How to Become a Control Systems Engineer

Control systems engineering is a dynamic and innovative branch of the engineering industry whose growth is closely connected with our increased reliance on automation in our day to day life. As more and more of the world becomes digitised, more complex systems are required to manage everything from our everyday appliances to the devices that handle our money, personal data and security.

Becoming a control systems engineer puts you in the front seat of a lot of technical innovation and presents endless opportunities for problem solving and process optimisation. In this article, we break down what is involved in the role, the desirable skills of an engineer in systems and control engineering, and what qualifications are needed to start your career.

What is a Control Systems Engineer?

A control systems engineer is responsible for designing, developing and implementing control systems that manage the regular and automated functioning of other systems. Their work aims to create stability and order within systems that are constantly changing and receiving new information and commands and ensure that they continue to carry out their required functions.

Control systems engineers are required in a wide range of industry sectors, including automotive, construction and manufacturing where machinery and equipment are required to complete repetitive tasks with utmost precision. It’s a relatively new role in the engineering industry, as automation has developed rapidly as the world has become more digitised, and is expected to continue to grow in the next decade.

What does a Control Systems Engineer Do?

The overarching responsibility of those who work in control systems engineering is to manage the smooth operation, integration and management of the software that controls and monitors other systems or devices. There is a variety of day to day activities that may be involved in control systems jobs however, including:

  • Designing and developing new control systems that manage the operation of other systems
  • Writing and developing the code to create software that manages control systems and equipment
  • Managing existing control systems through regular maintenance, modification and troubleshooting
  • Developing test procedures for control systems to ensure that they are functioning correctly
  • Analysing the data from control systems testing and compiling and presenting research reports
  • Researching relevant health and safety specifications or quality standards and ensuring that the control system and the process it manages adheres to these
  • Working with client briefs to create project proposals for control system solutions
  • Collaborating with or leading teams of other engineers and technicians to design, build and test a variety of different control systems

Control Systems Engineering Qualifications

For the majority of engineering disciplines, a Bachelor’s degree is the first qualification you’ll need to work in the field. In order to study a BA in engineering, you will need a certain number of GCSE or equivalent qualifications with good grades in Maths and English Language, along with relevant A-Levels or equivalent higher education qualifications.

You can become a control systems engineer with most engineering or computing degrees, although you’ll gain more relevant skills and experience by studying a course that includes relevant control and automation modules. Electrical engineering is a good choice, along with control engineering, computer engineering and mechanical engineering.

It’s also beneficial to your job prospects if you choose an engineering degree that is accredited by either the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) or the Institute of Measurement and Control (InstMC). Gaining an accredited engineering qualification will make it easier for you to achieve a chartered status (CEng) later on.

Many control systems jobs prefer candidates to have an MSc qualification in Control and Systems Engineering, Automation and Control or another relevant discipline. To study for a Masters engineering qualification, you often need to have achieved a higher second or above in your undergraduate degree.

It is also possible to gain equivalent qualifications in Control Systems Engineering by completing an apprenticeship pathway. A variety of different providers offer courses over several years where you combine academic study with practical work on control systems, finishing with the necessary experience and qualifications needed to continue a career as an engineer.

You should note however that it is often hard to progress to higher engineer status if you have not completed a university degree with an accredited institution, and more work and study may be required to get to this level without a degree.

Key Skills for a Control Systems Engineer

The most important skills you should have as a control systems engineer are your technical abilities to design, build and mend a variety of systems and devices. However, there are many other very valuable skills needed to be an engineer that will benefit you if you are trying to get employed in the systems and control engineering industry.

Relevant Industry Knowledge

To begin with, having knowledge and experience that is relevant to the control and systems engineering industry is essential. Without an understanding of various concepts and systems such as the principles of automatic control, PLC, DCS, advanced process control and supervisory control and data acquisition, you won’t get very far.

You will also need a good understanding of various network services such as VPN, LAN and WLAN, as the industry is coming to rely more and more on remote access and remote monitoring.

The best way to gain this knowledge is through practical experiences, which is why work placements or spending a year in the industry before completing a degree is a popular choice for control systems engineers.

