Hardware Engineer

What Do Computer Hardware Engineers Do?

Computer hardware engineers create the physical components that make computers run. They routinely design new hardware systems, test their designs, analyze the results of their tests, and manage the manufacturing of their completed projects. When new software changes users’ needs, these professionals redesign hardware to work with the new programs. Candidates typically need at least a bachelor’s degree to land hardware computer engineering jobs.

Most hardware engineers work for computer companies and component manufacturers. Some work for research organizations or government employers, as well. For the most part, these professionals work full-time with typical office hours. In this era of quick computer advancement, hardware engineers enjoy opportunities to work on exciting emerging technology. For example, some design artificial intelligence and virtual reality machines. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects slower-than-average growth for this profession in the coming decade; thus, the field is extremely competitive, so candidates must set themselves apart with excellent academic performance and certifications.

Key Skills

Hardware engineers must cultivate many technical talents, including several programming languages, to succeed. PayScale reports that computer hardware engineers often need skills in Verilog, C, C++, Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA), engineering design, and board design. Students usually learn these skills in bachelor’s programs. Some graduates also earn certification in these skills, demonstrating mastery to potential employers. Applicants with demonstrated expertise in these areas have a leg up on the competition and often demand higher earning potential.

Verilog

This hardware description language remains the industry standard for electronic systems. Hardware engineers use it to design digital, analog, and mixed-signal circuits. Students usually learn this skill in school. Those who need further training in the language can pursue it through online learning sites and professional organizations.

C

As one of the first computer programming languages students learn, the C programming language allows engineers to issue commands to their hardware. Computer hardware engineers often use this skill in testing and analyzing during development. Computer engineering programs typically include introductory courses in C.

C++

This language is an object-oriented programming language, building on the foundations of C. Though more difficult to learn than C, C++ allows computer hardware engineers to design and test a wider variety of systems. Learners can learn the language through official college programs or from online resources. Some professional organizations offer C++ certifications.

Field-Programmable Gate Array

Consumers and designers can program these circuits after manufacturing them. Typically, these circuits use hardware descriptions languages, such as Verilog. Computer hardware engineers may design FPGA circuits specifically, or use them in larger designs. Universities, private companies, professional organizations, and online learning resources offer FPGA training and certifications.

Engineering Design

Engineering design marks a core difference between computer engineering and computer science. Computer engineers must use design methods, problem-solving, and logic skills to design machinery. Students develop this essential skill during their undergraduate studies. Graduates can use portfolios and projects to demonstrate their engineering design skills.

Board Design

When employers and universities refer to board design skills, they usually mean printed circuit boards. These circuits connect the mechanical and electrical components of computers. Hardware engineers should be proficient in designing, testing, and analyzing these boards. Bachelor’s degree candidates often take several classes focused on printed circuit boards.

How Much Do Computer Hardware Engineers Make?

National averages provide a general idea of engineering salaries, but engineers’ earning potential depends on several factors. For example, hardware engineers in California, Virginia, and Maryland earn more on average than their peers in other states. The industry in which engineers work also affects salaries. Professionals in electronic component manufacturing tend to earn the highest wages. Advanced degrees can also increase earning potential. PayScale reports that graduates with bachelor’s degrees in computer engineering earn $82,000 per year on average, while those with master’s degrees make about $98,000. The chart below demonstrates how professional experience can also affect earning potential.

Average Salary of Computer Hardware Engineers by Job Level

Entry-Level (0-5 Years) $65,000
Mid-Career (5-10 Years) $85,000
Experienced (10-20 Years) $113,000

Source: PayScale

How Do I Become a Computer Hardware Engineer?

Earn Your Degree

Most employers in the computer hardware engineering field require entry-level applicants to hold bachelor’s degrees. Candidates may meet this requirement by obtaining a nominal degree in computer hardware engineering, but many employers also consider graduates with their bachelor’s in computer science or electrical engineering. Graduates with these degrees may consider earning certification to demonstrate their mastery of hardware engineering.

Graduate degrees allow professionals to specialize in specific areas, such as microsystems technology and hardware security. These concentrations allow professionals to fill high-demand positions. Some students earn doctorates in subjects like robotics and bioengineering. Such fields rely on computer hardware engineering, but take it to the next level with innovation and programming.

Students may pursue both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer engineering online. Some universities offer hybrid programs, in which learners must attend labs on-campus. Fully online programs use simulated laboratories for these tasks instead. Online degree candidates may also need to construct projects at home.

Gain Experience

While in school, learners can compile portfolios through projects and labs to help build their resumes. For example, circuits labs and classes help degree candidates hone their board engineering skills, and students who complete projects in their labs may outline their accomplishments, methods, and results in their portfolios. These pages may also include pictures and feedback from professors.

Internships also allow learners to gain hands-on experience. Major technology corporations often offer internships to qualified candidates. Interns work side-by-side with experienced professionals to gain insight into their responsibilities and methods. Students may also participate in competitions related to their degrees, such as robotics competitions, to further build their portfolios. Certification courses can also round out resumes for entry-level candidates.

