ORG THINK: The Price of Staying (PART 2)

ORG THINK: The Price of Staying (PART 2)

Welcome to Issue 2 of Org Think, an interview series where we explore organisational psychology ideas from different perspectives. Previously, in “The Price of Staying (Part 1)“, we spoke to Murdoch University Research Lecturer Dr. Brody Heritage about the psychological factors that keeps us from leaving our jobs , otherwise known as Job Embeddedness. In this issue, we further explore this concept from an employee’s perspective. Gordon, an Engineer from Western Australia, was kind enough to share his experiences, feelings, and opinions about his job, and the state of the engineering field in general.

Hi Gordon. Can you explain what exactly is that you do, and what are your day-to-day role and responsibilities as a Geotechnical Engineer?

GORDON: My job is to look at the engineering properties of soil, in terms of investigation for the future design kind of works, such as undeveloped sites where an investor or developer wants to build something, whatever that may be. We look at what the ground can support, what it could support, what measures might be required to support what they want to want to build on top of it.

On the flip side, there’s also when things goes wrong — like when a building starts to subside, we think about: How can we stop it? How can we save it? What was the cause? So day-to-day, my job is a mix of 50% office work — doing design and reporting — and then 50% outside doing site investigations and supervision.

What would you say about the variety of work that you receive in your job? Is your job stimulating enough for you?

No. I personally don’t find it very stimulating. There are moments where it is — but it’s hard to say, because I’m only about two-and-a-half years out of uni now, but I’ve spent 5 years in uni where you’re always learning new things, always doing something completely different. There are some parts of my job that I find challenging, like dealing with clients, but that is not what I studied for, right? I was trained to be an engineer. And the technical, engineering-related work itself isn’t varying at all. Every day, I’m reporting the same stuff, I’m referring to the same standards, and I’m designing the same sort of units of soil. The technical side of my work is very repetitive, and I struggle with that. I struggle to motivate myself to, some days, even do anything, because I just can’t bring myself to do “this thing again?”.

I see — is it because you need more variety in your work? Less repetitive stuff?

I think so, yeah. And I feel like it is probably not possible. But — not always — but just frequently being introduced to new things, new ideas, new concepts, new ways of doing things, (would be what I want). But I also understand why it may not be plausible in terms of running a business.

So, from a scale of 1 to 10, how satisfied would you say you are with your job right now?

Probably 4.

That seems a little low. Why do you think you feel that way?

I think it’s just the repetitiveness of the job. However, there are minor internal things, where I feel like the brunt of the grunt work falls on me too often. I think that the company has had a problem recently, at trying at keeping “fresher”, or newer people, like myself, to do that kind of work. For example: I’m the only one there who has less than 5 years of experience. Everyone else has a lot more experience than I do, so all of the more repetitive work does fall to me. So I sometimes feel, internally, a bit helpless, like there’s no room for me to move up…

You don’t see any room to grow in your career.

Right, there’s no room to grow, because those positions are occupied, and also I’m the only one who can possibly do the work down at the bottom.

I see, so you feel as if they have an incentive to keep you where you are now.

Yeah. I mean, that’s a bit of a minor issue for me now. Because I think two to three years is a bit quick to start thinking about those sort of career changes, but even a slow growth towards something else, or a different work, I feel is being restricted by the situation the company is in, staff-wise.

Sounds like you’re not receiving a clear direction for growth from your company, really.

Exactly. It’s very much like: When I thought engineering was going to be a career — it very much feels like a job, right? I feel like I’m just “serving a purpose”, not so much progressing a career. And that’s a bit dissatisfying. Because even if I wasn’t enjoying it, I’d want to feel like I was at least progressing towards something, but I don’t feel like I am. I don’t feel like I’m learning any new skills, so…

I guess the next natural question is: On a scale from 1–10 (with 10 being most likely), how likely are you to leave your job with the next year?

I would probably say pretty low. Right now I feel like a 2 or 3. But long term wise, I don’t see myself doing this.

But right now you, don’t see leaving your job as a high possibility.

