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How to Become an Electrical Engineer in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Michael Faraday worked on the effects of magnetism on light and electrolysis. Edith Clarke invented the Clarke Calculator and wrote an influential textbook. Along with Nikola Tesla and James Clarke Maxwell, Clark and Faraday are some of the world’s most influential electrical engineers. Over the last century, electrical and electronic engineering has evolved to include the television, transistors, GPS, the Internet, and fiber optics, diversifying both the industry. In the beginning, the industry dictated the curriculum at top universities like MIT. These days, the research coming from those universities is already changing the world, making it an exciting time to get an engineering degree. 

Steps to becoming an electrical engineer

Becoming an electrical engineer means you have opportunities to work in several sectors to solve pressing issues relating to industry, research, the environment, and space. You can design electrical grids or work on the next generation of smart devices. 

To become an electrical engineer, it’s important to attend a college degree program that’s accredited by Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). This is important because, in many states, ABET accreditation is required for advanced engineering designation and licensing.

Some schools offer an associate degree in electrical engineering, which is a great way to introduce students to the discipline. Once you’ve decided on your exact major, getting an internship provides you with hands-on experience while earning class credit and that will help you decide if that’s what you want to do.

Get your engineering credentials

As you finish your bachelor’s degree and are getting ready to get into the job market, it’s a good idea to get your credentials. The Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam is the first step in becoming a licensed professional engineer. Administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), the FE is a six-hour exam that varies across the seven disciplines. Those who pass the FE are considered Engineer-in-Training (EIT) and in the eyes of many engineering firms, this is a designation that makes new graduates stand out. After about three to five years of work experience, they may qualify to take the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam for their discipline to become a licensed professional engineer 

Electrical engineering major core skills 

While you’ll gain a lot of technical and laboratory knowledge, here are some core skills you learn in an engineering program:

  • Circuit design and analysis are about understanding the basic elements of a circuit and how to find the currents and voltages throughout the network. It will also teach you about what happens when different elements and circuits are connected.
  • Critical thinking and complex problem-solving skills permeate the discipline. Engineers must apply, conceptualize, analyze, and evaluate information through a variety of means, including experience and observation. Engineering programs rely on the scientific method to instill this discipline into students.
  • Understanding the differences between power, current, and voltage means being able to understand the instrumentation and electrical measurements. For example, reading the dynamics of electro-mechanical hardware and processes by learning about ammeter, ohmmeter, voltmeters, and other tools.
  • Linear systems theory and analysis teaches electrical engineering students how to amplify and process signals without distortion. It also teaches students about the superposition principle, which states that the net response of a circuit should be equal to the sum of the individual parts. 
  • A class about building and operating computer systems teaches the concepts of networked computer clustering and understanding how they function together as a unit.

Breaking into the electrical engineering field

As an entry-level EE, your job mostly involves: 

  • Preparing equipment to the specifications required to ensure accuracy
  • Reviewing vendor information and specs, which includes information vital to projects bids or running equipment
  • Testing electronic systems as a way to optimizing and streamlining functionality
  • Conducting experiments as a way of gathering evidence and data for research
  • Creating reports for senior colleagues and managers about recent projects, data, statistics, and all other vital information

These tasks vary by discipline. Even if you have the knowledge required, breaking into the profession means finding ways to stand out among the competition. There are quite a few ways to accomplish that.

  • Earn your credentials by passing the FE. With this designation, potential employers will know that you are serious about your profession.
  • Getting a paid internship is a great way to dip a toe in a particular specialty and learning about the day-to-day roles. It’s also a great way for potential employers and employees to check each other out to see if they can work together.
  • Getting a work-study position within the university as a research assistant or lab technician is a great way for electrical engineering majors to build up their experience and show that they can be professionals from day one.
  • Showcasing your portfolio of electrical engineering projects and designs. These could be projects you did for a class, for a job, or on your own that demonstrate your technical acumen and capabilities.
  • Getting your resume and cover letter formatted and ready for applying to electrical engineering jobs. There are different ways to showcase your skills effectively and professionally. It’s a good idea to talk to your career center staff to get some help with cover letters and resume templates.

The best way time to get started is in the last semester before graduation, so that you can hit the ground running as you get closer to graduation.

