Interested in communications technologies? Innovative and quick to problem-solve? A career in communications engineering could be for you
Communications engineers work within a number of industries, including:
- internet and computing technologies
- networking and telecommunications
Some engineers concentrate on applying technical knowledge, while others focus on managerial activities. Many posts include elements of both managerial and technical responsibilities.
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.
As a communications engineer, your responsibilities are likely to include:
- carrying out site surveys
- travelling to meet suppliers, customers and colleagues based in other offices
- negotiating product requirements with customers
- providing technical guidance to colleagues and other teams
- finding creative solutions to the challenges of network design, mobile communications, data service requirements and internet and network signalling protocols
- testing theoretical designs
- attending conferences and seminars to network and keep up to date with the latest developments in the sector
- liaising with internal and external customers
- analysing and interpreting data to inform your work
- working to tight timescales as part of a high-performing team
- arranging process meetings
- rewriting or modifying processes to ensure all aspects of the service run smoothly and to schedule.
The management aspects of the work involve:
- managing projects and attending regular meetings to discuss the best way to move projects forward
- participating in conference calls and meetings to discuss products, action plans and team performance
- attending briefings on new networks and new products
- managing resources, including budgets, physical resources and staff
- preparing high-quality written reports and presentations for management and customer review
- ensuring that projects are delivered on time, within budget and to agreed standards of quality.
- 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 £45,000. Those with chartered status or in senior roles can earn in excess of £60,000.
Benefits vary between employers and may include share-related benefits or profit-share schemes, discounted products and a company pension scheme.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
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 for those with 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 dependant 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 there are 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.
Employers typically look for graduates with a degree in engineering or in a physical science, particularly:
- computer science
- electronic and communication engineering
- electronic engineering
- information technology
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.
It is not essential to have a postgraduate qualification to become a communications engineer, but it may be useful and could help with future career development. Masters degrees in communication engineering are available.
If you're interested in becoming a chartered engineer later in your career, it's useful to have a degree and Masters (or integrated MEng degree) under your belt, accredited by a professional body such as the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).
Details of accredited courses are available at Engineering Council - Accredited Course Search.
You will 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:
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 is usually a strong link between placement schemes and graduate recruitment programmes, so if you make an outstanding contribution when you are on placement, you could leave with a conditional job offer.
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.
Self-employment and freelance work is possible for anyone with several years' relevant experience and a network of contacts.
Look for job vacancies at:
Specialist recruitment agencies 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.
Most large firms offer structured training and encourage professional development. Usually, firms offer in-service training and short courses for specific needs. Your in-house training may include placements in different departments to broaden your experience.
Some employers are unable to provide a broad training experience themselves, so it's worth checking what arrangements they have 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 will also need to demonstrate that you are 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).
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.
As your career progresses, you will 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 are 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 marketplace in which engineers operate.
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.