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The importance of electricity to our everyday lives cannot be overstated. From smartphones to water heaters, from electric cars to the frozen food aisle at the grocery store, electric power and electronic devices undergird every facet of our civilization. For this reason, the role of an electrical engineer in society is significant. But what does an electrical engineer actually do, how much can you earn, and how can you get involved in this fascinating career?
The Modis 2019 IT & Engineering Salary Guide reports that electrical engineers with the lowest amount of work experience (0 to 2 years) will earn an average base salary of $71,538, and that amount reaches significantly higher for engineers who earn a Professional Engineer designation (more on that later).
As of 2016, 324,600 electrical and electronics engineers were employed in the U.S. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expected that number to grow at an average rate of 7 percent over ten years. However, the 2018 uptick in the economy and in manufacturing means that jobs for electrical engineers may grow even faster.
Another contributor to this increase in electrical engineering jobs is the expanding green economy. Electrical engineers provide some of the knowledge, skills, and technologies needed to make the planet a more sustainable, healthier place to live. For example, electrical engineers work on energy efficiency, renewable energy, and green building design and construction.
Another huge area where electrical engineers can have an impact is bringing power to the developing world, where 1.2 billion people live without electricity. Electrical engineers also are working on new types of solar powered "smart" nanogrids and "smart meters" that can generate affordable energy off the electrical grid and to the farthest reaches of civilization.
These and many other career opportunities put electrical engineers on the frontlines of making the world a better place.
What exactly does an electrical engineer do, and what is the difference between an electrician vs. an electrical engineer?
Electricians typically perform routine tasks such as assembling, installing, troubleshooting, and repairing electrical equipment, wiring, or circuits. They may also program automation process controllers (PLCs) or provide field service to customers.
Electrician jobs typically only require a high school diploma, along with relevant experience or journeyman status. In contrast, most electrical engineering jobs require at least a bachelor's degree, and some require a master's degree or Ph.D.
Electrical engineer responsibilities are at a higher level than most electrician jobs. For example, rather than just assembling a circuit, an electrical engineer will design and test it. They may also supervise the manufacturing of a device or piece of equipment, such as an electric motor, a microwave antenna, or a turbine that converts steam to electricity.
In the green sector, electrical engineers are responsible for designing and overseeing installation of lighting, HVAC, and other building maintenance systems that minimize energy use. They may work on developing renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, nuclear, and geothermal, or improving the efficiency of traditional sources, including coal, oil, and gas.
Electrical engineers may also work on “smart grids." The traditional electric grid is the network of power plants, transmission lines, and transformers that send electricity to every home or building. A smart grid adds two-way digital communication and sensors along the transmission lines. This allows for more efficient use of energy and a faster response time to power outages, and makes it easier to integrate distributed renewable energy sources with the grid.
Though electrical engineering is a technical field with unique skillsets, there are common traits that the best engineers across multiple fields share, including patience and persistence to get the job done, curiosity about how things work or how to improve a process, tool or product, and a continuous desire to learn new things.
Employers also look for engineers who communicate well and work together in teams, bringing different perspectives to bear in order to solve problems in creative new ways.
According to BLS, top paying industries for electrical engineers include support activities for mining, oil & gas extraction, business support services, and aerospace products and parts manufacturing. The highest salaries go to those in scientific research and development positions, followed by jobs in semiconductor and other electronic component manufacturing.
The Modis 2019 Salary Guide shows that the median electrical engineering salary of $102,694 runs higher than most other engineering jobs. The next highest engineering salary is $100,642 for a chemical engineer, followed by $ 95,857 for a mechanical engineer.
The average base salary for electrical engineers with more than 10 years of experience is $125,945. This figure most likely includes those electrical engineers who have graduate degrees and/or have earned the Professional Engineer (PE) license.
In addition to earning a higher salary, a PE license can bring increased responsibility and recognition, both of which are known to increase job satisfaction. Another benefit is that, with a PE license, you will be able to teach engineering at the college level. Adding up all these benefits, is the work required to earn a PE license worth it?
The process of gaining licensure starts with obtaining a four-year college degree. Next, you will take the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam to qualify as an “engineer in training," and then work four years in the field under a licensed engineer. At that point, you must pass your state's licensing test to receive the PE designation. To maintain the license, each state requires a certain number of continuing education hours.
In one sense, knowing how to become an electrical engineer is pretty straightforward. Almost all electrical engineering positions require a four-year degree from an accredited university. Beyond that basic requirement – and good grades – it's the extras that make you stand out when applying for a job.
When filling out an application, don't forget to include work experiences, even if they don't seem relevant. In addition to specific technical skills, businesses are looking for candidates with soft skills, such as leadership, communication, mentoring others, and a good work ethic. Be sure to list any previous jobs, promotions, and awards that demonstrate these skills.
Most colleges require a senior project for graduation, so include the details on your resume or cover letter. While in school, join professional societies, such as the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) as a student member, and take advantage of reduced rates to attend conferences in your area of specialty. Be sure to mention these, as well as internships, co-ops, and activities such as coding clubs or robotics contests to enhance your resume.
Knowing what not to do is just as important as knowing what to do when looking for a job in electrical engineering. Don't just aim for the highest paying companies, because a small or mid-sized company may provide better benefits, as well as more satisfying work. Don't apply for every position available. If you have no real interest in a particular job, the hiring manager will notice your indifference. Here are a few more job tips you should ignore.
When preparing your resume and cover letter, ask at least one person to proofread it before hitting the send button – even the best writers need a sharp-eyed editor. And practice interviewing with a friend or advisor to increase your confidence and help you stay relaxed.
Electrical engineering is a fascinating career with many benefits. Salaries for electrical engineers are substantial, and may increase even further with a PE license or graduate degree. Electrical engineers also earn great benefits, such as education reimbursement, insurance, retirement, sick leave, and vacation pay.
Many different sectors hire electrical engineers, including mining, aerospace, manufacturing, chemical processing, and power generation and transmission. Opportunities to work in green and sustainable industries abound.
For anyone with a knack for math and science and an interest in tackling exciting projects that can help change the world, electrical engineering could be the perfect career choice. With the right education and relevant spare-time activities – and possibly a PE license – you will be on the fast track to the electrical engineering career of your dreams.
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