Roles and responsibilities for electrical engineers

Electrical engineering is a discipline that studies the relationship between electricity, electronics, and electromagnetism with the help of math and physics. Apart from the invention of the light bulb, the telegraph, the radio, and the telephone, it was the invention of the transistor and integrated circuit that was the common thread throughout the general population. While its fundamentals are solid, some of the many branches and subspecialties have altered the role of EEs, because it’s now mixed with the concepts of commercialization and business. 

Different types of electrical engineering 

  • Power engineering involves operating and maintaining heavy-duty systems and equipment, including reactors, generators, boilers, and refrigeration. These systems are powered by transmission networks, and the operators are responsible for monitoring switchboards on the work sites. They control start-up and shut down of equipment, load transmission, and coordination, and analyzing readings 
  • Control systems engineering is about stabilizing dynamic systems. These engineers design, develop, and implement solutions that control these systems using many types of components, including human and technological. They work with a lot of mathematical modeling and computer simulations to ascertain the variables they need, and then they develop software to apply that solution in the real world.
  • Electronics engineering is about designing, creating, and executing electronic equipment. That means working with circuits and devices and covers a broad array of subspecialties, including radio-frequency engineering, which now includes Wi-Fi and mobile, as well as programmable logic engineering that deals with chips.
  • Micro-electronics engineering is a subspecialty within electronics engineering that deals with the design and development of microelectronic components, such as chips, transistors, and the smallest components found in many devices. The design and manufacture of these components require detailed knowledge of the processes involved.
  • Computer engineering combines electronics engineering and computer science. Computer engineers design and develop computer systems, networks, and other devices, such as data storage units, printers, and memory chips. Computer engineering is a broad discipline that requires solid knowledge of electrical engineering. Notable pioneers in this field are Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, and John Backus, inventor of the FORTRAN programming language. 
  • Digital signal processing (DSP) engineering is all about managing different frequencies to reduce interference and crosstalk with common methods, such as Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM). With DSP, a signal processing engineer studies the standards and techniques, defines a demodulator architecture, and uses algorithms to produce the desired validation.
  • Telecommunications engineering combines electrical systems and computer engineering design to develop and maintain wired and wireless communication systems. Telecommunication engineers design circuits, Electronics switching systems, fiber-optic cabling, and other such systems. They also evaluate systems and inspect instruments and equipment.
  • Instrumentation engineering is a specialty that deals with sensor-based control processes. Equipment that uses sensors to measure pressure, voltage, and temperature falls into this category. It is such an advanced role that it’s not made for junior electrical engineers or even electrical engineering technicians. To be able to design and optimize these devices for efficiency and safety takes a lot of experience.

Where do electrical engineers work?

With the growing number so specializations and the continued interconnectivity, there are myriad electrical engineering jobs in almost all sectors. The most prominent industries are:

Information technology (IT)

With smartphones, electric cars, and the Internet of Things (IoT), information technology is no longer just about big companies. Networked communication, especially for those who work from home, requires proper design and development of chips, microprocessors, and other devices.  

Manufacturing 

Televisions, automobiles, and even aircraft manufacturing systems need electrical engineers to design and implement networks, circuits, and equipment. Manufacturing engineers understand the complexity of the equipment and processes. They are experts in understanding instrumentation, power, or other aspects of the discipline and can manage a team of technicians and designers. Interestingly, the manufacturing sector employs over 10 percent of electrical engineering graduates. 

Automotive

Along with manufacturing, the automotive industry needs electrical and computer engineers to design traditional automobiles as well as the next generation which includes autonomous and electric vehicles. They need electrical engineering professionals who understand the instruments, wireless, controls, and so many other components in that ecosystem. The opportunities within this industry seem to be flexible and endless.

Construction

Designing an electrical system that complies with the necessary regulations and codes is the most common role for electrical engineers in the construction sector. They need to test industrial electrical systems, install them, and calculate the costs of project deliverables. Their thorough understanding of different building codes and requirements makes it easier for them to spot issues and take necessary action.

Aerospace

As more companies look towards space for travel, research, and to discover new power sources, they’re going to need professionals who have that combination of childlike curiosity and expertise to design and test rockets, planes, and satellites that can safely transport humans, animals, and equipment. In the aerospace industry, electrical engineers can work on high-impact projects right away that involve designing diagrams and schematics for missions. The level of innovation and learning that happens in the aerospace sector often impacts or births a lot of commercial products here on earth.

