In an Unpredictable World, PCB Design Engineering Stays Steady
PCD&F’s annual salary survey reflects the consistency and stability of the PCB design industry. by Chelsey Drysdale

To say much has transpired in the past year and a half is the understatement of all understatements. When we published the findings of our last designers’ salary survey in May 2020, we were still in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us in the initial stages of a lengthy quarantine we thought was temporary. We were unsure how the virus would affect the world in the short-term, let alone the long-term – with regard to the health of loved ones and the economy as a whole, to name two of countless concerns. It will be many years before we fully comprehend the enduring global impact of this unmitigated health crisis, but if this year’s survey is any indication, one thing that has remained consistent is the PCB design engineering profession.

The US unemployment rate in July 2020 was 10.2%, and as of July 2021, it was 5.4%, according to the US Department of Labor.1 More specifically, for engineering occupations, the unemployment rate as of Jun. 30, 2020, was 6.1%, and at Jun. 30 this year, it was only 3.4%, BLS says, and the computer systems design and related services sector added 100,000 jobs in June alone.1

The figures are consistent with the ESD Alliance trade group’s findings, which showed companies tracked in its quarterly statistical report employed 49,024 workers in the first quarter 2021 (the most recent data available), up 6.7% from 2020.2

According to PCD&F’s 2021 salary survey, PCB design engineers are retaining their jobs – if they choose to keep them; bringing in a substantial paycheck; and feeling satisfied with their chosen profession. Plus, the workload isn’t abating and shows no signs it ever will. So, if you have an engineering degree, here’s a virtual high-five because you made a solid choice.

PCD&F conducted its annual design engineers’ salary survey from mid-May through July, receiving 202 qualified responses from bare board designers, managers and design engineers. Data compiled included job titles and functions, ages, years of experience, education, location, types of projects, annual salaries and sales, job satisfaction and challenges, ECAD tools used, and years left in the field. The survey had a new question concerning board revisions (re-spins) produced each year and revised the list of job titles to reflect where the field is headed. While year-over-year changes are shown, they are for comparison only, and should not be assumed to be definitive.

Job titles and functions. Nearly half of all respondents in 2021 consider themselves senior PCB designers or senior PCB design engineers. Some 19% said they are PCB designers or PCB design engineers, without the senior designation. The slight change in job titles in this year’s survey is reflected in TABLE 1. Hardware engineers made up over 17% of responses, and all other job titles received fewer than 7% of responses each.

Table 1. Respondents by Job Title
Table 1. Respondents by Job Title

Most respondents report PCB design as their principal job function (TABLE 2), followed by PCB engineering (14%) and engineering management (6%). Design/layout management was 6%.

A modest number of respondents (7%) spend 100% of their professional time on board design, including schematic, layout and placement, versus 17% in 2020 (FIGURE 1). In this year’s survey, a third of respondents indicated they spend 50% or less of their time performing board design, comparable to 2020.

The depth and breadth of responsibilities are growing, our survey found. More respondents than in the past are charged with evaluating, recommending, specifying and approving ECAD software (80%) and CAM software (32%). Likewise, more design engineers are being asked to recommend prototype fabrication services and assembly providers (TABLE 3), among other product and service purchases.

When asked their highest level of purchase power, more than a quarter of designers said they can recommend products, while 24% can specify products. Almost 23% can evaluate products, and 13% can approve product purchases. Fewer than 15% are uninvolved in the procurement decision process.

Figure 1. Weekly time spent on board design.
Figure 1. Weekly time spent on board design.
Figure 3. Years of experience.
Figure 3. Years of experience.
Table 2. Principal Job Functions
Table 2. Principal Job Functions
Table 3. Procurement Participation
Table 3. Procurement Participation

Age, experience and satisfaction. A higher percentage of respondents are over 50 years of age in 2021 than those who took the survey in 2020: 61% compared to 53% (FIGURE 2, online). Respondents who are 35 years old or younger accounted for 23% of responses this year. This could reflect the changing nature of the industry, including differences in how willing various demographics are to respond to surveys.

The picture looks similar to last year in terms of years of experience in printed circuit design (FIGURE 3). Those with more than 20 years of experience accounted for 61% of responses, nearly flat with 2020, while respondents with more than 30 years of experience made up 37%, compared to 34% last year. A third of designers have 15 years or fewer of experience, slightly less than in 2020 (35%).

