Computerized Automation Engineer Careers: Salary & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a career in automation engineering? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming an automation engineer is right for you.
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An Automation Engineer Career: Pros and Cons

Automation engineers develop computerized control systems and other technologies that make machines, systems and processes function automatically according to the needs of employers. This career can be an exciting one, though it is not without downsides, which is why it's good to examine the pros and cons of being an automation engineer before making a final choice.

PROS to an Automation Engineering Career
Relatively high salary range ($52,000 to $102,000)**
Graduate degree not required*
Several degree options can lead to career (mechanical, control systems or mechanical engineering, among others)***
Careers available in several industries (like aerospace, clean energy, medical equipment and pharmaceuticals)***

CONS to an Automation Engineering Career
Slow job growth in engineering fields related to automation*
Many manufacturing sectors reporting decline or slow growth*
Continuing education required to keep up-to-date***
Most engineers report working some overtime*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Payscale.com, ***International Society of Automation.

Career Information

Job Description

Automation engineers have diverse job roles, requiring both hard and soft skills. At the initiation of a project, you may be responsible for analyzing client needs and designing a system, equipment or software to address them. This job is programming-intensive because you will be helping to implement computerized manufacturing systems, as well as maintaining and troubleshooting them. Additional job tasks you may have involve cost estimation, quality control, documentation and training.

Overlapping job titles you may assume include control systems engineer, manufacturing engineer and quality engineer. Among the many industries in which you may find work are transportation, utilities, facility operations, manufacturing, chemical corporations and cybersecurity. You may even find yourself assisting in the design and production of theme parks.

Salary and Job Prospect Information

Automation engineers, according to Payscale.com in 2014, earned salaries ranging from about $52,000 to $102,000. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn't collect data specifically for automation engineers. The Occupational Information Network (O*NET) identifies several engineering jobs that involve automation, including robotics, mechatronics and manufacturing engineers. These fall into the BLS category 'engineers, all other.'

The BLS predicted slower-than-average job growth of 3.8% from 2012-2022 for these engineers and estimated in May 2014 that they earned an average salary of about $96,000. During the 2012-2012 decade, less-than-robust manufacturing growth may lead to relatively weaker job outlooks for many types of engineers.

What Are the Requirements?

According to the professional association the International Society of Automation (ISA), a bachelor's degree in various disciplines can lead to an entry-level job as an automation engineer. Some undergraduate engineering programs are available that specifically target this profession; for example, you may pursue a degree in automated manufacturing engineering, automation and control engineering technology, control systems engineering or instrumentation, among others. These targeted programs can provide you with a foundation in science and engineering principles as well as field-specific skills, covering topics like robotics, computer-aided design and programmable logic controllers.

Aspiring automation engineers can also earn degrees in a process-oriented engineering field like control systems, electrical, mechanical or chemical engineering. If you pursue one of these more widely available programs, you may be able to take some courses or pursue a concentration in automation. Depending on the requirements of your state, employer or career goals, you may need to become licensed as a professional engineer (PE). Generally, this involves graduating from an accredited engineering program, accumulating experience and passing required exams.

What Do Employers Look For?

Some employers prefer to hire automation engineers or control systems engineers (an overlapping or alternative job title) with certain engineering degrees, like electrical engineering. In addition to communication and team skills, employers want candidates experienced in programming human machine interface (HMI) applications and programmable logic controllers (PLC). Following are some actual jobs posted in April 2012:

  • An Indiana engineering firm seeks an automation engineer for projects in the pharmaceuticals and food industries who is proficient in PLC and HMI programming. The employer prefers candidates with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering technology, electrical engineering or computer engineering.
  • A New York engineering services firm advertises for a control systems engineer with a bachelor's degree in a relevant engineering field and 2-5 years of experience. The job involves electrical design, PLC and HMI programming, installation of automation systems and troubleshooting. The employer desires a candidate with strong oral and written communications skills.
  • A California automation company seeks a control systems engineer to design and develop custom automation equipment and do cost estimates for diverse industries. Candidates need a bachelor's or master's degree in electrical engineering. The candidate should also have advanced skills in computer-aided design and the ability to design electrical control systems.
  • The Illinois branch of an international food processing and packaging company advertises for an automation engineer to help improve dairy, beverage and liquid food processing. In addition to programming and control system design skills, the candidate should be able to assess customer needs, provide cost quotes and perform quality control. The employer is looking for candidates with a bachelor's degree in engineering or manufacturing and at least four years' experience in electrical engineering.

How Can I Stand Out?

To be a successful candidate for an automation engineer position, you need to demonstrate a relevant educational background and, typically, some experience in the field. Because hands-on experience in engineering disciplines is highly valued by employers, many programs offer cooperative engineering programs. In these programs, you earn academic credit for on-the-job experience; alternatively, you may gain practical experience by completing internships.

Get Certified

Membership in a professional association and certification may also set you apart from other job candidates. You can earn the Certified Automation Professional (CAP) credential through the International Society of Automation, which can confirm your skills to potential employers. The ISA assesses your educational background and relevant work experience to determine your eligibility to take its certification exam. ISA membership isn't required to earn this credential, but you may find the membership benefits for students and professionals attractive; these include access to an online technical library, networking opportunities, conferences and training seminars.

Other Careers to Consider

Software Developer

If the programming aspect of an automation engineer career appeals to you, but you're seeking a field with more job opportunities, you may consider becoming a software developer. The BLS predicted software developers to experience a much-faster-than-average increase in job growth of 30% between 2010 and 2020. You can enter this field with a bachelor's degree in computer science. According to the BLS's May 2011 report, software developers in applications earned an average salary of about $92,000, and software developers in systems software earned about $100,400.

Electrical and Electronics Engineering Technician

If you'd like to work in this field but don't want to earn a bachelor's degree at this point, becoming an electrical and electronics engineering technician might be a good option. These workers typically have associate's degrees and work under the supervision of engineers. According to a 2011 report by the BLS, technicians in this field earned average wages of about $57,000. Though the BLS predicted little or no job growth for this occupation from 2010-2020, demand for workers in the computer systems design industry should be high.

Industrial Production Manager

Production managers oversee the operations of manufacturing plants. If running the whole show appeals to you, this might be an avenue to pursue. You can enter this field with a bachelor's degree in business administration or industrial engineering. Employers at large plants may prefer candidates with an MBA. According to the BLS's 2011 report, production managers earned average wages of about $96,400. With many manufacturing sectors experiencing slow growth or decline due to global competition, the profession may experience slower-than-average job growth. The BLS predicted a 9% increase in jobs from 2010-2020.

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