Career advice for aspiring electrical engineers

A variety of industries employ electrical engineers, including the transport, manufacturing, construction, energy, telecommunications, and petrochemical sectors.

Electrical engineers use mathematics and physics principles to design, develop and assess electrical and electronic equipment and systems. They work with a range of technologies, including household appliances, the lighting and wiring systems of buildings, power transmission, telecommunications, and satellite communications. Many electrical engineers specialize in a particular field, such as electronics, microelectronics, signal processing, power, telecommunications, and instrumentation.

Electrical Engineer

What Can You Expect from a Job as an Electrical Engineer?

Responsibilities

As an electrical engineer, you're responsible for the lifecycle of electrical projects, from the design phase to delivery and beyond. The specific responsibilities associated with this job vary depending on the engineer's area of specialization, but may include:

  • Communicating with customers to determine their requirements
  • Designing electrical products and systems based on client briefs
  • Estimating costs and timelines for project delivery
  • Interpreting technical drawings and design specifications
  • Creating project prototypes and models using three-dimensional design software
  • Communicating with team members during project design and development
  • Designing and performing tests to determine whether new products and systems meet standards
  • Recording and evaluating test data
  • Proposing electrical product and system modifications to improve quality and efficiency
  • Monitoring user comments to learn of areas where products and systems warrant improvements
  • Retesting electrical products and systems to determine whether modifications have desired effect
  • Performing maintenance procedures and repairs on existing electrical products and systems
  • Writing product documentation and reports
  • Giving presentations about projects and performance to clients and company executives

Work Environment

Electrical engineers typically work in laboratories and research facilities, factories, mines, industrial and production plants, power stations, and office settings. Depending on their location, electrical engineers may work in modern comfort or in hot, cramped, or dusty places. The working environments of electrical engineers can also be dangerous, especially if they engineers work around live electrical equipment and systems.

Electrical engineers may spend time at a desk developing designs, planning budgets, and preparing project schedules. However, they spend a lot of time moving around overseeing the work of electricians, scientists, computer programmers, and other engineers. They may also spend time out of their regular workplace meeting with clients, collecting information, and studying equipment. While some travel may be involved, it's uncommon for electrical engineers to spend nights away from home.

As electrical engineers must work closely with clients and other employees within their organizations, they cannot work from home as many other workers can.

Schedule

Electrical engineers typically work 40-hour weeks within traditional business hours. It's rare for electrical engineers to work on public holidays, on weekends, and late at night. However, additional hours may be required close to deadlines and if problems arise that require urgent resolution.

Some jobs may also provide flexible working arrangements for electrical engineers who cannot commit to full-time hours. Electrical engineer consultants and contractors enjoy the most flexible working schedules.

What Qualifications Are Required to Be an Electrical Engineer?

Education

While pre-engineering courses are offered at the associate level, electrical engineers must hold at least a bachelor's degree from a college or university accredited by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology. Most electrical engineers hold either a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering or a Bachelor of Engineering majoring in electrical engineering.

During these degree pursuits, students will learn more about electrical theory and get practical experience working with mechanics, computer programming, circuitry, and thermodynamics. Students can also specialize in a particular discipline, such as telecommunications engineering or biomedical engineering, to prepare themselves for a particular role upon graduation.

Bachelor programs in electrical engineering at top schools are very competitive. Students must have high grades in computer science, mathematics, physics, and chemistry to gain admission.

After gaining their degree, aspiring electrical engineers must gain a passing grade in the Fundamentals of Engineering exam to work in their chosen profession. They are then known as electrical engineers in training or electrical engineer interns.

Many employers require electrical engineers to hold advanced degrees to progress in their careers. Common post-graduate degrees include:

  • Master of Science in Electrical Engineering
  • Master of Engineering majoring in electrical engineering
  • Doctor of Philosophy in Electrical Engineering

In addition, many companies also offer comprehensive training programs which include orientation initiatives and structured continuing professional development schemes.

