In this article, I go through the pros and cons of working as a PLC Programmer, Automation Engineer, or Controls Engineer based on my experience in the last 10 years.
Every now and again, I get an email from a reader asking if PLC programming is a good job or if someone can have a good career working as a controls engineer or automation engineer. In this post, I will lay out my experience of working as a controls engineer and explain why I think a career in automation is a great option for almost anyone.
I'll start by explaining my background and career path to give some context about my answer and then I will dive into the juicy details about the pros and cons of working as a PLC programmer.
Like a lot of people, I didn't know what I wanted to do when I left school.
I knew that I loved pulling things apart and seeing how they worked, which is what I thought engineering was. Based on this idea, I did a four year degree in Manufacturing Engineering and Business Studies.
At the end of that course, I knew that I would never work as a manufacturing engineer and quickly got a job in technical sales.
While working in sales, I spent a lot of time visiting factories, machine builders, and system integrators. I was fascinated by automation and knew that this was a field I wanted to work in. At that point, I decided that I would retrain as a controls engineer. I would learn how to program PLCs and develop the software that controls automated processes.
I didn't have time to do another four year degree in automation engineering and I didn't have the money to take expensive courses and earn certifications so I took job in inside sales at my local Rockwell Automation distributor. While I was working there, I consumed as many internal trainings as I could get my hands on and stayed late at the office to play with the hardware that was available to me.
After two years of self study and hundreds of applications, I found a company that was willing to take a chance on me. One month later, I flew to the Netherlands to start my first job as a Controls Project Engineer.
The company's bet paid off. After two years I was promoted to Senior Controls Engineer and later to Controls Architect.
After six years in the Netherlands, it was time to move back to Ireland. By the time I moved back, I had the knowledge and network to set up my own business as an automation consultant. I spent some time working as part of a team to upgrade the baggage handling system at Dublin Airport and am currently involved in a project with a mid-sized pharmaceutical plant in Dublin.
As you can see, my career path was not a straight one but it did give me a chance to see what Controls Engineers, Automation Engineers, and PLC Programmers do in many different countries and industries. Based on my experience, I'd like to explain why I think PLC Programming is an excellent career choice for almost anyone.
In my experience, there is a constant demand for Controls Engineers, Automation Engineers, and PLC Programmers. Since it is such a niche skillset, it seems that companies cannot hire enough people with these skills. I get two to three messages on LinkedIn every week about new opportunities from recruiters. This is a pretty good indication that if something happened and I lost my job, I would be able to find a new one quickly and easily.
Of course, a lack of available workers also helps to drive salaries up. As a Controls Engineer, Automation Engineer, or PLC Programmer you can earn a good base salary relative to other industries and other jobs within the automation manufacturing sector. When this base salary is paired with overtime rates and travel allowances, you have the potential to earn a lot of money. You probably won't get rich, but you will have a comfortable, middle-class income.
If you work for a machine-builder or system integrator, you will have plenty of opportunities to travel when working as a Controls Engineer, Automation Engineer, or PLC Programmer. Personally, I had the chance to live and work in Australia, Finland, England, Germany, France, and Ireland while working on projects. I have friends who did projects in Russia, Turkey, Thailand, and Cambodia. Depending on the company you work for and the industry you work in, there will be opportunities to travel. If you are young and don't have too many responsibilities, this is a great way to get paid to see the world and broaden your horizons.
Of course, there is more to work than money and benefits.
My favourite thing about working as a PLC Programmer is the fact that the work is varied and interesting. Each project is different and has its own unique challenges. If you enjoy solving problems and you get satisfaction out of seeing your work have a physical impact on the world, then Controls Engineering and Automation Engineering is an excellent career choice. Some of my best memories at work are spending long times writing complex algorithms and, after much frustration, seeing it work while running a physical process. To this day, I check every Amazon package that I receive to see if it transited through a warehouse that I helped to commission.
My second favourite thing is that I do more than sit in front of a computer writing code all day. As a PLC Programmer, you are expected to be able to work with hardware so your job will often involved doing some basic electrical and mechanical work. Personally I love being on my feet and walking around so this suits me perfectly.
Finally, PLC Programmers get to do so much more than PLC programming. In the last few years, PLCs have taken huge leaps forward in terms of technical capabilities. This means that PLC programmers have the opportunity to do much more than PLC programming. If you are interested in it, you can switch from PLC programming to specialize in industrial networking, cybersecurity, the Industrial Internet of Things, machine learning, and more. Employers are trying to adopt all of these new capabilities, and are more than happy to pay to train employees to become experts in different areas.
Of course, no career is perfect so let's talk about some of the reasons why PLC programming is NOT a good career.
First off: travel. Although getting the opportunity to travel is great when you are young, you may want to spend more time at home as you get older. Unless you switch to management or some kind of a maintenance role at a local factory, it can be very hard to find a PLC programming job that doesn't involve extensive travel. As you become more experienced and valuable, you can negotiate to travel less, but it is more or less impossible to eliminate travel requirements if you are working with a system integrator or machine builder.
Second: overtime. Overtime is great when you need some extra cash, but if you are structurally doing overtime every week, it can become exhausting. When you work on projects, like most PLC programmers do, there tends to be a lot of pressure to meet unrealistic deadlines. This leads to a requirement to regularly do overtime. For example, when I was working abroad on projects I always worked a 55-hour week. I knew some guys who were doing 60 to 80 hour weeks which is incredibly unhealthy in the long run. If you are not willing to work overtime, you may find it hard to work as a PLC programmer.
Finally, the salary of a PLC Programmer, Controls Engineer, or Automation Engineer is lower than the salary that you can earn working in IT. This is generally because PLC programming is more simple than traditional software development, but the gap is narrowing. If you work for a few years as a controls engineer and can demonstrate that you are able to think logically and solve problems, you will be able to pivot into an IT role later in your career quite easily.
In this post, I gave you a history of my career and explained why I think PLC Programming, Controls Engineering, or Automation Engineering are great career paths for almost anyone. Specifically I pointed out that PLC programmers are in demand, paid well, get to travel and do interesting work.
I also pointed out some of the drawbacks of working as a PLC programmer which include excessive travel, long hours, and lower salaries than IT roles.
If you have made it this far and you are interested in learning more about PLC programming, then I suggest you enrol in PLC Bootcamp, my free training that shows you how to write, test, and simulate your first PLC program. If you feel that is too basic, then you might want to check out Applied PLC Programming which teaches you how to program PLCs by building a portfolio of 10 projects using free tools.
Finally, if you want to great content like this delivered to your inbox every week, then subscribe to my mailing list using the form at the bottom of this page.
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