An accredited degree or postgraduate qualification, alongside practical hands-on experience is key to a career as a control and instrumentation engineer

Control and instrumentation engineers (C&I engineers) are responsible for designing, developing, installing, managing and maintaining equipment which is used to monitor and control engineering systems, machinery and processes.

Your job is to make sure that these systems and processes operate effectively, efficiently and safely.

You might work for companies who manufacture and supply the equipment or for the companies who use it, such as nuclear and renewable energy companies and environmental agencies.

You will need a thorough understanding of the operational processes of an organisation as your role is multidisciplinary, working closely with colleagues across a number of functions, including operations, purchasing and design.

Responsibilities

You will need to develop skills in specific control disciplines such as:

  • advanced process control (APC)
  • distributed control systems (DCS)
  • programmable logic controllers (PLC)
  • supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA).

The use of these disciplines will depend on the exact nature of your individual job. In general however, tasks and responsibilities can include:

  • designing and developing new control systems
  • testing, maintaining and modifying existing systems
  • analysing data and presenting findings in written reports
  • managing operations
  • working collaboratively with design engineers, operation engineers, purchasers and other internal staff
  • liaising with clients, suppliers, contractors and relevant authorities (e.g. the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority)
  • project management within cost and time constrained environments
  • understanding and ensuring compliance with relevant health and safety regulations and quality standards
  • providing advice and consultancy support
  • purchasing equipment
  • writing computer software and test procedures
  • developing new business proposals.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for graduates entering control and instrumentation engineering range from £20,000 to £25,000.
  • With a few years' experience salaries of £25,000 to £40,000 can be achieved.
  • At a senior level and with chartered status salaries are in the region of £40,000 to £75,000. Directors, particularly in the nuclear or oil and gas sectors, can earn more than this.

Salary levels vary according to the size of the organisation, industry sector and geographical location. Additional benefits may be offered such as a pension scheme and company car.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

It's normal to work irregular hours, as you may need to be on-call or on standby to deal with faults which occur at the plant or site. Additional overtime payments, or an on-call allowance, may be incorporated into the annual salary.

Part-time work may be possible. Self-employment is also an option with considerable experience, although this is most likely to be in consultancy or contract work.

What to expect

  • Your work may be based in an office, laboratory or factory, depending on the nature of the organisation.
  • Visiting clients and working on-site is a common aspect of the work.
  • Some positions may carry high levels of responsibility and may be stressful, particularly at a very senior level, where accountability lies directly with the C&I engineer. Similarly, C&I engineers often have to work under pressure, to tight deadlines and within budget.
  • There are far fewer women than men working in C&I engineering, as in the engineering sector in general. However, organisations such as WISE aim to redress the imbalance by promoting women in science, technology and engineering.
  • Power generation and renewable energy research are growing sectors, which means there are good opportunities for C&I engineers.
  • Positions are available across the UK and opportunities to work overseas are widely available, particularly within the oil and gas industry or with global pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies.
  • Some locations may be remote or hostile, particularly within the oil and gas sector, but greatly increased salaries and a range of benefits are often used to attract employees and contractors to these areas.

Qualifications

Specific degrees in control and instrumentation engineering are available and are typically four years in length and lead to an MEng qualification.

Electrical and electronic engineering degrees are also popular with C&I engineers and may include specific C&I elements or modules.

There are other engineering, technical and scientific degrees that are considered appropriate training, these include:

  • applied physics or physics
  • chemical engineering
  • computer engineering
  • mechanical engineering
  • systems engineering.

It is useful if your degree is accredited by one of the professional engineering institutions, such as the:

This can help you to achieve the status of a chartered engineer at a later date.

If your undergraduate degree did not include control engineering content, some employers may ask for a relevant postgraduate qualification such as an MSc in Control Systems or Advanced Control and Systems Engineering. You may be able to enquire about funding through EPSRC - Funding.

