I happen to be a hardware/software designer. They didn’t really have “computer engineerig” degrees back when I went to school. I have a BSEE and have almost taken enough classes to have a CS degree also.
An associates degree isn’t going to get you diddley. I’ve known many people who have associates degrees who have a better understanding of electronics than people with BS degrees, but there’s still an attitude in the industry that associates degrees are for tech jobs. If you want to do real engineering, you need a BS degree as a minimum.
It’s a tough market out there. As previos posters have mentioned, a lot of work has gone overseas. Still, there are jobs over here. Our company used to have an entire department of hardware engineers. Now we have one dedicated hardware engineer. The hardware jobs aren’t as plentiful as they used to be, but they are out there.
Damn near everything has a processor in it these days. Make sure you learn processors inside and out, and can write embedded software. Learn C, x86 assembly, and assembly and C for PIC microprocessors.
Learn FPGAs and how to write VHDL. A lot of the FPGA manufacturers have free software you can download from their web site where you can build code for their devices and do simulation as well.
Get experience with at least one board layout package. Something like Protel or Orcad is going to cost you at least $10,000, which most students can’t afford. There are some free board layout packages available for linux. Get familiar with them. For about $100 you can e-mail your board layout over to some outfit in china and have them make you a PCB. $100 may be a bit expensive for a student, but do it at least once for the experience.
Nobody needs a hardware designer who is fresh out of school. Everyone wants someone who can hit the ground running. Do co-ops and get whatever experience you can while you are going to school. Even if it’s an unpaid internship, it’s worth it for the experience. You can get a BSEE in four years, but you aren’t going to be worth anything to anyone. Take 6 years to do it, with lots and lots of co-op work in between, and maybe you’ll be marketable when you are done.
If you are good at both hardware and software, you can land yourself a lot of niche jobs. That’s what has kept me employed through most of my career. I got one job because I was the only person who applied who could do it. There’s a tendency in the industry for hardware people not to like software and software people not to like hardware, and when there’s a problem, both groups point their fingers at the other group. Being able to understand both and figure out whether the problem is hardware or software is a valuable skill set which some people do appreciate.
My final word of advice: Read Dilbert. It’s not a comic strip. It’s a documentary of how engineering is done in the real world.
If you love it, stick with it. I’ve been designing stuff for almost 20 years, and I still enjoy going to work every day. I may bitch about a lot of things in my job, but every day I get to go to work and spend all day long doing something I think is fun. How many people can say that?