Electrical Engineers Lured by Systems Engineering Career Salary

Electrical engineers, magazine designers and others are enduring sour salary prospects, while closely related fields experience sharp improvements. Is it time to switch industries?

Sometimes two adjoining industries will experience vastly different prospects. How can you adjust your search to improve your odds?

Case in point: Electrical engineers face a dismal job market. Job growth in the field is currently stagnant and is projected to grow only 2 percent in the next six years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), barely enough to keep pace with demand for the career. Earning potential and opportunity for advancement are expected to match that snail’s pace.

Now consider the outlook for systems engineers, professionals with a similar skill set who are considered to hold the best job in America, according to a recent survey by CNNMoney/PayScale.com. They beat IT project managers, certified public accountant, attorneys and physicians on the list of 50 best professions based on salary and growth prospects.

Electrical engineers, magazine designers, packaging and shipping executives, and many other industries are enduring slow or negative growth in salaries and prospects, while closely related fields experience sharp improvements. How can they move to those greener pastures?

For electrical engineers hoping to adapt to systems engineering, conversion will take a bit of education but not necessarily a new degree. That makes it a managable mid-career transition, said Clive Chittister, president of the IEEE Systems Council.

“Systems engineering is growing because systems are becoming more complex and require more attention to how the system will function,” Chittister said. “Look at cell phones, computer games, functionality in automobiles, electronics in homes, etc. All of these advances require systems engineering.”

“I think it’s a great time for people to move to systems engineering,” he said. “Technology will continue to advance, but how we use it will be a systems-engineering issue.”

Systems engineers focus on the design and management of complex engineering projects. Rather than just focusing on a specific technology, people in this field are an essential part of the development cycle, addressing customer needs and a product’s required functionality. They are concerned with the entire product life cycle – including operations, costs, scheduling, performance, testing, manufacturing and more. It’s an integrated approach that considers technical, business and end-user needs.

The field is expanding to meet the demands of new production processes, but growth is further fueled by the graying of the current workforce as systems engineers retire and leave employers without their years of understanding and knowledge, Chittister said. “Systems engineering is highly influenced by experience,” he said. “So, as people get older and leave the work force, it’s leaving a gap with people with the right kind of experience.”

Can you be a systems engineer?

The transition doesn’t necessarily require an educational regimen, said Bob Rassa, director of engineering programs at Raytheon SAS. The discipline requires a different approach more than different skills, he said.

“All good systems engineers have the capability to do what we call ‘systems thinking,” or the ability to approach problems from a holistic point of view,” Rassa said. “This means that basically all systems engineers start out as design engineers and gravitate to systems engineering because of their innate ability to do systems thinking.”

Beyond that, Rassa said, “systems engineers have a strong background in at least two disciplines or domain applications,” covering environment, functionality, components, interconnections and dependability constraints.

To make the move from design to system engineering, Rassa recommended finding a senior systems engineer to act as your mentor. “In parallel,” he said, “sign up for your company’s SE internal course, if offered, or sign up for continuing education or your masters in SE.”

If you need more education, “take a general course in systems engineering,” said Stephanie M. White, professor of computer science and management engineering at Long Island University. With that grounding, she said, you can move on to “more detailed courses in requirements elicitation, definition and management, system modeling (e.g. using SysML), and system integration. Understanding prototyping and simulation would be very helpful,” she said.

What makes a systems engineer job applicant attractive to a hiring manager? Most important, “having performed system engineering on another project,” said White. Domain experience in the type of job for which you are applying is also important.

Depending on your experience, transitioning from electrical engineering or computer programming to systems engineering could be a leap you’re ready to make right away, or it could be achieved with a year or two of planning, these experts said.