Systems engineers are among the most elite engineering professions, not least of all because they bring together concepts and perspectives from numerous engineering disciplines to achieve their results. They may work in such complex and highly sensitive disciplines as spacecraft development, microcomputer design and civil infrastructure construction, and their skills extend from advanced mathematics and logistics to strategies for efficient project management.
While their job responsibilities often depend on their specialty, systems engineers typically perform all the following tasks in the course of their work.
- Evaluating current systems to identify areas for improvement.
- Developing systems that increase efficiency within an organization.
- Working with computer software and other tools to create designs.
- Coordinating efforts with other members of a team.
As members of a multidisciplinary field, systems engineers may make use of aspects of industrial engineering, mechanical engineering, organizational consulting, electrical and electronics engineering or other technical approaches.
A systems engineer combines all of these disciplines and more in order to provide companies and manufacturers with the tools and information they need to improve efficiency and manage large projects without creating schedule conflicts, manpower shortfalls or infrastructure problems.
How Much do Systems Engineer Make?
Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not individually itemize systems engineer job statistics or provide a figure for the average systems engineer salary in 2014, they do provide national mean annual salary numbers in a variety of related fields:
- Computer hardware engineers: $110,650
- Electrical engineers: $95,780
- Materials engineers: $91,150
- Civil engineers: $87,130
- Environmental engineers: $86,340
- Industrial engineers: $85,110
Systems engineers with a background in any combination of these fields are likely to earn well above the average yearly salary for the individual segment, due to their additional expertise and ability to synthesize ideas across disciplines.
Not all geographic regions of the country are created equal, of course, and systems engineers who find work in states with more affordable general living expenses will see every dollar of their salary stretch a little bit further. Here are a few states with a history of big industry and a cost of living score on the affordable side of the spectrum, according the first quarter 2015 Cost of Living Index (COLI) published by the Center for Community and Economic Research:
- Kentucky: ranked 5th in affordability; contains some of the largest coal mines in the country
- Michigan: ranked 8th in affordability; still produces more automobiles than any other U.S. state
- Texas: ranked 13th in affordability; home to petroleum refineries, drilling operations and large construction projects
Systems engineers with a passion for electronics and microcomputer systems are likely to find the highest-paying jobs in California, but the COLI indicates the Golden State is one of the three most expensive areas in the country to live.
Occupational Requirements and Job Types for Systems Engineers
These professionals often start out with similar engineering or computer science degrees, but they can be found working in a diverse array of fields. Systems engineers may have jobs that fall into the following sectors among others:
- Information technology
- Industrial manufacturing
- Materials transportation
- Business administration
Successful systems engineers are skilled at observing, integrating, and adapting the circumstances of any project to improve efficiency, reduce risk and waste, and get work completed on time while shoring up a company's bottom line.
Systems engineer training can often be found online, typically at the graduate level. Individual courses may be available for engineers considering a career shift who want to see what it's all about, and certain colleges and universities offer graduate certificates as well as full-fledged master's degrees in the discipline.
Most schools believe that a foundation in mechanical, industrial, computer, or electrical engineering is necessary to provide the practical basis for expertise in systems engineering. Continuing education programs are a popular choice for practicing engineers already in the workforce, and may be found through schools that offer systems engineer training online.