Earn Credentials

New computer hardware engineers can qualify for their first jobs with degrees and experience, but recent graduates often struggle to obtain professional experience. Those who failed to complete internships or who need an extra boost can earn specialized credentials to add to their resumes. Certifications represent the most recognizable credentials for these professionals. Candidates can earn certifications through professional organizations and universities.

Graduates should choose their certifications based on their skill sets and positions of choice. For example, prospective cybersecurity professionals can earn certifications like the Certified Computer Security Incident Handler credential. Learners use their degree knowledge in certification exams, or to take courses online to develop the skills for their desired career paths. Some manufacturers and tech companies, including Microsoft and Cisco, offer certifications in their products. Employers who work exclusively with technologies from these companies highly value such credentials.

Types of Careers in Computer Hardware Engineering

Learners who major in computer hardware engineering can pursue work in the same field, or they can opt for a different career path. Some hardware engineering graduates choose to work in aerospace engineering, for example. As aircraft vehicles continue to add computing, these two fields intertwine more and more. Other recent graduates find work in electrical or electronics engineering. The processes for designing, testing, analyzing, and manufacturing pieces remain the same for electronics engineering as they would for hardware engineering. Electrical engineers simply apply these methods to different products.

Computer Hardware Engineer

These engineers design the physical parts inside computers. They may concentrate on creating routers, processors, networks, memory devices, or circuit boards. While most employers require candidates to hold bachelor’s degrees, some only hire computer hardware engineers with graduate diplomas or specialized training. The BLS projects an average growth rate for this career.

Median Annual Salary

$115,120

Degree Level and Experience Required

Bachelor’s degree; entry-level

Computer and Information Research Scientists

Computer research scientists work in academia to develop new methods for using computing technology. Workers in essential fields like business and healthcare rely on the research these scientists conduct. These professionals must earn master’s degrees or doctorates to obtain the proper skills for their career. The BLS projects an above-average growth rate for these positions.

Median Annual Salary

$114,520

Degree Level and Experience Required

Master’s degree; entry-level

Electrical and Electronics Engineers

These professionals design and test electrical components like motors, power generators, and GPS machines. Just as learners who study electrical engineering can work as computer hardware engineers, the reverse holds true. Electrical and electronics engineers typically work in office settings, but visit clients to see equipment up close. The BLS projects average growth for this field.

Median Annual Salary

$97,970

Degree Level and Experience Required

Bachelor’s degree; entry-level

Computer and Information Systems Managers

Some computer hardware engineers work up the corporate ladder to position themselves as managers. Engineers typically need at least five years of entry-level experience to qualify for these jobs. Managers set budgets, goals, and deadlines for teams of engineers and computer scientists. The BLS projects faster growth for these managers than for computer hardware engineers.

Median Annual Salary

$139,220

Degree Level and Experience Required

Bachelor’s degree; at least five years of experience

Aerospace Engineers

Aerospace engineers work on vehicles that fly and enter orbit, including airplanes, satellites, spaceships, and missiles. These responsibilities differ from designing computers, but the two engineering fields often overlap. Aerospace engineers must earn at least a bachelor’s degree, but many employers require candidates to hold graduate degrees.

Median Annual Salary

$113,030

Degree Level and Experience Required

Bachelor’s degree; entry-level

Some computer hardware engineering students continue on to graduate school. Successful candidates may become computer researchers, who remain in high demand and earn similar salaries as their engineering peers. Even without master’s degrees, computer hardware engineers can move up in their careers and work as computer systems managers. These well-paid professionals oversee teams of engineers and IT workers.

Where Can I Work as a Computer Hardware Engineer?

Jobs for computer hardware engineers prove relatively scarce across the United States, with most computer hardware engineers concentrated in regions that host major manufacturing and technology companies. The computer systems design sector employs the largest number of hardware engineers. Moreover, most computer hardware engineers work full-time rather than as contractors, freelancers, or part-time employees.

Locations

Companies in some metropolitan areas pay hardware engineers above-average wages to recruit the best talent possible. Many of these high-paying areas also employ some of the most advanced engineers. Since computer hardware engineers rarely work remotely, it’s crucial for candidates to consider the base computer engineering salary along with the local cost of living. For example, the median wage for these professionals in the San Francisco area is $32,260 per year higher than the national median. However, PayScale reports that the average cost of living in this region is 80% higher than the national average.

Metropolitan Areas With the Highest Employment Level of Computer Hardware Engineers

Location Employment Median Salary
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California 9,790 $145,870
San Diego-Carlsbad, California 2,440 $129,450
San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, California Metropolitan Division 2,200 $147,380
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV Metropolitan Division 1,950 $130,340
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, California Metropolitan Division 1,840 $133,700

Source: BLS

Top-Paying Metropolitan Areas for Computer Hardware Engineers

Location Employment Median Salary
San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, California Metropolitan Division 2,200 $147,380
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California 9,790 $145,870
Anchorage, Alaska 70 $141,740
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, California Metropolitan Division 1,840 $133,700
Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, Washington Metropolitan Division 1,110 $130,440

Source: BLS

Settings

Computer hardware engineers work for several types of employers across a few industries. Professionals in computer systems design must hold foundational knowledge of software, as they often work with programmers. Hardware engineers in computer equipment or semiconductor manufacturing benefit from developing project management skills, because they oversee designs through the manufacturing process. Those working for research firms often need master’s degrees, which help them gain research skills. Learners can sometimes work as research assistants while completing their graduate degrees. Finally, computer hardware engineers who work for the federal government must first pass rigorous background checks.