No. In my head — 2019 is the earliest that I would leave.

Why do you think that is?

I think part of it is, the pragmatist in me says to give it the time, to see where it goes, to give it more than 2 years. And the other thing is, when you look at what’s out there, there’s not a lot availalbe for engineeers, in terms of both something that’s going to be any more stimulating. Most of it isn’t more stimulating than what I already do. Not to mention, I’d probably be getting paid less and be working in a work environment that I’d feel less comfortable in. Because right now I feel very comfortable with my work environment. I’ve got a good relationship with my bosses. It’s a very comfy work environment where they trust their staff to do the job that they are paid to do, not overbearing them, and I enjoy the flexibility I get with regards to work hours and all that. Cause again, they rely on me to do the job that they ask me to do, so I like that. I don’t want to go somewhere else and do something else that is equally unstimulating and unsatisfying, in a worse work environment.

Right, because it is what you’ll potentially be giving up.

Yes, potentially, and there just aren’t many options to explore. So long term wise, I’m probably just interested in changing fields altogether. I think part of the challenge is in not knowing what that satisfying field might be.

Interesting that you mention that your satisfaction with your job is low, but your likelihood of leaving is also low.

In our previous article, we talked about “job embeddedness”, and there are three psychological factors that influence whether or not you stay or leave your job: The degree of which you FIT in your occupation and org, the relationships, or LINKS that you make in your job, and also the SACRIFICES you have to make if you leave it. Does that theory fit with how you feel about your job right now?

To a degree. It fits in a broad sense. Because I think in reflection of what I’ve said just before — What’s the second one?

Links — the relationships you form in your role.

Yeah, I have a couple of good relationships with the people I work with — or at the very least, I’m comfortable with the people I work with. And the thing about the sacrifices I might have to make when I leave — I feel like the sacrifice is that I won’t have the same “Link” or the same “Fit” somewhere else. I feel like I’m at a right age and situation where actually I could probably leave and have minimal risk. I can probably make enough money to live, and find something that’s no less satisfying, you know what I mean? It’s like risk aversion. I think that it’s partly who I am, more than anything, that says “I’m too scared to leave and try something else — because what if it’s worse?” Which also means I might not find out what might be better. That’s the constant battle that I’m fighting all the time. When I have a bad day at work, I think “Why don’t I just leave and try something else?” Then the next day I think “Oh, It’ll probably be worse than this”. So it’s as if I’m rationalising the decision to stay, in my head.

I don’t think that you’re alone in that way of thinking, because that’s exactly what psychological studies have found, in that with humans, we have a mental instinct, a bias to avoid loss, instead of going for the gain. So it’s really like an embedded thing in our minds to think “oh yeah, stay where you are because of how much you’ll lose if you leave”.

The possibility of losing things is more powerful to us than the possibility of gaining things. In our previous article, it was mentioned how “Sacrifice” plays a stronger role than “Fits” and “Links” because of this tendency that we have, to not lose what we already have.

GORDON: I definitely feel like that’s true. From previous experiences, if you think in terms of wins and losses, I feel like I perceive loss to be more detrimental than how advantageous a win might be. Getting this job was like a real whimsical thing that happened — it wasn’t really something I planned, it just sort of happened, and I didn’t really take a moment to think “How great is that! In a struggling job market, I just got a job!”. I didn’t really think about that. But when I think about potentially losing the job, it feels life-ending. Again, I think it’s 100% in agreement with what you were saying, in that it’s kind of human nature, that sure, you want to gain financial security, but once you have it, you don’t want to lose it. That’s interesting — I’ve never thought about it that way.

You also brought up an interesting point: You were thinking your next move is to change your profession, which is a huge deal, after you’ve been essentially studying for this job that you have now.

Yes, I did two undergraduate degrees. A Bachelor of Science in Physics, which was out of interest. I was hungry to know more about Physics i guess. But from a career point of view, I did civil engineering, which is one of the “subfields” of engineering. So yes, I studied for this, but if you’d asked me back in uni if I saw myself doing what I’m doing now, I’d have said 100% No.