C&I engineering is open to you if you have an HND but you may need to consider entry at technician level only. A degree is often required for progression to professional engineer status and senior levels. It may be possible to complete further qualifications part time while working, with the support of your employer. The following HND subjects are particularly relevant:

  • computer-aided engineering/computer engineering
  • electrical engineering
  • electronics.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • creative problem-solving and troubleshooting skills
  • excellent critical thinking skills and a high level of numeracy
  • good communication and interpersonal skills
  • strong teamworking skills, with an ability to motivate others and to lead or manage teams and projects
  • flexibility and an ability to compromise
  • a willingness to accept responsibility and make decisions
  • a high level of attention to detail
  • excellent customer care skills and good commercial awareness
  • an understanding of, and ability to work with, high-level computer technology.

Work experience

Regardless of the level of entry, your work experience is as valuable in this sector as in any other. Many large employers offer structured internship programmes and vacation placement schemes. These provide an excellent insight into the nature of the work and are often hands-on. You should apply early, as places are limited and competition is strong.

Some degree courses offer a year in industry, which really helps to demonstrate what the career will be like, as well as making some good contacts for future job prospects. Your course tutors or careers service should be able to help set this up.

Work shadowing a C&I engineer may also be useful, as it shows interest and commitment.

Employers

As a control and instrumentation engineer your skills will be in demand in a range of engineering sectors including:

  • automotive
  • construction
  • rail
  • telecommunications.

The most widely recognised recruiters of C&I engineers, however, are the following types of organisations:

  • chemical engineering
  • fast moving consumer goods (FMCG)
  • manufacturing
  • oil and gas/power generation/energy
  • pharmaceutical
  • utilities.

Other sectors include aerospace, marine, materials and defence engineering, and environmental agencies.

C&I engineers are also employed by companies who produce control and instrumentation equipment.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

You will need to have a good understanding of the main processes of the organisation employing you.

For this reason, initial training is usually in-house and involves an introduction to various operations and training on manufacturing processes, testing, quality standards, assembly and installation, all specific to the company. This training is usually conducted by senior engineers.

Most engineers work towards achieving professional engineer status, typically becoming a chartered engineer (CEng). This is an internationally-recognised engineering qualification, which is awarded by the Engineering Council. CEng status provides higher earning potential and improved career prospects.

To become chartered you need to be a member of a professional institution to be able to apply through them for registration.

Relevant engineering bodies include:

  • Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)
  • Institute of Measurement and Control (InstMC).

The process of becoming chartered is more straightforward if you have certain academic qualifications, which include:

  • an accredited degree in engineering or technology, plus an appropriate Masters degree or engineering doctorate (EngD) that is accredited by a professional institution
  • or an accredited integrated MEng degree.

Details of accredited degrees are available at Engineering Council - Accredited Course Search.

It is still possible to become chartered without these qualifications but you may need to take a different route.

All candidates must also demonstrate the required professional competencies and commitment as set out in the UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence (UK-SPEC).

The InstMC and IET provide training in the form of workshops, lectures and events. Membership offers you additional benefits such as access to conferences, networks and news bulletins. Professional bodies also support continuing professional development (CPD), which is important for all C&I engineers.

Many companies offer sponsorship for postgraduate study, part-time PhDs, technical qualifications, MBAs and other qualifications. Search for postgraduate courses in control and instrumentation engineering.

Career prospects

As a C&I engineer you will progress through your career typically acquiring specialist knowledge of a particular industry sector and/or area of C&I knowledge.

You may work towards professional registration such as incorporated engineer (IEng) or chartered engineer (CEng) depending on your level of qualification, and this can aid career progression.

In more senior roles you may lead a team or manage test programmes. Senior positions carry the highest level of responsibility and typically include planning and management activities, as well as leading new developments. Senior engineers in production and operation functions can often be representatives at board level.

Given the multidisciplinary nature of the role, working closely with colleagues across all functions and acquiring skills in a range of areas, you may choose to move sideways into other career areas either within or outside the industry. This could include areas such as:

  • finance
  • general management
  • HR
  • IT
  • marketing
  • purchasing
  • sales.

It may be possible to draw upon your experience to pursue consultancy-based work, or to engage in academic research in universities or undertake work as a lecturer or trainer.