Software Development

One of the most important skills that you will need as a systems engineer is software development. All control systems operate by using software that has been built to manage other, complex systems, and so you will need to be a very skilled and competent programmer to write these kinds of programs and understand how to fix them if a fault is found.

This knowledge will include being able to write in programming languages such as Java, C, C++, C#, SQL, and VB.

Mathematical Skills

An excellent grasp of mathematical and scientific concepts is at the heart of being a successful control systems engineer. Your role will require plenty of computer modelling and simulations in the design and testing stages, and you’ll need to have a head for data and analytics during many different aspects of your role.

Troubleshooting

Whether you’re building a new automated control system or analysing an existing one, troubleshooting is going to be a big part of your role. Being able to identify where problems are stemming from and knowing the best ways to fix common issues is an essential part of being a good control systems engineer, as it is your responsibility not only to solve problems but ensure that they don’t occur again.

Teamworking

The majority of engineering roles involve a mix of independent work and team collaboration, and this is no different. Often, when you are working on a project to design a new control system you will be part of a team of many different engineers, programmers and designers, and being able to effectively work with them determines the success of your project.

Good team working skills include the ability to listen to others, communicate your own ideas, delegate tasks fairly, provide support when needed and accept suggestions or feedback from others.

Critical and Creative Thinking

A key part of being a good control systems engineer is having the ability to think critically about the problems you are trying to solve or the solution that the system you design will offer. No two projects that you work on are going to be the same, so you need to be able to apply your theoretical knowledge to a variety of different situations and come up with new ideas every time.

Organisation

Finally, an essential skill that you’ll need as a control systems engineer is organisation. There are plenty of aspects to projects in this industry that will require you to meet deadlines, complete multiple tasks and keep track of overall progress, and at a more senior level, you will need to manage teams of other workers and ensure that they all do the work that is required. Being incredibly organised and demonstrating that you can stay on task and consistently meet deadlines will benefit you a lot in your engineering career, so ensure that this is a skill you hone.

Control Systems Engineer Salary

The average starting salary for a graduate control systems engineer is between £20,000 to £25,000 a year in the first couple of years, depending on where you work, the size of the company and who your employer is.

After working a couple of years in systems and control engineering, annual salaries can increase anywhere from £25,000 to £40,000, again depending on the location, industry and size of the company the job is with. The career progression in a control systems job is very good, so if you work your way up the ranks of employees then you can expect your salary to increase as well.

Senior control systems engineers, chartered engineers or directors earn up to an average of £75,000 a year in their roles. Salaries of those working in senior positions in the gas, oil or nuclear sectors are known to be even higher.
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FAQs

What is control engineering?

Control engineering is an engineering discipline that operates from the principles of control theory. It focuses on finding ways to manage processes using automation devices and implementing these processes into existing systems.

What are control systems in engineering?

Control systems are used to manage and direct the behaviour of a system of devices in a regular and repeatable way. They can range from very complex computer systems to simple pieces of electronic equipment.

A simple way to look at it is that a control system is a system that controls other systems. They are used widely in modern society to help automate everything from air conditioning to security systems, and it is the job of control systems engineers to design, model, build, install and maintain them.

What degree do you need to be a systems engineer?

There are a variety of different undergraduate degrees that you can do if you want to be a systems engineer, as in most cases you will just need to do an MSc to specialise in your final year of study. Most engineering or computing undergraduate courses will give you adequate training to complete a Masters course in systems engineering, or some undergraduate courses will include modules in control systems that give you the right knowledge and experience.

Summary

Control systems is one of the most exciting new engineering disciplines that has emerged in the past decade, and many new candidates in the industry are keen to work in this sector. Working in control systems engineering requires a high level of skill, theoretical understanding and practical experience, but it’s also a really versatile discipline that opens doors in a variety of different sectors and is likely to stay cutting-edge for many years to come.

If you’re a control systems engineer candidate, or an employer looking to hire in this discipline, Samuel Frank can help. To find out more about how a specialist recruiter can make a difference for your company or career, get in touch and speak to a member of our team.