A bachelor’s degree in engineering typically is required;
many sales engineers have previous work experience in an
Projected employment growth stems from the increasing
number and technical nature of products and services to
More job opportunities are expected in independent sales
Earnings are based on a combination of salary and commissions.
Nature of the Work
Many products and services, especially those purchased
by large companies and institutions, are highly complex. Sales
engineers—who also may be called manufacturers’ agents, sales
representatives, or technical sales support workers—work
with the production, engineering, or research and development
departments of their companies, or with independent sales firms,
to determine how products and services could be designed or
modified to suit customers’ needs. They also may advise customers
on how best to use the products or services provided.
Selling, of course, is an important part of the
job. Sales engineers use their technical skills to demonstrate
to potential customers how and why the products or services
they are selling would suit the customer better than competitors’
products. Often, there may not be a directly competitive product.
In these cases, the job of the sales engineer is to demonstrate
to the customer the usefulness of the product or service—for
example, how much money new production machinery would save.
Most sales engineers have a bachelor’s degree
in engineering, and many have previous work experience in an
engineering specialty. Engineers apply the theories and principles
of science and mathematics to technical problems. Their work
is the link between scientific discoveries and commercial applications.
Many sales engineers specialize in an area related to an engineering
specialty. For example, sales engineers selling chemical products
may have chemical engineering backgrounds, while those selling
business software or information systems may have degrees in
computer engineering. Information on engineers, including 17
engineering specialties, appears elsewhere in the Handbook.
Many of the duties of sales engineers are similar
to those of other salespersons. They must interest the client
in purchasing their products, many of which are durable manufactured
products such as turbines. Sales engineers often are teamed
with other salespersons who concentrate on the marketing and
sales, enabling the sales engineer to concentrate on the technical
aspects of the job. By working on a sales team, each member
is able to focus on his or her strengths and knowledge. (Information
on other sales occupations, including sales representatives,
wholesale and manufacturing, appears elsewhere in the Handbook.)
Sales engineers tend to employ selling techniques
that are different from those used by most other sales workers.
They generally use a “consultative” style; that is, they focus
on the client’s problem and show how it could be solved or mitigated
with their product or service. This selling style differs from
the “benefits and features” method, whereby the salesperson
describes the product and leaves the customer to decide how
it would be useful.
In addition to maintaining current clients and
attracting new ones, sales engineers help clients solve any
problems that arise when the product is installed. Afterward,
they may continue to serve as a liaison between the client and
their company. Increasingly, sales engineers are asked to undertake
tasks related to sales, such as market research, because of
their familiarity with clients’ purchasing needs. Drawing on
this same familiarity, sales engineers may help identify and
develop new products.
Sales engineers may work directly for manufacturers
or service providers, or they may work in small independent
sales firms. In an independent firm, they may sell complementary
products from several different suppliers and be paid entirely
Many sales engineers work more than 40 hours per
week to meet sales goals and their clients’ needs. Selling can
be stressful because sales engineers’ income and job security
often directly depend on their success in sales and customer
Some sales engineers have large territories and
travel extensively. Because sales regions may cover several
States, sales engineers may be away from home for several days
or even weeks at a time. Others work near their home base and
travel mostly by car. International travel, to secure contracts
with foreign clients, is becoming more common.
Although the hours may be long and often are irregular,
many sales engineers have the freedom to determine their own
schedule. Consequently, they often can arrange their appointments
so that they can have time off when they want it. However, most
independent sales engineers do not earn any income while on
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
A bachelor’s degree in engineering usually is
required to become a sales engineer. However, some workers with
previous experience in sales combined with technical experience
or training sometimes hold the title of sales engineer. Also,
workers who have a degree in a science, such as chemistry, or
even a degree in business with little or no previous sales experience,
may be termed sales engineers.
Admissions requirements for undergraduate engineering
schools include a solid background in mathematics (algebra,
geometry, trigonometry, and calculus) and the physical sciences
(biology, chemistry, and physics), as well as basic courses
in English, social studies, humanities, and computer science.
University programs vary in content, though all require the
development of computer skills. For example, some programs emphasize
industrial practices, preparing students for a job in industry,
whereas others are more theoretical and prepare students for
graduate school. Therefore, students should investigate curriculums
and check accreditations carefully before making a selection.
Once a university has been selected, a student must choose an
area of engineering in which to specialize. Some programs offer
a general engineering curriculum; students then specialize on
the job or in graduate school. Most engineering degrees are
granted in electrical, mechanical, or civil engineering. However,
engineers trained in one branch may work in related branches.
