11 Key Skills for PLC Programmers (Plus Definition and Tips)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published September 29, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

There are many rewarding careers in manufacturing and industrial engineering, including jobs that include PLC programming. PLC programming allows companies to automate the production flow for microchips, automobiles, food products and many other items. If you're interested in becoming a PLC programmer, learning about common PLC programmer skills can help you in your career development.

In this article, we discuss what PLC programmers do, list 11 key skills they might use in their work and give you tips for developing and highlighting your skills during a job search.

What do PLC programmers do?

PLC programmers design and program control systems for automation in manufacturing plants and other facilities. They use programmable logic controllers (PLCs), small computers with microprocessors that communicate between the user and the various parts of a machine. These components allow engineers and manufacturing technicians to automate the manufacturing process, saving time and money.

PLC programmers may work in a range of industries, including industrial manufacturing, automotive manufacturing, electrical engineering and IT. They might work for a single manufacturer or for a PLC consulting company that creates and programs controller program software for various client companies.

11 PLC programmer skills

Here are 11 key skills that a PLC programmer might use to be successful in their work:

1. Mechanical knowledge

Because PLC programmers work with a range of mechanical devices, understanding how these components work allows the programmer to create effective control systems. The control systems communicate across the machinery and may link multiple machines together.

PLC programmers often have extensive knowledge of pneumatic, wiring and hydraulic systems. Depending on the type of machinery they work on, they may also know about ignition or fueling systems. This knowledge allows them to program control systems that work and require little maintenance from a PLC technician or other service professional.

Related: How To Become a PLC Technician

2. Schematic drawing

When a company's leaders hire a PLC programmer or contract with a PLC consulting firm, the programmer usually meets with the director of operations, manufacturing director and other stakeholders to discuss their needs. After that, the programmer might draw a schematic of the program plans, showing how the PLC fits into the machinery and what it does.

They can use these schematics to create the control system for the client. PLC programmers and technicians might learn how to draw and interpret electronic and mechanical schematics in their degree coursework or certification courses.

Related: What Is an Automation Engineer? Skills and Certifications

3. Coding

PLC programmers build control systems for their clients using coding languages, which allows them to create custom functions for each system. Some common coding languages for PLCs include ladder logic, structured text and sequential function charts.

They might learn the most common coding languages in their degree programs or certification courses. Depending on their company or client, they may also use proprietary coding languages, which might require them to take courses or read training material.

4. Knowledge of safety regulations

Because they build and program components for industrial, chemical and electrical production plants, PLC programmers follow state and federal safety guidelines for their control systems. They may also have industry-specific knowledge about the manufacturing processes or work with the company's safety compliance staff to learn about the special safety concerns of their facility.

This information can help them determine the system's safety parameters, which are vital for the safety of the people who work with the machines. For example, a PLC control system for a chemical engineering plant might have an automatic switch-off when chemicals reach high temperatures.

5. Communication

Effective communication ensures that the PLC programmer creates a system that fits the needs of their clients or stakeholders. In the project's initial meeting, the programmer might discuss the client's needs and the mechanical equipment they currently use.

Strong communication skills can help a PLC programmer identify all of their client's system priorities. PLC programmers also communicate with their clients throughout the process. They may meet with stakeholders in person for regular meetings or communicate via email. If they use written communication, they can include information about the system's performance in initial tests.

Related: 4 Types of Communication and How To Improve Them

5. Complex problem-solving

Companies might hire or contract a PLC programmer to automate steps in an existing manufacturing process, which can present the programmer with unique challenges. To create a PLC control system that works smoothly with every piece of equipment involved in the manufacturing process, the programmer might use their complex problem-solving skills.

They may identify the key processes to automate and the desired outcome in terms of productivity or efficiency. Next, they can design a schematic that fits their needs and begin building the system. They may also perform a series of tests to ensure the system works.

Related: Complex Problem-Solving: Definition and Steps

6. Attention to detail

PLC systems can include a wide range of components, including wireless or fiber-optic connections, power supply units and a communication interface. Depending on the process, it may integrate with fuel systems, robotic parts, laser cutters and many other production tools.

PLC programmers link these complex components together with a detailed control system. Building and programming these systems requires strong attention to detail, as a small piece of code can govern a range of mechanical actions. PLC programmers also use their attention to detail in the testing phase to identify any areas for improvement.