When EE meets health and medicine

When it comes to health and medicine, the contribution of EE professionals can change and save lives. From designing and installing water purification systems that help rural and remote areas access clean water to creating equipment that safely and efficiently delivers chemotherapy drugs to patients, biomedical engineering makes a difference. Electrical engineers can start working on tissue projects and make their way into biomedical engineering, which is its own branch. Projects, such as neural interfaces and imaging, are grounded in many electrical engineering projects, and with the mixture of life science along with traditional engineering studies, EE students can work on projects, such as developing prosthetics or other biologically oriented topics.   

Another arm of this specialization focuses on environmental issues. To help fight climate change, electrical engineers are finding ways to help wastewater facilities deliver clean water with less of a carbon footprint. Then there’s antibiotic resistance, a medical nightmare that leaves everyone vulnerable. While some doctors are turning to machine learning for tracking the issue, some biomedical and chemical engineers are looking at nanoparticles to protect the body from bacteria on a molecular level. 

The role of electrical engineers in health and medicine is to combine creativity with technology to innovate in ways that advance societies.

Top skills for an electrical engineer

Apart from a solid understanding of electrical and electronics circuits, there are other skills you’ll learn which are related to construction activity, operational planning, and data. While these technical skills are paramount, the top skills you need to be a professional in electrical engineering include:

  • Good oral and written communication: As an electrical engineering student, you need to make your ideas clear to colleagues, bosses, and clients. That means being able to express them in practical and coherent ways and that usually involves giving a presentation. It may help to take a technical writing or public speaking class to help you build up those skills.
  • Mathematics: Too many electrical engineering students focus on the science of the discipline and tend to ignore mathematics. When dealing with capacitors and inductors, differential equations and other forms of calculus kick in when it comes to solving problems about decaying over time. It’s also needed when building skyscrapers, bridges, and navigation systems. 
  • Practical and creative skills: While some people think electrical engineering is dry and boring, it’s not. Not every problem has an immediate solution and as an EE,  you need to draw on your skills to find ways of solving problems and meeting goals that can work in most situations, especially if you’re working for a client.
  • Ability to work independently and take responsibility: While you may be a part of a team, you need to be able to do your part of the project to standard and on time. If something goes wrong for you or the team you manage, part of being a qualified professional engineer involves taking full responsibility and finding ways to make things right.
  • Enjoying computing and technical design: If you’re going to make your career in this field, it’s important to have a passion for computers, computer engineering design, electronics, electrical systems, and so much more related to this field. 

Once you get enough experience, other vital skills will develop. You will be able to understand how principles and laws affect specific processes. This keen awareness and knowledge is a great time saver.

Professional certifications for electrical engineers

Becoming a certified project manager is one of the best ways to set yourself apart from other electrical engineers. Sponsored by the Project Management Institute (PMI). Becoming a project management certified electrical engineer provides a standardized way to plan and execute projects and tools for EE professionals to develop their leadership skills and business acumen, so they can make the most of their careers. There are several certifications available, including the certified associate in project management (CAPM), for anyone who is starting in project management, to the project management professional (PMP) certification for more seasoned professionals. 

Along with PMI certification, there are several discipline-specific electrical engineering certifications that professionals can pursue to further solidify their expertise, including:

  • Energy Efficiency Management Certification Program: For EEs working in the power utility sector, this certification shows that they are up on the latest energy efficiency trends and technologies when it comes to helping industrial, commercial, and residential clients. Candidates need to take the five courses, pass the online exam and submit an energy efficiency business plan that will be graded. It’s renewable every two years. 
  • ETT Trainee Level I: Sponsored by the InterNational Electrical Testing Association (NETA), this is the first of four levels of certification that provides a junior electrical engineer with credentials to do simple measurements and tests as a trainee electrical engineering technician under the supervision of a higher-level technician.
  • Certified Energy Manager (CEM): Sponsored by the Association of Energy Engineers, the CEM designation means that individuals with an electrical engineering degree or at least P.E. and three years of professional experience have expertise in optimizing a facility’s energy performance. They know how to analyze and come up with effective solutions to reduce energy consumption. Renewal is every three years and candidates need continuing education units. 