Many sales engineers first work as engineers.
For some, the engineering experience is necessary to obtain
the technical background needed to sell their employers’ products
or services effectively. Others move into the occupation because
it offers better earnings and advancement potential or because
they are looking for a new challenge.
New graduates with engineering degrees may need
sales experience and training before they can work directly
as sales engineers. Training may involve teaming with a sales
mentor who is familiar with the employer’s business practices,
customers, procedures, and company culture. After the training
period has been completed, sales engineers may continue to partner
with someone who lacks technical skills, yet excels in the art
Promotion may include a higher commission rate,
larger sales territory, or elevation to the position of supervisor
or marketing manager. Alternatively, sales engineers may leave
their companies and form independent firms that may offer higher
commissions and more freedom. Independent firms tend to be small,
although relatively few sales engineers are self-employed.
It is important for sales engineers to continue
their engineering and sales education throughout their careers
because much of their value to their employers depends on their
knowledge of the latest technology and their ability to sell
that technology. Sales engineers in high-technology areas, such
as information technology or advanced electronics, may find
that technical knowledge rapidly becomes obsolete.
Sales engineers held about 74,000 jobs in 2004.
About 35 percent were employed in wholesale trade and another
27 percent were employed in the manufacturing industries. Smaller
numbers of sales engineers worked in information industries,
such as software publishers and telecommunications; professional,
scientific, and technical services, such as computer systems
designs and related services and architectural, engineering,
and related services; and other industries. Unlike workers in
many other sales occupations, very few sales engineers are self-employed.
Employment of sales engineers is expected to grow
about as fast as the average for all occupations through the
year 2014. Projected employment growth stems from the increasing
variety and technical nature of goods and services to be sold.
Competitive pressures and advancing technology will force companies
to improve and update product designs more frequently and to
optimize their manufacturing and sales processes. In addition
to new positions created as companies expand their sales forces,
some openings will arise each year from the need to replace
sales engineers who transfer to other occupations or leave the
Manufacturers, especially foreign manufacturers
that sell their products in the United States, are expected
to continue outsourcing more of their sales functions to independent
sales agencies in an attempt to control costs. This should result
in more job opportunities for sales engineers in independent
In wholesale trade, both outsourcing to independent
sales agencies and the use of information technology are expected
to affect employment opportunities for sales engineers. Although
outsourcing should lead to more jobs in independent agencies,
employment growth for sales engineers in wholesale trade likely
will be dampened by the increasing ability of businesses to
find, order, and track shipments directly from wholesalers through
the Internet, without assistance from sales engineers. Since
direct purchases from wholesalers are more likely to be of commodity
products, their impact on sales engineers should remain somewhat
Employment opportunities and earnings may fluctuate
from year to year because sales are affected by changing economic
conditions, legislative issues, and consumer preferences. Prospects
will be best for those with the appropriate knowledge or technical
expertise, as well as the personal traits necessary for successful
Compensation varies significantly by the type
of firm and the product sold. Most employers offer a combination
of salary and commission payments or a salary plus a bonus.
Commissions usually are based on the amount of sales, whereas
bonuses may depend on individual performance, on the performance
of all workers in the group or district, or on the company’s
performance. Earnings from commissions and bonuses may vary
greatly from year to year, depending on sales ability, the demand
for the company’s products or services, and the overall economy.
Median annual earnings of sales engineers, including
commissions, were $70,620 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent
earned between $53,270 and $91,500 a year. The lowest 10 percent
earned less than $41,430, and the highest 10 percent earned
more than $117,260 a year. Median annual earnings of those employed
by firms in the computer systems design and related services
industry were $86,980.
In addition to their earnings, sales engineers
who work for manufacturers usually are reimbursed for expenses
such as transportation, meals, hotels, and customer entertainment.
In addition to typical benefits, sales engineers often get personal
use of a company car and frequent-flyer mileage. Some companies
offer incentives such as free vacation trips or gifts for outstanding
performance. Sales engineers who work in independent firms may
have higher but less stable earnings and, often, relatively
Sales engineers must have sales ability and knowledge
of the products and services they sell, as well as technical
and analytical skills. Other occupations that require similar
skills include advertising, marketing, promotions, public relations,
and sales managers; engineers; insurance sales agents; purchasing
managers, buyers, and purchasing agents; real estate brokers
and sales agents; sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing;
and securities, commodities, and financial services sales agents.
Sources of Additional Information
Information on careers for manufacturers’ representatives
and agents is available from: