From Paper Boy to Engineering Manager to Early Retiree
Imagine early retirement as a well cooked meal. The recipe calls for healthy doses of earned income and a liberal application of spending less than you make. Place those savings into a good asset allocation. Mix ingredients well and let simmer for a decade or two. Voila! Early retirement on a platter. If only you could find that dish in the frozen section of the grocery store or at a drive thru window near you!
You can’t retire early without a decent working history. Throughout the last two decades, I’ve had twenty different jobs. The earliest ones didn’t pay particularly well, but my compensation generally increased as I gained more experience. Join me on this autobiographical odyssey through my working years.
My career path
1. Paper boy, age 12.
I delivered a few hundred freebie advertising papers to houses around the neighborhood once a week for $7.50. I had to fold the newspapers, stuff them in bags, and then carry them around the neighborhood. It was a few hours worth of work for not a lot of money. I only lasted a few months.
2. Mowing lawns and raking leaves, age 12-15.
I mowed the neighbor’s yard and raked the leaves, sometimes with my brother’s help. We got around $20 for a couple hours worth of work. Way better than the paper boy job.
3. Sub sandwich chef at Jersey Mike’s, age 16.
The pay started at $5.25 per hour (the minimum wage) and I ended at $5.50 (and overtime paid at time and a half!). Making subs and running the grill was incredibly fun. Washing dishes, mopping floors, and scrubbing equipment wasn’t. I didn’t make it a whole year. I did, however, become the first Jersey Mike’s drive through operator in the entire world.
4. Rodman on a land surveying crew, age 17.
$6 per hour plus time and a half for overtime. This job was my solution to summer boredom before starting my senior year of high school. By this time, I had decided to study civil engineering in college and figured working on a land surveying crew would be good practical experience and bolster my resume. Working 10 to 12 hour days in the hot, humid North Carolina summers wasn’t fun, but getting paid time and a half on the 10-20 hours of overtime each week was very fun (at least for my wallet)! I recall being very, very, very tired each day after work that summer.
5. Recreation aide at a community center, age 17-18.
$6 per hour. I answered the phone, booked classes for visitors, and made sure the doors were locked before I left. Most of the time I sat at the front desk shooting the breeze or finishing my homework. I also had free access to the weight room which I used quite a bit before or after work. I left this job after about eight months when I started full time studies in college.
6. Disc Jockey at the college radio station, age 18-19.
$15 for a two to three hour on air shift. Ummm, get paid to listen to music and occasionally say stuff? Sign me up! I also volunteered to man the controls during baseball and basketball game broadcasts. $30 for around two hours work and all I had to do was play an advertisement and station identification once an hour (= work on homework 57 minutes out of every hour or play video games or whatever).
7. Production Manager and seat on the Board of Directors at the college radio station, age 19.
$200 per month. I managed to not screw up the DJ’ing too bad so I added the Production Manager gig in addition to my on air broadcasts. I made a few station promos and advertisements and got paid to play around in a professional recording studio a few hours per month.
8. Student ambassador for the International Special Olympics, age 19.
$800 plus free room and board. I spent a few weeks living in the college dorms and doing maybe an hour of work each day getting people from all over the world settled into the dorms. I had to be available for a few hours at a time but didn’t really do a whole lot.
9. Participant in a summer program studying transportation and the environment, age 19.
$500 (?) living stipend plus room and board for two weeks. Getting paid to learn stuff. We even went to Pittsburgh for a week for some conference and stayed at a swanky Hilton. You might notice a recurring theme here. Decent money for very little work while doing somewhat interesting things.
10. College instructor, Intro to Engineering, age 19. $25/hour for a few hours per week. I taught the freshman course introducing students to the College of Engineering. Students took machines apart and figured out how they worked.
11. Engineering intern, University Facilities department, age 19. $10/hr for 10-20 hours per week. I played with a bunch of tech gear and software to help the university manage their parking inventory and physical infrastructure. The boss was pretty cool.
12. Research assistant, age 19-20. $13/hr for 10-20 hours per week, plus full time during the summer when I wasn’t globetrotting. I helped a few professors with whatever research projects they were pursuing. The one I recall the most involved developing ways to evaluate the efficiency of public transportation systems (automated routing technology, interactive voice response phone information and dispatch system).