High-demand electrical engineering skills

The electrical engineering skills that are in high demand involve electrical power and communications. The desire to reduce carbon emissions and turn to green energy solutions requires professionals who can not only improve existing power generation and distribution but can also design systems that fulfill the goal of low- or zero-emission. 

Organizations need telecommunications and network engineers to move 1.8 billion 4G connections to 5G by 2025. Electrical engineers with at least a bachelor’s degree and the necessary credentials who know how to model and modulate wireless communication channels as well as construct LAN/WAN/Wireless networks are going to be in the best spot to ride this wave.

In addition to these hardware skills, they’ll need to be proficient in different software and programming languages, including:

  • C and Python are great for programming microcontrollers which are used in integrated circuits
  • C++ is an object-oriented language that’s great for building simulations
  • Computer-aided drafting (CAD) software creates diagrams and schematics for electrical components and circuits
  • Project management software to track tasks, teams, billable hours, and milestones
  • Number crunching software, such as MATLAB for running differential and linear algebra equations

Electrical engineering degrees and careers

An associate degree in electrical engineering provides students with a general idea of what the career entails. They learn about engineering drawing, electrical circuits, and electronic systems as well as the necessary math and science. This is enough for students to get an entry-level electronics engineering technician job. 

With an electrical engineering bachelor’s degree, professionals dive deeper into the theory and practical foundations, along with analysis and engineering economics. Along with an internship, aspiring EEs get to see what it’s like to apply what they learn to real-life challenges. Building on what the bachelor’s offers, an EE master’s degree teaches system risk assessment as well as other management issues. In two or three years, grad students get to concentrate on niche career choices, including research and machine learning. For some, the master’s is a terminal degree, but there are doctoral degrees in electrical engineering that focus on research and the design of chips and systems. During their five- to six-year studies, they get to learn about the business side of technology for their specific path.

When it comes to EE, earnings don’t necessarily rise with the education level. Someone with a doctorate doesn’t necessarily make more than someone with a master’s or bachelors. It depends on the subject’s concentration. For example, sales engineers, electrical engineers who sell complex technological products to businesses earn well over $100,000 per year, while someone with an MSEE earns under $100,000. 

Massachusetts and Washington are two of the top states for electrical engineers. Microsoft, Amazon, and even the Department of Energy are available in Washington, while companies, such as Boston Scientific and Siemens reside in Massachusetts.

Typical career path for an electrical engineer 

The typical career of an EE starts with a bachelor’s degree completed within four years, but in many cases, students are working and go to school part-time, earning an associate’s and then a bachelor’s. In some specialties, graduates need to take the FE exam, which makes them an EIT. As a new engineer, your day is spent balancing theory and practice as you work on individual or team projects. You’re in the lab testing and building but are also making time to meet with project managers, clients, and other team members because that’s a major part of your day as you iron out specifications.

With a few years of experience, taking the PE exam is the next step. While a PE license does provide an average salary bump of between 5 and 6 percent, the real draw of the designation is how much it raises your stature in your field. It shows that the engineer has the authority to handle the responsibility of complex projects and managing other engineers.

EEs who want to pursue more high-level roles as specialists can go for a master’s degree. Those who are interested in the research side of the discipline with an eye toward academia can pursue a Ph.D.

What are the differences between electrical engineering, computer engineering, and software engineering?

Electrical engineering is a broad field that enables students to work with large-scale and small-scale systems, some of which are present in everyday life. But when people hear titles such as computer engineering or software engineering, they tend to think it’s all the same. Here are some key differences.

How computer engineering relates to electrical engineering

While computer engineering is an electrical engineering subfield, it deals with computer architecture, security, networking, and communication. They basically get into the belly of computer-based devices such as smartphones, in addition to dealing with security issues such as encryption and hacking, or rather, preventing devices from being hacked. Computer engineers also work heavily in the automotive field. Anti-lock braking systems, for example, are software-based devices. To sum it up, electrical engineering is the backbone on which computer engineering was created. 

What is software engineering?

Software engineering is about designing, building, and managing software systems throughout their life cycle. This is a subspecialty within computer engineering that ensures that software systems are done to client specifications, are reliable, and conform to safety standards. One example of a software engineering project is a flight control system. It is a type of critical system that has to conform to specific standards at all times. One of the reasons why software engineering is such an exciting specialization is that you get to see the project from its very beginning through to the end.

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