Interested in communications technologies? Innovative and quick to problem-solve? Consider a career in communications engineering

As a communications engineer you could work within a number of industries, including:

  • internet and computing technologies
  • networking and telecommunications
  • radio.

Many posts include elements of both managerial and technical responsibilities but it's also possible for you to focus on just one of these areas.

The technical aspect of the role includes using specialist knowledge to design and deliver solutions, as well as providing technical guidance to others within the employing organisation.

Managerial responsibilities involve planning and managing projects, ensuring that they're delivered on time, within budget and to the agreed standards of quality.

Responsibilities

As a communications engineer, you'll need to:

  • carry out site surveys
  • travel to meet suppliers, customers and colleagues based in other offices
  • negotiate product requirements with customers
  • provide technical guidance to colleagues and other teams
  • find creative solutions to the challenges of network design, mobile communications, data service requirements and internet and network signalling protocols
  • test theoretical designs
  • liaise with internal and external customers
  • analyse and interpret data to inform your work
  • work to tight timescales as part of a high-performing team
  • arrange process meetings
  • rewrite or modify processes to ensure all aspects of the service run smoothly and to schedule
  • attend conferences and seminars to network and keep up to date with the latest developments in the sector.

If you have management responsibilities, you'll need to:

  • manage projects and attend regular meetings to discuss products, action plans and team performance
  • attend briefings on new networks and new products
  • manage resources, including budgets, physical resources and staff
  • prepare high-quality written reports and presentations for management and customer review
  • ensure that projects are delivered on time, within budget and to agreed standards of quality.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for communications engineers at a graduate or trainee level range from £22,000 to £28,000.
  • With experience, salaries can rise to £35,000 to £55,000.
  • Those with chartered status or in senior roles can earn in excess of £60,000.

Benefits vary between employers and may include profit-share schemes, discounted products and a company pension scheme.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically 9am to 5pm. Extra hours are sometimes required, particularly in more senior positions. Flexible working is sometimes an option.

Self-employment as a consultant is possible once you've built up experience and the necessary network of contacts. Career breaks are possible, especially if you've been working for the same company for a few years.

What to expect

  • The job may feel stressful, as individuals and companies will be so dependent on your communications.
  • Work is office based, with opportunities available in most major cities and towns across the UK.
  • Women are currently underrepresented in this area of work but initiatives such as Women's Engineering Society (WES) and WISE are in place to encourage more women into the industry.
  • A certain amount of travel within the UK is likely, for meetings or site visits, for example.
  • Overseas work is sometimes possible and there are opportunities for overseas secondments.

Qualifications

Employers typically look for graduates with a degree in engineering or in a physical science, particularly:

  • computer science
  • computer/software engineering
  • electronic and communication engineering
  • electronic engineering
  • information technology
  • mathematics
  • physics
  • telecommunications.

Entry with an HND in a relevant engineering subject may be possible at the level of technician. You can then choose to top-up to a degree in order to work towards the role of engineer.

A postgraduate qualification isn't essential to become a communications engineer, but it may be useful and could help with future career development. Masters degrees in communication engineering are available.

It's useful if your first degree or Masters is accredited by a relevant professional body, such as the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), as this can make achieving the status of incorporated engineer (IEng) or chartered engineer (CEng) more straightforward at a later date. Details of accredited courses are available at Engineering Council - Accredited Course Search.

Skills

You'll need to show:

  • technical ability and knowledge
  • a good understanding of networks
  • organisational skills
  • adaptability and the ability to learn new skills quickly
  • good presentation and communication skills
  • the ability to work efficiently and effectively with minimal supervision
  • the capability to concentrate under pressure in order to meet tight deadlines
  • analytical and problem-solving skills
  • business/commercial awareness
  • the ability to work well within a team
  • project and people management skills.

Work in sensitive, security-related industries may require you to pass strict security clearances.

Competition can be fierce, particularly for structured graduate-training schemes, so it's important to have skills or experience that will make your application stand out. Student membership of the IET provides access to current industry information, including new developments in the industry, regular newsletters and access to networks and contacts.

Reading industry resources helps you to keep up-to-date with the latest news and opinion in the field. Relevant titles include:

Work experience

Relevant pre-entry work experience through a vacation placement or industrial year out is valuable. Work experience provides the opportunity to work on real projects, show your potential, build up a network of contacts and develop a range of business and specialist skills.

There's usually a strong link between placement schemes and graduate recruitment programmes, so if you make an outstanding contribution when you're on placement you could leave with a conditional job offer.

For information on the types of work experience available and how to get it, see IET - Work Experience.

Employers

The main employers of communications engineers are the leading telecommunications companies. Vacancies can also be found in the public sector and in small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that specialise in communications technology.

In-house posts can be found with:

  • equipment manufacturers and installers of communication devices/systems
  • technical services companies
  • large government departments
  • local authorities
  • transport providers.

Another option is to work with small telecommunications consultancies.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies, such as Matchtech, may handle vacancies.

Networking is important, so make sure you establish contacts during any vacation or placement work. Making contacts at employer presentations and engineering career fairs can also be productive.

Self-employment and freelance work is possible once you have several years' relevant experience and a network of contacts.

Professional development

It's likely you'll carry out some on-the-job training and may be offered the chance to work in various departments to broaden your experience and knowledge of the company.

Depending on the size of your employer, you may get to attend external courses as well and be given the chance to carry out professional development activities. Training can vary widely between employers so it's worth checking what arrangements are in place.

You may decide to work towards gaining incorporated (IEng) or chartered (CEng) engineer status, which is awarded by the Engineering Council. This can provide you with higher earning potential and improved career prospects.

You will need to be a member of a professional institution, such as the IET, so that you can apply through them for professional registration.

The process of getting IEng or CEng status is more straightforward if you have accredited qualifications but it is still possible to achieve without. You'll also need to demonstrate that you're working at a particular level and have the required professional competences and commitment, as set out in the UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence (UK-SPEC). Find out more at Engineering Council - Professional Registration.

You may wish to study for an IT qualification in your specialist field. For example, a range of relevant qualifications which are widely recognised in the industry are available from Cisco. Employers will sometimes pay for courses or you can take them independently.

Career prospects

As your career progresses, you'll take on a more senior role with greater responsibility for other staff and larger projects and budgets.

To progress in the profession, it's becoming increasingly important to achieve professional CEng status. This is an internationally recognised qualification, which shows you're capable of working at a particular level. It's likely that in your role you'll be problem-solving, making key contributions through innovation, and promoting advanced methods and techniques. More information is available at Engineering Council - Chartered Engineer.

Once you have become chartered, you will be eligible to apply for European Engineer (EUR ING) status, which is recognised across the continent. This, along with a second language, is a great advantage for you to have when entering the increasingly global engineering marketplace.

Engineers with professional status are likely to pursue roles at a more senior level. If you do not want to be involved in management, you can develop your technical knowledge and become a specialist, start your own company, get involved in training or work as a contractor/consultant.

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