7. Organization

In large manufacturing companies and PLC contracting firms, a PLC programmer might work on several projects at the same time. For example, a PLC programmer for a food processing company might program a PLC control system for the dairy department and the packaging facility at the same time. They use their organization skills to ensure that each project is successful. Depending on the company and the size of the project, they may use task management software to track project completion.

8. Initiative

While a PLC programmer might communicate with their clients or project stakeholders to determine their needs and create system schematics, they typically build and code the PLC systems on their own. They may have the freedom to set their own working hours or conditions, which can provide freedom.

Their sense of initiative allows them to complete their projects within set deadlines. Many PLC programmers take the initiative to learn more about the client's specific manufacturing process as they create the PLC system, which can help them make a system that optimizes the process for their client.

9. Flexibility

Because PLC programmers often build custom systems for their clients and internal manufacturing departments, they might adjust their schematics during the construction or testing processes.

As they communicate with the project's stakeholders, they might identify potential challenges in their original design and redesign the system to make it perform better. The testing process also gives them an opportunity to make the system more effective or user-friendly, so many PLC programmers take time to make adjustments after testing the system.

10. Aptitude for learning

Technological innovations cause PLC programming and other manufacturing processes to change over time. New coding languages and increased wireless connectivity in manufacturing devices can affect how a PLC programmer builds a system, especially in disruptive industries like software engineering and automotive manufacturing.

PLC programmers are constantly learning new skills and content to meet their project requirements. As they progress in their careers, they might earn advanced certifications or complete additional degrees, which can allow them to take on more challenging projects.

11. Time management

Since PLC programming is often a project-based job, strong time management skills can help a PLC programmer complete their tasks in time for their project deadlines. When they meet with their clients or other stakeholders for an initial planning session, the programmer might develop a project plan that lists deadlines for certain stages of the project.

For example, they might schedule a second meeting in two weeks, where they present the stakeholders with their schematics for approval. When designing a project plan, many PLC programmers include time for testing and initial client feedback.

How to improve PLC programmer skills

Here are three ways you can develop and improve your PLC programmer skills:

  1. Complete a degree. You might earn a PLC technician certificate or associate degree to begin building your skills in PLC programming. These programs typically include coursework in electrical engineering, coding and manufacturing principles.

  2. Earn a certification. Earning a certification in PLC programming or electrical engineering can help you develop your skills further. These programs can also make you eligible for more jobs in your chosen field.

  3. Gain work experience. You might start your career as a PLC technician or general electrician trainee to learn how to apply your knowledge and skills. These jobs can also help you refine your communication and project management skills.

PLC programmer skills in the workplace

Here are a few ways you might use your PLC programmer skills in your work:

  • Use your communication skills to determine your clients' needs. You might bring in examples of previous projects to help your clients explain their needs and ask them questions about their company's manufacturing processes.

  • Create project plans, schematics and progress reports for your clients, manager and other stakeholders. You can use your initiative, time management skills and schematic drawing abilities to create these resources and document your progress.

  • Improve your designs and prototypes based on user testing. Depending on the project, you might perform testing yourself or ask the client to try the system and then modify the product from their feedback.

How to highlight PLC programmer skills

Here are some ways you can highlight your PLC programmer skills during a job search:

PLC programmer skills for a resume and cover letter

In your resume and cover letter, you can show your PLC programmer skills in several places. If you have prior experience working in PLC programming, manufacturing or electrical engineering, you can include those experiences in your professional history on your resume.

You can also mention these positions in your cover letter. PLC programming degrees or certifications can be valuable evidence of your skills, so include them in the education part of your resume and in the introduction to your cover letter. Finally, if you've completed any PLC programming projects, you can include information about them.

PLC programmer skills for an interview

During your interview, emphasize your skills by mentioning your past projects and experiences as examples when you answer questions. Before an interview, you might make a list of relevant experiences, projects or courses you've taken so you remember them during the interview.

If an interviewer asks you questions about your experience performing a certain PLC task, connect the question to your skills by describing past projects or assignments. Observing interview etiquette by arriving on time, dressing appropriately, maintaining eye contact and answering clearly can show a hiring manager that you have key soft skills, like communication and initiative.

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