With economies, industries, education, and technology constantly changing, engineering is quite an exciting profession. RF engineers lead some of today’s most cutting-edge technology developments, increasing our knowledge and connection with our world and each other. Microwaves & RF recently polled our community to find out what really makes RF engineers tick, how they are compensated, and what they think of the industry surrounding us.
This is the first year that Microwaves & RF has performed a Salary & Opinion Survey, giving us a chance to share in the realities of a community that is one of the biggest contributors and least-known of modern technology movers.
How Secure is an RF Engineer?
In an economy where many have been concerned about layoffs, downsizing, restructuring, and pink-slip frenzy, it seems that the RF engineer stood relatively immune to such fluctuations. The vast majority—more than 86% of RF engineers—are employed with the same job title as the previous year. The main factors for switching job positions were promotion, reassignment, job-switching, and retirement. This makes sense, as the majority of RF engineers are working for full-time employers and have for some time.
The average length of employment with the same employer is almost 13 years (though this figure may have been skewed by the large number of RF engineers who have been working for an employer longer than 20 years). Fully a quarter of all RF engineers reported a stay of such length with their present employers. But the data indicates that another quarter of RF engineers may have swapped jobs between 2009 and 2013.
All and all, RF engineers are paid very well compared to other, more traditional engineering disciplines. The average total compensation for an RF engineer is close to $112,000 a year, with over a quarter of RF engineers reporting six-figure salaries. Most RF engineers don’t receive bonuses or additional compensation. Yet those who do appear to be very well compensated, with most reporting an additional $10,000 in income from either bonuses, stock options, or other sources.
Additionally, the majority of RF engineers reported an increase in salary in 2014—an eighth with a greater than 10% increase. Over a third did report that their salary was not increased, but less than 10% reported a decrease in salary.
Most RF engineers also indicate that they are equally or better compensated than their peers, with only a third of RF engineers reporting that they may be compensated less. In addition, almost two-thirds of RF engineers feel adequately compensated, with a third feeling they may deserve more. These RF engineers don’t appear to be greedy, though, as those who claimed they should be compensated more only requested about a 20% increase in compensation.
The RF engineers who are offered bonuses receive them based upon personal and company/division performance. Additional sources of income are derived from patent awards, project milestone completions, and company profit sharing. An interesting note is that many RF engineers seem to feel the strain of changing health insurance laws. Many companies don’t appear to be offering health benefits comparable to past years.
How Do RF Engineers Feel about Jobs?
Either way, RF engineers appear to be a rather satisfied bunch in terms of their employment. Almost 88% of all RF engineers report feeling at least satisfied where they work. It can be construed that the quarter of RF engineers that decided to change employers must have found a company or position with which they are happier. Close to two-thirds of RF engineers are also of the opinion that there is a reasonable potential for salary advancement compared to the past five years.
In answer to a question regarding the outlook of salary increases, a respondent stated, “Technology still needs engineers. Capable engineers are in demand and well-compensated. The key is to have expertise in the key areas of demand. Outside of that, I would have answered no.” Yet another shared, “It is all about adding value. Engineering today has great opportunities to add value as long as we think not only about the product, but the people building the product and using it.”
Not all RF engineers have such a rosy opinion, as some claimed that government funding cuts and corporate stinginess were providing less opportunities for promising engineers. This contrasts significantly with many other respondents, who claim that they are not able to staff enough skilled engineers. Some concern was voiced, in regard to potential salary increases, surrounding the use of work visas and the growing use of computer tools in the engineering environment.
Regardless of any negative trends and views, just over two-thirds of RF engineers said they wouldn’t even consider leaving the engineering profession. Those who shared that they may be interested in phasing out of engineering seemed to be looking for a change of pace, less stress, and more free time to explore other avenues of interest. Also, almost 90% of RF engineers would recommend engineering as a profession to the next generation. This being said, it appears that RF engineers are very passionate about engineering and are very willing to recommend the challenging work environment brought about by a career in engineering.
And challenging it is: More than 90% of RF engineers responded that they feel challenged in their positions. Over two-thirds of respondents said that the challenges associated with design represent one of the most important factors influencing job satisfaction. RF engineers seem to enjoy exploration and researching new technology solutions while working in a team environment. The biggest hold-ups in this process, which seem to add a lot of frustration, are shrinking project deadlines is that RF engineers like to stay current and feel that such deadlines limit their ability to stay on the cutting edge.
How is Your Company?
While many industries are cutting back and attempting to “go lean” with staffing, it seems that most RF engineers don’t have to be too concerned with this trend. Only about an eighth of RF engineers report that their companies are considering scaling back their engineering staff. Over half of RF engineers report that their companies will maintain their present staff, with almost a third indicating that their companies are looking to expand their engineering staffs.
From these responses, it seems that the majority of companies are having trouble finding qualified candidates for their engineering positions. Most RF engineers report that RF engineering is the engineering discipline with the highest demand. Given the audience surveyed, this opinion may at first seem biased.