The Five Largest Employers of Computer Hardware Engineers

Setting Percent Employed Median Annual Salary
Computer Systems Design and Related Services 26 $114,030
Computer and Peripheral Equipment Manufacturing 14 $122,060
Semiconductor and Other Electronic Component Manufacturing 12 $130,150
Research and Development in the Physical, Engineering, and Life Sciences 9 $126,670
Federal Government 7 $111,550

Source: BLS

Continuing Education for Computer Hardware Engineers

Computer hardware engineers can choose between several types of certifications, depending on their professional experience and career aspirations. For example, engineers aiming to work with specific types of hardware in senior positions can earn credentials specifically for those products. Hardware engineers do not need to maintain certification for legal reasons, but continuing education can help candidates stay current on the latest technologies. Engineers can take online courses and examinations to earn these credentials. Some of these courses come from universities, but manufacturers themselves often offer them, as well. For example, Cisco provides online courses to prepare learners for the company’s certification exams.

How Do I Find a Job in Computer Hardware Engineering?

The BLS projects a below-average growth rate for computer hardware engineers, so entry-level jobs are very competitive. Recent graduates can start on their job search by connecting with other engineering professionals, such as those they met in prior internships. They can also attend jobs fairs, in which several employers set up booths and interview candidates. Professional organizations also provide new workers with opportunities for advancement. Some organizations offer career mentors, networking events, resume reviews, and interview practice, along with certification and continuing education opportunities to help candidates stand out.

Professional Resources for Computer Hardware Engineers

Professional Organizations

  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers The IEEE represents one of the largest organizations of its kind. Members access learning resources, including thousands of online courses, how-to videos, and certification practice exams. They also join an active networking community.
  • International Association of Computer Science and Information Technology This international organization brings members together once annually to learn and network. As engineers gain experience, they make presentations and lead discussions at the annual IACSIT conference.
  • Computing Research Association Researchers, industry professionals, and government officials join the CRA in support of computing innovation. Members also join the CRA’s subgroups, which include the consortiums for women and educators.
  • National Society of Professional Engineers The NSPE provides members with networking, continuing education, and seminars. Members also access the association’s publications, which cover topics like ethics and employment. The NSPE also advocates for engineers in legislative bodies.

Professional Development

  • Khan Academy This online learning resource allows professionals to develop a variety of new skills. Hardware engineers who want to transition to other similar careers can learn web development and data management through the Khan Academy.
  • Dash This free online course teaches learners from all backgrounds to develop websites. Dash students learn HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript. Each skill allows computer hardware professionals to test their creations.
  • Code Academy Students who use this online resource to learn coding may go on to work at major technology companies, including Facebook, IBM, and Google. Users take free courses in areas like web development, programming with computer science, and data management.
  • Study.com This site offers courses in subjects across the arts and sciences, including in computer engineering. Learners can brush up on their skills in microprocessors, circuits, digital systems, and computer architecture.

Finding a Job

  • NSPE Job Board Even nonmembers enjoy access to the NSPE’s extensive job board. Candidates can see new job postings, post their resumes, and find internships on this site. Job seekers can explore positions throughout the country, or set alerts for specific areas.
  • Engineering Jobs As the name suggests, this site contains job postings for engineers of all kinds. Engineering Jobs claims to be the most-visited job site of its kind, offering about 300,000 posts. Job-seekers filter their options by discipline, state, and city.
  • Indeed This massive employment site hosts job postings of all kinds. Candidates set alerts for the types of jobs they want, so they see new posts almost immediately, and apply quickly. Job-seekers also read company reviews from real employees, and post their resumes.
  • LinkedIn This platform offers job postings and networking, all in one. Candidates can follow companies to see postings first, connect with others in their fields, and see posts directly from hiring organizations. LinkedIn Premium costs users a fee, but offers additional networking benefits.

Continuing Education

  • Microsoft Certifications This technology giant offers continuing education courses and certifications in several areas. Hardware engineers can earn credentials in areas like business applications, data management, and mobility.
  • EC-Council This organization offers one of the most respected certifications in cybersecurity. Certified Incident Handlers tackle the many issues that come up when an organization suffers a data breach or cyber attack. Computer professionals earn this certification and work for consulting agencies or as contractors.
  • Cisco Certifications Because Cisco leads the industry in many communications technologies, certifications from the company look great on resumes. Professionals earn credentials in areas like cloud computing, routing and switching, wireless connections, and security.
  • IBM Certifications IBM offers exams in several high-demand computing skills. Experienced professionals can earn credentials in specific IBM technologies or in broader skills, like cloud integration. The company also hosts a knowledge center with exam preparation materials.