Data engineers are emerging power players that can help your organization break away from the competition. You've heard the title before, but what do they really do?

At a high level, data engineers are the designers, builders and managers of information. As the value of data has risen, so has the data engineer's position on the totem pole -- giving them increased visibility but also broadening their job description and direct consultation. Because of this, they play a larger role in achieving business goals. Skilled data engineers are few and far between, making this position critical to the success of your company more than ever before.

Data engineers keep your business alive

U.S. demand for data engineers is expected to grow 15 percent by 2024 -- far exceeding demand for other occupations. Of course, the rise in demand is mirrored by the rise in pay: entry-level data engineers, armed just with bachelor degrees, are pulling in nearly $100k per year with salaries skyrocketing from there. A scarce resource with a high price tag, so why are data engineers so crucial to your business? Let's break it down.

1. They act as your Chief Problem Solver. The best data engineers are patient, persistent and focused. They can understand how and why data pipelines work, and if something's broken, they work to figure out the solution. The truly great data engineers love to learn. Their curiosity helps them identify an unexpected solution or come up with an alternate fix to a problem. They are familiar with numerous types of data sets and different programming languages, enabling them to help connect formerly siloed business units through data-powered systems.

Take this real life example from the Geisinger Health System. The Pennsylvania-based health system was one of the earliest adopters of a complete electronic health record, but was unable to pull meaningful insights out of the data being collected. Their data was aggregated from many sources but was effectively trapped in silos, a problem many hospitals - and enterprises in general- face. The solution was developed by the data engineer team. By utilizing big data, they gathered the digital healthcare data from various sources and integrated it all into a common space, making the program uniquely positioned to analyze information. This big data is now used to save lives by tracking and analyzing patient outcomes, correlating their genomic sequences with clinical care and visualizing healthcare data across bands of patients and networks of providers.

2. They have an easy grasp on standards and practices. We're talking about huge volumes of data, and data engineers are responsible for managing it all. Efficiency and a firm understanding of procedures and standards means your data is in good hands. Data engineers implement the required procedures, guidelines and standards and then develop technologies and tools to manage everything. In turn, this data management streamlines processes for all those relying on the data to do their jobs. With a firm grasp of algorithms, code and how it benefits the infrastructure, data engineers have the power at their fingertips.

3. They are your foundation in the cognitive era. Think of data engineers as your foundation: they lay the framework for data analysts and data scientists. Without a data engineer, the former are left scrambling on multiple roles and neither is performing to their full potential. Businesses are built from the ground up, and without a proper foundation of data engineers, the rest of your organization is at risk. This paradigm shift will mean less bodies and greater value for the enterprise.

The year of data engineers

Companies that are on the hunt for higher profits and looking to drive growth are focusing on adopting a new iteration of data-driven technology that will improve performance. Take my own organization for example, if you look back at the people that comprised the team 10 years ago, there were probably less than a quarter of the current number of data engineers.

Nowadays some of the biggest names in business, as well as the U.S. government, are ramping up their recruitment for the position. In a recent survey, nearly half of all executives across the U.S. and Europe said that in three years, analytics and big data skills will be the most important digital capabilities at their companies. Data engineers have grown in visibility and influence as enterprises realize that the future of computing lies with how the underlying data - the architecture and infrastructure - is handled.

Amid the data explosion, the question each leader asks- how do I make money and get real results- is answered, made possible by the data engineer's combined familiarity with enterprise infrastructure and business processes and priorities. I'm declaring 2017 the year of change for data engineers. Business leaders, it's time to elevate the role of your data engineers- the sole protectors of your most valuable asset next to your people and infrastructure- and reimagine the future of your company with data engineers leading the way.

Published on: Apr 7, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.