Within the next 10 years, 55% of designers plan to leave the profession, according to survey results, versus 61% last year. Of those, more than a quarter will retire within the next five years. Within the next 15 years, 78% of designers said they will no longer work in the field, most likely because they will have aged out. Nearly 22% of designers say they’ll continue to work for 16 or more years, versus 26% in 2020.

On a scale of 1 (completely dissatisfied) to 7 (highly satisfied), designers are still happy with their jobs. More than 87% indicated some level of satisfaction, up from 79% in 2020. Some 18% rated their job satisfaction a perfect 7, versus 22% last year. Roughly 13% are mildly or totally dissatisfied with their profession, nearly flat with last year.

Salaries. Over half of respondents are at or above the top of their company’s salary range for their current job position (51%), compared to 47% in the prior survey. Being a PCB design professional has its perks, with the most obvious being compensation. Nearly 73% make $70,000 or more, up from 65% in 2020, with over a quarter of respondents earning in excess of $110,000 (TABLE 4). Only 18% of respondents make $50,000 or less, compared to more than 21% in 2020, and over 10% make more than $150,000 annually, compared to nearly 7% last year and just over 4% five years ago.

Figure 4. Company type.
Figure 4. Company type.
Figure 5. Company's number of employees worldwide.
Figure 3. Company’s number of employees worldwide.
Table 4. Average Annual Salary by Segment
Table 4. Average Annual Salary by Segment

More respondents will receive a bonus this year than in 2020, according to survey results (over 57%, compared to 51%). Of those who will, nearly 44% say their bonus is 1 to 3% of their annual salaries, compared to 38% last year; 29% of bonuses are 4 to 7% of annual salaries, compared to 30% last year; and 28% of respondents will receive a bonus that’s greater than 7% of their annual salaries, down from 31% in 2020.

When asked how respondents’ salaries have changed in the past year, 47% say their salary rose 1 to 3%, up from 45% last year. About 21% say their salary didn’t change, nearly flat with 2020. Nearly 4% said their salary fell 7 to 10%, a slight jump from 1% in 2020. Overall, 72% of respondents’ salaries grew in the past year, compared to 75% in the prior year.

Over 93% of those who took the survey said they have the same job as they did in 2020, compared to over 95% last year. Some 6% were laid off in the past year, fewer than in the prior year (8%).

Most respondents aren’t in managerial positions, and 92% are male. No one who took the survey identifies as nonbinary; one respondent chose not to specify a gender.

Educational opportunities and benefits. In terms of educational opportunities supported by employees’ companies, they were asked to check all that apply, with on-the-job training garnering the most responses (56%), compared to 58% in 2020. About half receive tuition reimbursement, and 43% can attend classes at conferences, compared to 47% in the prior survey. For the first time, the annual survey included industry certification, with 37% indicating it’s an option. Roughly a third of companies offer in-house classes, and the same percentage offer on-the-job mentoring. Twenty-two percent of designers said their company doesn’t provide educational opportunities, versus 26% in 2020.

Company benefits include the following. Respondents checked all that apply. Given the challenges of the past year, the telecommuting figure seemed low:

  • Health insurance: 2021: 85%
  • Dental insurance: 67%
  • Life insurance: 67%
  • 401(k) plan: 61%
  • Telecommuting: 35%
  • Company pension or retirement plan: 25%
  • Stock purchasing plan: 25%
  • Profit sharing: 19%
  • Sabbatical: 6%
  • Daycare facilities: 5%

Asked, “How have your benefits changed in the past year?” 12% of respondents said more benefits are offered, or the same benefits at a lower cost, nearly flat with 2020. Another 15% said fewer benefits are offered, or the same benefits but at a higher cost, versus 22% in 2020. Nearly 73% said their benefits haven’t changed, versus 66% in the prior survey.

Education. Engineering bachelor’s degrees are more common among respondents this year than last, with 39% indicating they have one, up from 37% in 2020 (TABLE 5). Of those with a four-year degree, 77% have an electrical engineering degree, up from 70% last year, and 4% have a degree in mechanical engineering. Those who have an associate’s degree or have attended college but have no degree accounted for 42% of responses. Thirteen percent of respondents have a master’s. Similar to last year, nearly 3% specified high school as their highest level of education.

Table 5. Highest Level of Education
Table 5. Highest Level of Education
Table 6. Projects and Technology Trends
Table 6. Projects and Technology Trends

Certification. The majority (62%) of respondents are not IPC-certified designers. However, of those who are, nearly 53% are CID+. We did not ask about PCE-EDU certification, the new design engineering curriculum, as the program was just launched this year.

Employers. If survey results are indicative of the big picture, OEMs are employing design professionals more than ever. Over 70% of respondents work for OEMs, up from 67% in 2020 (FIGURE 4). The second most prevalent response was consulting or academia (9%), while those who work for a design service bureau made up 8%. (This may explain the seemingly low telecommuting response.) Half of all respondents work for firms with more than 1,000 staff members (FIGURE 5).

Many respondents either work at large firms with estimated annual sales of $5 billion or more (17%), or small firms with less than $5 million in sales each year (16%). Over a quarter of designers are unsure of their company’s annual sales figures, and another 13% said their company makes $5 million to $49.9 million annually. Nearly 10% of respondents said their employer brings in $1 billion to $4.9 billion each year.

Location. Nearly 63% of respondents reside in the United States, with 21% on the West Coast, including Arizona, flat with 2020 (FIGURE 6, online). Another 18% are in Central/Western Europe, and 6% live in Canada.

Projects and technology trends. Over half of respondents said they still engineer, design, and/or lay out single-sided PCBs (TABLE 6), up from 44% in 2020. Double-sided PCBs and 4- to 6-layer PCBs continue to be the most common technology, with more than 83% of responses. Nearly two-thirds indicated they work on boards of 7 to 10 layers.

An addition to the list in the 2021 survey is high-speed design: 66% of respondents do high-speed work.

On average, half the respondents produce 10 or fewer designs, or part numbers, per year (FIGURE 7, online). Over 12% said they produce more than 20 designs per year.

For the first time, PCD&F asked respondents to share how many board revisions (re-spins) they produce annually, on average. The most common response was 1 to 5 re-spins (50%) (FIGURE 8, online). Another 24% said they produce 6 to 10, while 11% produce 11 to 15.

Respondents primarily design for these end-markets:

  • Government/military/aerospace/avionics/marine/space: 2021: 24%
  • Industrial controls/equipment/robotics: 15%
  • Automotive/other ground vehicles: 12%
  • Consumer electronics (including wearables and white goods): 11%
  • Medical/optical electronics and equipment: 11%
  • Communications/related systems equipment (including all phone types): 10%
  • Electronic instruments/ATE design and test: 6%
  • Computers/peripherals: 3%
  • Semiconductors and related packaging or test equipment: 3%
  • Other: 5%

Challenges. PCB design professionals are most concerned about their workload and keeping up with technology changes, more so than whether they’ll keep their jobs. Sixty-four percent indicated the biggest challenge of 2021 is workload, versus 59% last year. More than 39% are concerned about keeping up with technology changes, and 27% said their biggest challenge is getting funding to continue professional development – a new option on the survey. Only 18% indicated they worry about being laid off, versus 24% last year, and even fewer are concerned about outsourcing (15%).

ECAD tools. In terms of ECAD tools used on a weekly basis, Altium Designer is making headway, with 55% of responses (FIGURE 9, online). Some 44% of designers use Cadence software (Allegro or OrCAD), and 39% use Mentor – now Siemens (Xpedition, BoardStation or Pads).

The weekly numbers were generally consistent with the annual figures. At least once a year, 53% of respondents use Altium Designer (FIGURE 10, online), while nearly half use one of the Cadence tools, and 38% use Mentor.

With the future uncertain and the pandemic not over yet, the job of the PCB designer remains sound, with well-educated respondents to this year’s survey at the higher end of their salary range, receiving ample benefits, and working as hard as ever, while continuing to absorb and use new technologies.

We would be fortunate to be on the other side of the worst of Covid-19 when it’s time for the 2022 design engineers’ salary survey, and hopefully by then many of us who haven’t seen colleagues since early 2020 will have had the ability for in-person visits because, in addition to the data PCD&F recently collected, the importance of connections made in the industry can’t be underestimated.

Ed.: A special thank you to Stephen Chavez, chairman, PCEA, for reviewing the 2021 designers’ salary survey questions and providing his expert input.

For additional figures and tables, see the online version. For a look at past surveys, click here.