Jobs in the field of computer technology have a reputation for being fast-growing and high-paying, but not all jobs that focus on computer technology are equally advantageous. If you are wondering whether computer hardware engineering or computer programming is a better major, you should consider factors such as salary, job outlook and work duties. You might be surprised at how many significant benefits computer hardware engineering degree programs can have over computer programming degrees.
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Higher Income Potential
Both computer hardware engineers and computer programmers earn high salaries well above the $37,690 median salary for all occupations. The median wage for computer programmers is $82,240, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). As a computer programmer, your industry of employment could play a big part in your earning potential. Among the top employers of computer programmers, software publishers pay the best, with a median wage of $97,360 per year. Next most lucrative is the finance and insurance industry, which pays a median salary of $88,300. Both industries employ about seven percent of all computer programmers in the U.S.
For computer hardware engineers, six-figure salaries are typical. For new computer hardware engineers, the median starting salary is $73,228. Overall, across all levels of experience, the median wage for this occupation is $115,120, according to the BLS. The top paying industry for computer hardware engineers is semiconductor and other electronic component manufacturing, which pays a median salary of $130,150 and employs 12 percent of the occupation. Next most profitable is research and development in the physical, engineering and life sciences. This industry employs nearly one in 10 computer hardware engineers and has a median wage of $126,670. The 14 percent of computer hardware engineers who work for the computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing industry enjoy a median salary of $122,060.
Computer and information research scientists, computer network architects, software developers, information security analysts, computer systems analysts and database administrators all earn median wages above a computer programmer’s but below a computer hardware engineer’s.
Better Job Prospects
There are a lot more computer programmers working in America than there are computer hardware engineers, but while one occupation is growing, the other is on the decline. The BLS predicts a seven percent decrease in jobs for computer programmers, which will drop the number of workers from 294,900 currently to 273,600 over a decade. Computer hardware engineering opportunities will likely increase by five percent, adding 4,000 to the existing 73,600 jobs. That increase is still modest compared to the eight percent job growth expected across all engineering occupations, but at least it points to a trend of positive job growth rather than job losses.
Why are computer programming jobs declining even though computer technology is so ubiquitous? An unfortunate trend of sending job overseas, where companies can get away with paying lower wages, is a big contributing factor, the BLS reported. Having a bachelor’s degree and knowing a breadth of programming languages and tools can help improve your marketability in this occupation, but computer hardware engineering students will still see brighter job prospects.
As a whole, computer occupations are growing at a faster than average rate of 13 percent, compared to seven percent for all occupations. Neither computer programmer nor computer hardware engineer is seeing that rapid rise in job opportunities.
More Hands-On Work
While both computer hardware engineers and computer programmers work with computer technology, the work they do is very different. Computer hardware engineering is an ideal career choice for candidates who want to do the hands-on work of designing and developing the physical components that make up computers and computer systems. To succeed in computer hardware engineering, you need critical-thinking and problem-solving skills in addition to technical skills to work on schematics of computer systems and components such as circuit boards, processors, memory devices and routers, the BLS reported.
Computer programmers don’t work with the technical components that are used to build computers. Rather, they work in front of a computer screen to create the code that allows computers to run software programs and applications. They do the important task of translating a software developer’s designs for a computer program into instructions that tell the computer what to do. There are different computer programming languages, and programming languages are evolving or emerging all the time. Rather than seeking to learn every programming language that exists, students who major in computer programming learn a few languages and the broader skills they need to continue learning new languages throughout their careers, the BLS reported.
Computer hardware engineers need to take computer programming and computer science courses, too, since they must be familiar with computer programming practices and languages in addition to knowledge of science, math and engineering principles.