in a collective uprising against evil corporate overlords who ruined everything. Perhaps Starbucks will eventually create an orbital ring of linked coffee shops encircling the planet, and we'll all work from up there, occasionally taking a space elevator to check on our freelancing pets. As a degreed engineer, however, there's huge benefit to working for the man. At least for awhile.
The freelancer promise is certainly compelling: define your own hours, maintain your flexibility to work anywhere or with anyone, optionally wear pants, and stay innovative with little bureaucratic weight to cramp your style. It might seem that the last thing you would want to do is work for some faceless mega-corporation that will dutifully assign you an employee number, slowly grind your creativity into a fine powder, and confine you to a cubicle.
Stick it the man, and freelance. Younger engineers should pay special attention, however, because working for the man makes all the difference, especially in an early-stage engineering career.
It's all about the Benjamins
The primary benefit of a corporate job is financial stability, a steady salary. And as far as salaries go, engineering is a golden ticket. A recent PayScale study ranked starting salaries in over 300 job categories, and engineering absolutely dominates. The top 15 positions are all engineering, save for actuarial mathematics in position #3. Perhaps this calls for a shanty of some sort?
High starting salaries help to quickly eliminate the burden of student loans, get yourself your own place, and build a solid savings and investment portfolio. By laying a solid financial foundation now, you're providing for a more flexible and independent future. Think of it this way: you can freelance while trying to make ends meet or you can use freelancing to explore new and interesting career options while you're financially sound. Which do you think is more fun?
10,000 experience points and maximum charisma
The benefits of working for the man certainly don't stop with just money, and these benefits directly contribute to the skills and background that further enhance your knowledge, credibility, and network, enabling future freelancing opportunity and success.
- Learn from the best. Corporations employ specialists. Working with a variety of engineering and non-engineering specialists within the context of a large technically complex project is an unrivaled learning opportunity. It also helps you understand what you don't know. Positive exposure to large scale project management also prepares you for the generalist and unpredictable nature of freelancing/consulting. You'll need those soft skills, including team-building, negotiation, and diplomacy.
- Exposure to projects and technology you can't experience any other way. It's hard to freelance, say, nuclear engineering. And if you are by some chance, you just might be on a no-fly list. Working projects with scopes that exceed what is normally available via a freelance job can be rewarding in of themselves, but the experience you build there can be vital to your future. Have you ever worked somewhere secretive, sans windows? While it might be moderately depressing not knowing if the sun is shining, there may be some seriously awesome tech going down inside. Sometimes it's just worth the trouble to be on the cutting edge.
- The Jurassic Park effect. Corporations obviously have more disposable cash on hand, and that provides access to a deeper repertoire of resources, including tools and knowledge. Spare no expense, indeed. Discovering the underlying value of a variety of tools helps focus which capabilities are most important for specific types of work. So when you come around to freelancing you can more wisely invest in the right tools, find lower-cost alternatives that are just as effective, or even invent a better tool altogether.
Experience gained by working for the man results in vital domain knowledge that isn't easily replicated. This knowledge helps you seek, identify and evaluate the most lucrative freelancing/consulting opportunities that aren't easily understood by those without such domain expertise. That's a huge boon to any freelance or consulting career; in fact it's a downright unfair advantage. You're in control of your exit strategy, but the relationships you build working for the man also buys you a bonus safety net. It's easier to balance the risk of striking out on your own, knowing that a variety of other opportunities might be available by just picking up the phone, commissioner Gordon style. And that just might be all the difference. Dude.