Career In Automation Advice

Looking for advice on whether or not to get an engineering degree (Industrial engineering degree).

I'm a scada Developer right now and I don't do any of the hardware side of automation controls, even though I know PLC programming but never did a real projects just simulation projects at home. I have also been an automation tech building PLC panels and wiring.

I want to grow in the automation world but I feel limited because of the position I'm in and my education is in Computer Science and not an engineering degree.

I am able to do a program at my university that I went to to get a Bachelor’s of Science in Industrial Engineering and be done in about 2.5 years. I'm curious if that would be beneficial to move up through automation to get into more senior roles and management. It's focus will be on using auto Cad, project management, and petroleum (fundamentals, drilling, production and pipeline).

If I have to leave the company after the degree to get a different job where I'm doing the entire control engineering process (hardware, PLCs, scada) then that is something I will do.

Any advice is much appreciated, I am a 30 year old with 5 years of work history in the automation world (3 technician, 3 scada overlapped for a little while) in the oil patch looking to grow and increase salary (cost of living is high where I live) to about $150,000 in the next 5 years.
It really depends on where your interesets lie... do you want to stay in the process side or the equipment side, or both? My company, Applied Medical, is currently looking for controls engineers that have experience progrmming AND designing electrical controls system for automated equipment. It is very difficult finding experienced controls engineers with this type of experience. Most of the candidates applying are right out of college, with little or no experience. If you're interested in programming automated equipment, you should look for courses related to mechatronics. However, we have had some luck with candidates that came from waste-water and petroleum processing jobs.
I hope this helps; it's also a plug for the Controls Engineer positions open at Applied Medical.

What does a degree mean?

It means: "I set a goal for myself, a "long-term" goal (of usually more than 1 or 2 years). I did the things that were required to achieve that goal and I received a degree for successfully completing them. In the course of completing those requirements I probably had to do some things I liked very much, and some things I didn't like so much (maybe not at all)--but I did them, in order to achieve my goal of obtaining a degree. If it was a technical degree, I probably learned the technical terms and jargon used in the field, and was exposed to some design and application examples/projects I was expected to study and complete or write some kind of paper(s) on. I was responsible for my efforts and my focus, and I successfully achieved my long-term goal."

Now, let's say you are applying for a position with a company and there is another individual applying for the same position. You have a degree and the other person doesn't; perhaps the other person has some amount of work experience, has taken some related courses or participated in some training offered by manufacturers--but no degree. Your degree should speak volumes about your ability to commit yourself to a long-term "project" (in this case, obtaining a degree) and successfully completing the requirements to complete the "project." Whereas, while the other applicant who doesn't have a degree probably can't say the same and has no proof of being able to sustain focus and complete a long-term "project." Where do you think the recruiter or person(s) doing the hiring are going to focus their attention?

Why do I say "project," in quotations? Because, in this day and age many jobs--especially in automation--consist of projects, some only a few days, some a few weeks, others months or even years. Employers want people who have demonstrated ability to complete projects, which can have many aspects (technical; economic; geographical; environmental; time; etc.). They want people who have experience with projects--either as individuals, or team members, or even directing projects or certain parts of projects. Such people have demonstrated ability to think logically, plan, focus and maybe even most importantly, make adjustments when faced with changing requirements or specifications. (It's this way in most jobs, and has been really for decades, it's just that recently most people seem to think this is some kind of "new" way of working....)

You say you have five years of experience. Does that include any training or certifications you received during that time? Does it include any "projects" or project tasks you had responsibility for? Was (Were) the project(s) successful? Was (Were) the project(s) completed on time, on budget?

In my personal opinion, a successful professional working in industrial automation is one who can see the "big picture"--understand what is supposed to happen, and also understand the systems and components necessary to make what's supposed to happen, happen. I have seen some absolutely genius PLC (or PAC) programming--that just simply did not do what it needed to do. Why? Because, although the programmer(s) working on the project were probably extremely experienced with PLC (PAC) programming they did not understand the application the equipment was being used for. And even more importantly--a successful industrial automation professional DOES NOT believe their job is just to sit behind a computer monitor (possibly an HMI) and write code and build displays; this professional understands--or works to understand--field devices and components and SYSTEMS. The industrial control system IS NOT just the PLC (or PAC)--it includes the devices in the field that send signals to or accept signals from the PLC (or PAC)--and that's KEY to being a successful industrial automation professional, whether you work in the office designing and configuring and programming systems, or you work in the field commissioning or troubleshooting or modifying systems.

So, what I'm trying to say is emphasize any certifications and training you have. And, emphasize all projects you have completed--self-directed or as part of a group or team. Even if the project wasn't 100% "successful"--and many aren't because they weren't well defined to begin with, or the requirements "changed" during the project (when people who weren't consulted saw some benefit they wanted...!)--emphasize your project experience. It's all relevant because it shows you can focus and devote your efforts and abilities to completing a project or task, and in the process you learned something(s). On time and on or under budget are all good things--but they are not the only things that count about a project. If you had to learn a new skill or system that you can now say you have experience with in commissioning and troubleshooting--that's a plus.

Remember: The degree says you set--and achieved--a long-term goal, and to do that you probably had to do some things you liked, and some things you didn't like; you had to work with people you liked, and you had to work with some people you didn't liked. All of this is part and parcel of the degree--and there are LOTS of people who have the same skills and abilities, or in some cases (perhaps yours!) better than other hopeful applicants, but if the hiring personnel don't know about that then it won't be considered. Work experience is golden (though not all of it is really good experience all the time, either), and it's the ability to focus and execute--EXECUTE--that's what employers are really looking for. I have met MANY university-educated people who were very book-smart but just couldn't execute. Let people know you can--even if you don't have a "degree" to prove it.

There have been lots of news stories in the last few years about major tech companies hiring people without degrees--one, because there aren't enough people with degrees, but also because they recognize that some people with work experience (projects; task; specific skills) are able to "hit the ground running" and contribute from day one, while some degreed people will take a while to be productive and contribute.

If a company is using degrees to sift through applicants then they are probably missing at least a few very (otherwise) qualified people. Some companies are learning this, others aren't. Which company do you want to work for? If they are looking for people with degrees because they think that makes them promotable in the future, you can earn your degree while working (easy? no; satisfying? yes!). And a lot of middle-management jobs really just require some financial skills and lots of spreadsheet- and presentation software skills, by people who "have" and can explain "the big picture."

Go forth and prosper!

Best of luck!