Yet when compared to the Salary & Opinion Surveys of our sister brands, Electronic Design and Machine Design, it appears that most engineers actually agreed on this point. A few of the commenters shared what is in the greatest demand: “microwave/electromagnetic engineers with experience,” “microwave and millimeter-wave hardware design,” and “electromagnetic interference, electromagnetic compliance, and RF interference engineers.”
Interestingly enough, over two-thirds of RF engineers reported that their companies aren’t focused on employee retention. This could just be a function of what the prior data indicated—that RF engineers are generally happy with their current employers and don’t need extra incentive to stick around. Yet some respondents said, “With the difficulty in finding good, experienced help, it underlines the need to retain current experienced staff.” Another respondent stated, “Although it should be, the company isn’t doing anything different than last year. We have low turnover in our company. But we can't afford to lose anyone right now, so retention should be a hot topic.”
When asked about headhunting or recruitment specialists contacting our respondents with offers, over two-thirds of RF engineers claimed that they had no such contact. This also coincides with a full third of RF engineers sharing that they have no interest in changing jobs in the foreseeable future. Another third said that they would only consider new employment if they were personally approached with an opportunity that was much more interesting than their current situation. Only a tenth of RF engineers claimed to be actively looking for other employment.
Regarding the industries and markets on which they focus, almost a quarter of RF engineers report working at a location where the dominant focus of the end product is communications systems/equipment. In size, that focus is followed by R&D, government/military, avionics/marine/space, semiconductors/ICs, and test and measurement equipment. Another core group works at consultancy agencies or consults privately for the industries mentioned above.
What Concerns an RF Engineer?
RF engineers are most concerned about looming project deadlines, product reliability issues, product quality issues, and price/performance issues. It makes sense that someone with an engineering mind would demand that every product should perform better, be more reliable, and be affordable—while simultaneously complaining about customers demanding that their latest product be produced better and at a faster schedule. That desire to push the boundary of excellence does seem to keep a few engineers awake. One respondent reported, “How can I get people to see a vision and embrace it such that we are always moving forward,” while another highlighted stress over “technical issues that I cannot yet resolve.”
Contrary to popular mythos, it appears that RF engineers actually prefer working with peers in teams. They value the recognition they receive from their peers significantly. Yet RF engineers don’t seem to appreciate that recognition as much as they enjoy compensation and the opportunity to design products that benefit society. For many, this may indicate that some stereotypes are true: Engineers are dreamers who are willing to put elbow grease behind their vision.
Given a list of the problems of funding, non-optimal components, and having to compromise designs approaches, the engineers polled said they are more impacted by the lack of qualified people to help get the job done. Another revelation is that RF engineers, though very opinionated, seem to care far less about the sociopolitical aspects of the workplace than they do about getting the job done.
One of the biggest complaints seemed to be engineers having to respond to customer’s needs, even though they didn’t deem those needs worthwhile. For example, one respondent listed this as a chief point of concern: “the growing gap between customers’ desires and their willingness to pay, combined with the fact that we are in an industry with relatively few large customers and many small vendors.”
How about Outsourcing?
Many RF engineers voiced concerns about outsourcing. Over half of the RF engineers surveyed reported that their companies outsource to some degree. Unlike many industries, however, most of this outsourcing is directed toward other locations in the United States and Europe. Surprisingly enough, about a quarter of RF engineers shared that their companies outsourced work to India more than China. This may be due to the boom of IT firms available for contract in Indian markets.
According to our respondents, the two main reasons that their companies outsourced was due to a lack of in-house talent/specialty skill and to save money. The next reasons were to save time and better utilize existing engineering resources. These responses seem to indicate that a majority of the outsourcing work may take place in a field other than RF engineering—mainly software. To note, most RF engineers—nearly 90%—were confident that their companies were not looking to outsource in the future.
For the negative effects of outsourcing, RF engineers listed fewer engineering jobs being available, lower employee morale, new hires with reduced salaries, and less opportunity for advancement. When asked if they were personally concerned about their jobs being outsourced, however, over 75% of respondents shared that they had little to no concern. This could be another indicator that the jobs being outsourced are not specifically related to RF engineering.
A Little Bit about an RF Engineer
Considering the RF engineers currently employed in the United States, which comprised half of our list (followed by Europe and Asia and then showing smatterings across the globe), a full quarter are working in California. They must be enjoying the weather. Surprisingly, New York State was the next-largest employer. Texas, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, and even Florida also provide significant home bases for RF engineers.
With Maryland, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania all showing significant numbers of RF engineers, the Northeast coast is the area with the largest concentration of RF engineers. In smaller numbers, however, RF engineers are surprisingly spread out across the country. This could be the result of the majority of RF engineers working for companies that are worth less than $25 million. These smaller companies may be located in areas that are less likely to be the hubs of commerce.
