Computer Hardware Engineers

Computer hardware engineers design, develop, and supervise the production and installation of computer hardware. Computer hardware includes keyboards, modems, printers, computer systems, chips, and circuit boards. Computer software engineers develop programs that control computer operation. Computer hardware engineers have similar duties as electronics engineers, but hardware engineers focus exclusively on computer technology.

Job Duties
The duties of a computer hardware engineer include:

  • Designing blueprints of new computer equipment, and creating new hardware
  • Making models of new hardware designs, and testing those models
  • Analyzing the results of these tests, and making any necessary adjustments to the design
  • Upgrading current computer equipment and maximizing compatibility with new software
  • Supervising the manufacturing of new computer hardware

Computer hardware engineers make sure that hardware components are compatible with current software. Hardware engineers must therefore work closely with the developers of this software. Developers of smartphone applications, for example, would need to be in close communication with hardware engineers, in order to determine what software the phone is capable of running.

Work Environment
The majority of computer hardware engineers do their work in research laboratories (often as part of a high-tech manufacturing firm), designing and testing new kinds of computers. Some engineers work for the federal government, others work for research and development firms, or computer systems design firms. Over 90% of hardware engineers work in highly populated urban areas.

Computer hardware engineers hold over 70,000 jobs. The following table shows the industries which employ the most computer hardware engineers, as well as the distribution of engineers among those industries:

  • Computer and electronic product manufacturing – 35%
  • Computer systems design and related services – 19%
  • Scientific research and development services – 11%
  • Federal government – 7%

How to Become a Computer Hardware Engineer
A bachelor's degree in computer engineering is typically required to become a computer hardware engineer; however, a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering is also acceptable. The two majors--electrical engineering and computer engineering--are quite similar, but computer engineering students take more courses in computer science.

Programs in engineering should be evaluated by ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). Graduates of these accredited programs are more attractive to employers. Students who wish to enroll in these programs should prepare by studying science and math.

Computer hardware engineers work closely with both hardware and software. Students would therefore benefit greatly by taking courses in computer sciences, which offer training in computer programming. Many colleges and universities offer internships or co-ops, which provide the student with on-the-job training while finishing his or her degree.

Master's degrees in computer engineering are required by certain firms, or for more technical jobs. It is also common for engineers to obtain an MBA (Master of Business Administration) degree. Because technology evolves so quickly, engineers must continually further their education throughout their careers in order to keep up with the rapid pace of change.

The median salary of a computer hardware engineer is more than $98,000 a year. The median salary is the salary at which 50% of the workers earned more and 50% earned less. The lowest 10% of engineers earn less than $62,000 a year, and the highest 10% earn more than $147,000 a year.

The following table shows the industries which employ the most computer hardware engineers, as well as the median salary of engineers in those industries:

  • Federal government – $102,950
  • Computer and electronic product manufacturing – $101,320
  • Computer systems design and related services – $98,860
  • Scientific research and development services – $92,080

Computer hardware engineers typically work 40 hours a week. Roughly 25% of engineers work more than this.

Job Outlook
It's estimated that job prospects for computer hardware engineers will grow by 9% in the next decade. This growth is slower than usual, when compared with the average occupation. The need for hardware engineers is increasing slowly because the majority of computer advances are now occurring in the realm of software rather than hardware. Job prospects will also be hindered by competition from foreign countries. However, many household appliances, automobiles, and medical devices are now embedded with special microchips, a developing technology which will require the expertise of computer hardware engineers.

Manufacturers are tending to outsource hardware design, which will create more job opportunities in computer consulting firms. As a result, hardware engineers will be able to collaborate more easily with software developers in the design process.

Engineers who have graduated from an ABET-accredited degree program will be at a distinct advantage when searching for jobs. Engineers with graduate degrees and practical experience will be in the best position of all, in terms of opportunities.

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