Experience

Experience is valued in the industries electrical engineers work in, with many employers looking for prior experience in new hires. Electrical engineering students are strongly advised to undertake an internship to make connections and refine their practical skills before entering the workforce.

After gaining four years' experience, electrical engineers can take their Professional Engineer exam. A Professional Engineer license can open up more professional opportunities.

The high salaries that experienced electrical engineers command point to their value to employers. On average, electrical engineers with 20 or more years' experience earn 44 percent more than the national average, while new electrical engineers earn 9 percent less than the national average.

Despite this, the majority of electrical engineers move on to other positions once they have more than 20 years' experience. That's why workers in the late stages of their career make up just 10 percent of electrical engineers. In contrast, 39 percent of electrical engineers have between one and four years' of experience and 24 percent have between five and nine years' experience in this job.

This shows that while many electrical engineers choose to advance in their careers, their experience is so valued that they could enjoy opportunities in this position throughout their working lives.

Skills

Electrical engineers need a variety of hard and soft skills to excel in their roles. While these attributes aren't typically listed on an electrical engineer job description, hiring managers look for the following job candidates:

  • Problem-solving skills – Electrical engineers must solve complex problems while troubleshooting failed products, repairing goods, and refining products.
  • Creativity – While this quality is more commonly associated with the arts, electrical engineers use their creativity to find new, innovative ways to design, modify, and troubleshoot their programs.
  • Decisiveness – Electrical engineers must make firm, informed decisions about the projects they're working on.
  • Eye for detail – Electrical engineers must undertake precise work where a small mistake can have serious consequences.
  • Commercial awareness – Keeping pace with commercial trends and innovations helps electrical engineers develop the best solutions.
  • Leadership skills – Electrical engineers must take charge of programs and a team of employees to see them to completion.
  • Planning and organizational skills – These skills help electrical engineers plan how to allocate resources, develop achievable budgets, and manage their time and the time of people involved in their projects.
  • Written and oral communication skills – Electrical engineers often need to explain concepts and projects to people who don't have their specialized knowledge. Whether writing documentation or presenting information verbally, electrical engineers regularly call on their communication skills.
  • Ability to work in a multidisciplinary team – Electrical engineers often work with employees with different skill sets and technical knowledge.
  • Passion for technology, mathematics, and physics – An enthusiasm for these topics led us to name electrical engineers one of the top jobs for nerds.

Salary Expectations

How much do electrical engineers make? Entry-level electrical engineers typically earn annual salaries of around $66,000. Experience has an effect on salaries, with annual earnings rising to $97,000 after between 5 and 10 years. Location can also significantly impact an electrical engineer's annual earnings. For example, the average annual salary for an electrical engineer is $110,500 in San Jose, California; $102,500 in Houston, Texas; and $121,500 in San Diego, California.

Job Outlook for Electrical Engineers

Projected Growth

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics groups electrical engineers with electronic engineers for classification purposes. It predicts this group will shed 1000 workers between 2014 and 2024, which amounts to little to no change. That's because the manufacturing sector, a major employer of electrical and electronics engineers, is expected to decline or experience only marginal growth within this period.

Career Trajectory

Motivated electrical engineers have various opportunities to advance within their field. They might decide to take on a project management position or pursue another type of management role. Many electrical engineers decide to become consultants or contractors, to enjoy more flexible lifestyles. Some electrical engineers also decide to pursue academic careers, teaching the next generation of electrical engineers.

Gaining higher qualifications in electrical engineering, and a Professional Engineer license, will help electrical engineers advance in their careers. Membership to a relevant professional body, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, can also be advantageous.

Working as an electrical engineer is a rewarding choice for people passionate about technology, mathematics, and science, as it lets them use these disciplines in innovative ways. They will find competitive salaries and work in a variety of industries also make electrical engineering work appealing. Start searching for work as an electrical engineer today.


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