13. Honors program researcher, age 20. $3,000 grant for a semester to write a research paper on a research topic I already had to study for class. Probably 60 to 100 hours worth of work ($30-50/hr).
14. Research Engineer, age 20-21. $18/hr full time during the summer between engineering undergrad and law school. Nice five minute walk from my apartment.
15. Summer intern, Attorney General’s office, age 21-22. $0/hr. I worked for free and had a horrible 40 minute commute. At least parking was free in downtown. I hatched and launched my little business venture while being underutilized at this “job”.
16. Entrepreneur, engineering data collection services, age 22-23. $40 per billable hour. Most of the jobs were smallish and paid $400-500. But one project came with a $42,000 fee and we only spent about $12,000 on labor, leaving us with a $30,000 profit. That led to a very busy month (and $30,000 for our new house fund).
17. Legal intern, City Attorney’s office, age 22.
$10/hr for six weeks full time. Pretty cool variety of legal topics and cases and an interesting cast of coworkers.
18. Legal intern, small town private law firm, age 22.
$22/hr for six weeks full time. The only job I’ve ever held outside of Raleigh. This job helped me realize I didn’t want to practice law. Or maybe I realized working in general just wasn’t that much fun?
19. Engineer, small engineering consulting firm, age 23-30.
$48,000 to $64,000 per year. Where I discovered the concept of early retirement. The pay was high enough to cover our living expenses and leave plenty at the end of the month to max out 401k’s and IRA’s and put a little in a taxable brokerage account. The job itself wasn’t so bad and offered a bit of variety at first. Since I rarely put in more than 40 hours per week, the per-hour earnings rate was excellent for a newly minted engineer (not so much later in my career).
20. Engineering manager / project engineer, toll road authority, age 30-33.
$68,000 to $69,000 per year. This job was completely different from my previous job in terms of work-related tasks, and combined my engineering, legal, and financial interests to produce a job that I liked at times. At first anyway. Eventually the state Department of Transportation took over my employer. The job turned into exactly what you can imagine a job in a huge, largely inept bureaucracy would be like where the executives are political appointees (in fact or in practice). The view from my penthouse suite office was pretty decent and the ten minute commute wasn’t bad at all.
21. Early retiree, age 33.
$32,000+ per year hopefully (or that’s what we’re planning on spending). This job is my favorite and I hope to never be forced out of this position. The job can be strenuous at times but mostly allows me to do whatever I want whenever I want. The boss can be a real hard ass at times, but that’s the case just about everywhere.
Thoughts on working
As you can guess from the general topics on my blog, I’m a big fan of not working. Work can be intrinsically rewarding, however I think most people pursue work for the instrumental purpose of acquiring money. General interests guided me to the jobs I found, but I wouldn’t have done them without the money (or the expectation that the job would lead to better jobs down the road).
I don’t think I’m in the minority on this. I’ve seen broad surveys that show 75-80% of people think about quitting their job at least weekly and the same percentage don’t like their jobs. If you took the pay and the need to provide materially for one’s self and one’s family out of the equation, that number would surely rise.
The best source of knowledge on our opinions of working and jobs in general comes from Studs Terkel’s “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do“. It’s been a while since I read it, but from what I recall the Pulitzer Prize-winning Terkel asks a few questions of dozens of interviewees and then lets them spill their guts about their jobs.
The majority of subjects fall somewhere on the spectrum from indifferent to apathetic toward their jobs with a few downright hating their occupation. The only jobs that really offered a lot of positives to the employee tended to have creative elements, power and authority, or autonomy (or some combination of those traits). The interviews happened over four decades ago, but you would never know it other than the occasional reference to typewriters or other obsolete technologies.
From the nineteen jobs I’ve had, I can’t say that I hated or loved any of them. All of them came with highs and lows. Some provided a lot of money for nearly zero effort (DJ’ing the baseball and basketball games, for example). Others had really fun parts (making subs and running the grill at the sub shop; playing with new technologies as a toll road engineer), but each job came with negatives. I can’t say I was unhappy to work in any of the jobs, but I can’t say I’m really sad to leave them behind, either.
What’s your take on working? Did you ever really love a high-paying job? Did you work mostly for the money or for love of your occupation?
photo credit: slworking2 @ flickr