In terms of schooling, RF engineers tend to be highly educated. Over half of RF engineers are equipped with either a Master’s or a Doctoral degree. Another third have a Bachelor’s degree and may even have had some additional graduate studies. The level of study achieved may be a factor of the lengthy stay many RF engineers have had at their companies, during which they benefited from continuing-education benefits and/or support.
A Few Startling Numbers
RF engineers are not likely to relocate anytime soon, as the average age of the engineer who responded to our survey is 51. With almost half of the respondents older than 55—and more than half of those engineers older than 60—this could be a sign of a troubling trend in our industry. There are likely to be many openings for skilled and experienced RF engineers in the next 5-10 years. In addition, most RF engineers identify as being white, which corresponds to the majority of RF engineers originating from the United States and Europe. The next largest ethnic demographic is Asian, with only a smattering of other ethnicities. The huge majority of our RF engineering respondents are also men, with women coming in at only 3%.
These demographics bring up some startling and significant truths. The diversity of RF engineers is currently very narrow. If this doesn’t change, there will be fewer and fewer skilled engineers to take on the latest challenges. In our results, this gap was underscored by the total percentage of RF engineers who are younger than 30—less than 10%.
If RF engineering firms don’t jump on the bandwagon by encouraging STEM education in ethnically diverse and mixed-gender environments, there may be fewer young people and students who would even consider a career in RF engineering. Meanwhile, the projections for the advancement of connectivity through communications and the wireless world are predicted to skyrocket in the next 10 to 15 years.
To fill the coming void, companies who employ RF engineers may need to bring on less skilled engineers with an interest in RF. They can then leverage the more experienced, and even retiring engineers, to coach and mentor them to a higher level of technical achievement. This method may be counterintuitive for many organizations to employ. But as the resource of available RF engineers shrinks, so will the industry’s options.
Students and New Hires
Most RF engineers seem to feel that recent graduates and students aren’t adequately educated to be a productive member of the workforce. Almost half feel that these new recruits need as much as a year or more to be able to do their jobs independently upon being hired. These results coincide with RF engineers reporting that their companies appear to be hiring more engineers who were not born or raised in the United States.
The majority of RF engineers (over 70%) share the opinion that education abroad is poorer at preparing a new hire for real-world job duties. Although some of these new hires may have had some education in the United States, the majority seem to be educated abroad.
For instance, one respondent claims, “Most engineers from abroad seem to have less practical experience.” Another comments, “Engineers from abroad are very heavy on theory/textbook, but have little practical knowledge.” Of course, such statements may not be reflective of where the engineer was raised, as much as where they were educated. Another respondent, “Engineers we hired with either US or foreign undergraduate degrees both seemed smart and competent—though they both had US graduate degrees.”
Most RF engineers seem to feel that US universities are focusing on the right material; they are just not enabling the students to have enough hands-on experience. Also, almost three-quarters of RF engineers feel that internships, or cooperative education, should be mandatory for engineering education. When RF engineers work for companies that have a relationship with a local college or university, they believe the organization can more effectively hire new graduates with the skill sets they are seeking.
Unfortunately, less than half of RF engineering companies seem to be fostering any STEM education. This situation may need to be change rapidly, as less and less U.S. engineers are coming from these companies’ local communities.
What Do RF Engineers Do Online?
Despite the many informative and distracting things to do online, RF engineers report predominantly using the Internet as a tool for gathering the latest information. Over 90% of RF engineers use the Internet to download application notes, white papers, and datasheets. Over two-thirds also read Internet articles on topics related to their field. Over half of the community views webcasts and online videos to advance their knowledge in a quick and digestible way. Social networking, blogs, websites, and apps don’t seem to be of much interest to an RF engineer. To them, those offerings simply may not have the best content for advancing a design or furthering an engineer’s knowledge.
This may be a shifting trend, as over a quarter of RF engineers shared that they are now more active on social media. Two-thirds of RF engineers plan to continue their regular community involvement online. In addition, almost two-thirds of RF engineers claim to participate in the LinkedIn social network, with less than a quarter enjoying Facebook, YouTube, Google+, or the like.
Consistent with many other technology fields, RF engineers mostly continue their education from engineering/technology publications. Seminars, webcasts, and white papers are also highly popular. Engineering textbooks, trade shows/conferences, and engineering association meetings also rank on the list of favorites. It’s not surprising that the most accessible educational tools are the most popular, as many RF engineers confided that they are having more and more difficulty keeping current due to time constraints.
According to almost 70% of RF engineers, their companies are funding part of their retirement. The majority of this funding is in the form of a 401(k) or similar plan. Unlike many other industries, over 40% of RF engineers are also looking forward to a pension. A quarter of them enjoy either stock options or employee stock ownership.
Of course, much of this retirement assistance depends on the continuing health of these engineers’ current/former employers. Given the impending lack of RF engineering knowledge, it may behoove RF engineers and their employers to enhance the drive for STEM education with youth. Otherwise, many RF companies may lack the employee base upon which they may continue to grow into the very bright future for this field.