But when I was at uni, I didn’t know. I think at university, you’re blinded abit — or at least I was — about the massive distinction between “study” and “work”. Coming out of uni was a very enlightening experience, in terms of realising that everyone has a job; it doesn’t how much or how little you study, or how successful or unsuccessful you are. At the end of the day, everyone’s just serving some sort of repetitive function, right? Whether it’s someone who is editing books for a living — you’re still just always editing books.

It’s repetitive.

Yes. And I think my battle right now is trying to rationalise whether if that’s just the reality of the society we live in, or whether that’s something I need to just get over, trying to rid myself of idealism I guess – or whether there is something out there that won’t feel like that.

You hear all the idealistic sayings like “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”, But I’m wondering, is that real? Obviously, I’m unsatisfied with my job right now, but can I actually find a place where I’m satisfied with what I do? I don’t know. And I think that’s part of why I don’t want to leave (my current job) straight away. I don’t want to just assume one thing over the other, and think that there’s something better out there.

Thank you for sharing this with me. I think this is something many people — if not everyone — struggles with at some point in their lives. It’s kind of at the crux of having a career.

Yes. A hundred percent. I think it’s interesting — and it’s not just me — my close circle of uni friends did basically what I did — engineering. We were all, I’d say, arrogant, in university, about how smart we all thought we were, how successful we thought we were, and how we were going to be doing all kinds of things. It’s sort of interesting, a few years after we’ve finished, to listen to people say, all of a sudden, that way more career paths are open, in terms of like “I can see myself being a teacher, or I can see myself being a writer” whereas before we were all pretty arrogant, “No, I’m only gonna be like an R&D scientist; an engineer”. Then you get out there, and you go “Wow, I was lying to myself.

It’s not such a “sure thing” or a “sure path” anymore.

Yeah. One of my strong personal opinions is that the uncapping of university placements in 2008 was, at the time, probably the right thing to do, but the consequences of that, coupled with the declining economy from ‘08 to now, is terrible. There’s this massive influx of uni-educated people, where the jobs don’t exist for them, but that’s ALL they’re trained to do.

And it’s not just engineers. I think you can see it in the perception now of people with law degrees, who — there are so many of them. There’s a saying that “law degrees are the new art degrees”, which is a horrible thing to say in of itself, but prior to 2008, all public universities have the option to regulate how many university placements they have. They used to go “We can train 50 of this specific degree per year based on previous demand and available resources.”. But all of sudden in ‘08 the floodgates are opened, knowing the teachers and universities are overwhelmed. 4 years later, the whole system is overwhelmed — there are so many uni grads, and that’s what we are battling right now, trying to get jobs in this landscape that is full of uni-educated people who are all great on paper. We are all great, but it’s this really weird situation we’re facing, I think.

How many engineers does the country need, right? It’s going to be a fixed number, but the number of people with engineering degrees exceeds that number.

There’s actually an article recently that stated that there’s an oversupply of engineers in Australia.

I have no doubt. Because originally, it’s sold as the thing that not many people do. Universities require you to do at least 3 out of these 4 of difficult TEE or WACE or ATAR subjects in high school, and the rhetoric around is that “it’s difficult, it’s hard, but you’re going to get a good job out of it”.

I suppose it sort of promotes this mentality that “If you try hard in this thing that’s supposed to be hard, the rewards are high — or at least ensured.”

Yeah, and the culture around engineering at uni is that “You’re better than everyone else”. I think that’s a horrible culture that I’m still probably guilty of perpetuating to this day. It’s just wrong, and it’s not true. And the consequences of that way of thinking is that when you get to the real world, it’s a shock, like “Wow, not everyone just wants to employ you just because you’re an engineer.”

You’re no more employable than anyone else. It honestly doesn’t make a difference. It’s probably not specific to engineering as well. There are probably other professions out there where there’s an oversupply of people looking to do the job. You think you’re super employable, but you’re not, and then when you get to work to do something that might not be necessarily be something that you want, you become unsatisfied. I think that’s probably true with a lot of people.