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About Electrical Engineering

Field Overview

Electrical and electronics engineers work on components, devices and systems that use electricity and magnetism.

Since the range of such systems is very wide, we find electrical engineers in many diverse areas. For example, electrical engineers supervise the design and manufacturing of microchips that will be implanted in hospital patients; they develop large relays and generators for power stations that will provide electricity to towns and regions; they work on circuits for computers, cellular telephones, robots, trains, cars and aircraft; they design control systems for airplanes; they optimize audio-visual systems for entertainment, both for large stadiums and for private homes.

Many electrical engineers work on the design of very large systems that integrate thousands, even hundreds of thousands of components, to provide special functionality or specific services. Examples include the design and testing of a vehicle destined for space exploration, or the design of the rail and electrical train system that would serve a province.

As these examples show, electrical engineering is a wide discipline that provides society with many critical utilities. Electrical Engineering has impact on public welfare and safety, as well as on health and healthcare, the environment, quality of life, transportation, computing, and leisure.

Many aspects of electrical engineering are intertwined with computing, and the line between electrical engineering and computer engineering is often blurry. Electrical engineers play a major role in the design of hardware for computers but increasingly their work also involves integration with computer subsystems and detailed understanding of software. On the other hand, computer engineers are increasingly involved with the details of the devices and systems that their computers and software control; these computer engineers often have to study and understand the characteristics of the electrical devices that their computers interact with.

Fields of Interest and Employment

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, electrical and electronics engineers hold about 300,000 jobs in the U.S. This number represents about 20% of the 1.5 million jobs held by engineers in the U.S. Almost every industry has a need to employ electrical engineers.

Here are the principal industry sectors that employ electrical engineers, computer engineers, and computer scientists.

  • Telecommunications - Engineers are involved in all aspects of communication system design and in all major varieties of communication systems. These include broadcasting, telephony (landlines and cellular telephony), terrestrial and satellite communication, networks, and communication across the Internet. A special area of interest is communication with handheld devices and media players (e.g., blackberries, iPods, iPhones). Electrical engineers develop devices for communication systems; design subsystems and networks; develop communications infrastructure for plants, businesses and even cities and countries; improve communication security and privacy; and optimize communication system performance.
  • Energy and Electric Power - Power and Energy engineers deal with energy generation by a variety of methods, including turbine, hydro, fuel cell, solar, geothermal, and wind. They are also responsible for electrical power distribution from source to consumer and within manufacturing plants, offices, hospitals, and laboratories. They design devices such as electric motors, relays, transmission lines, and batteries.
    Of special significance at the present time is the global attempt to improve the efficiency of energy use, and the effort to identify and use alternative cleaner sources of energy. With the soaring prices and reduced availability of fossil fuels, the search for alternatives has become a major objective of electrical engineers who work in the fields of power and energy.
  • Computers - The computer industry serves almost all technical sectors, including aerospace, transportation, construction, telecommunications, power, medicine, consumer electronics, education, and automated manufacturing. The industry is strong and growing, taking advantage of new architectures and opportunities to improve efficiency, speed, mobility, and storage capabilities of computer systems. The field offers electrical engineers with many opportunities, from the design of more efficient chips for computer circuits to the design of large clusters of interconnected computers; these clusters take advantage of scale and load analysis to use faster and more economical computing methodologies
  • Semiconductors - Semiconductor technology is engaged with the development and manufacture of integrated circuits, which are used in numerous devices and systems, from refrigerators and cars to aircraft and satellites. The technology is a chief enabler of the computer and telecommunications industries. As integrated circuits companies strive for faster and more powerful chips, they seek engineers to investigate new materials, new architectures, and improved packaging.
  • Aerospace - Electrical and electronics engineers who work in the aerospace industry design and develop electronics and power equipment for aircraft, helicopters, and spacecraft. Defense and aerospace companies employ hundreds of thousands of engineers focusing on commercial airlines and on R&D for defense and space exploration. Systems that electrical engineers are likely to work on include displays, control systems, communication systems, and navigation devices. Another line of business is the development simulators for training and development. Aerospace engineers work on military systems for land, sea, and air, which must be able to withstand battle. Renewed interest in space exploration is likely to provide employment in the design and implementation of new space vehicles.
  • Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering - This wide-ranging field has emerged through the integration of engineering and the life sciences. Activities in biomedical engineering include the design of diagnostic and therapeutic devices for clinical use, the design of prosthetic and implantable devices, the development of biologically compatible materials, and the application of state-of-the-art technology to biological research. With the increased lifespan of the population in many developing and developed countries, demands for medical services and new applications are expected to grow. These are likely to require increased participation of electrical engineers who would develop, design, and manufacture the new quality-of-life and assist devices.
  • Manufacturing - Manufacturing technology has become more important in recent years as global economic reality has forced companies to re-evaluate basic manufacturing techniques in order to remain competitive. In pursuit of increased productivity, companies have introduced such innovations as just-in-time parts supply, six-sigma quality goals, statistical process control, and robotic assembly cells. Even small companies have transformed their ad hoc manufacturing approaches into rigidly controlled and monitored systems. There is growing emphasis on mathematical models of manufacturing processes, allowing deviations from expected performance to be quickly detected and corrected.
    Electrical engineers have a role in all aspects of the new emerging manufacturing plant, from flow analysis and optimization of workspace, to design of robots and RFID systems for the manufacturing floor
  • Services, including Entertainment Engineering and Financial Engineering - Many electrical engineers find that their technical background makes them well suited for a variety of work in other industries. For example, the entertainment industry now hires thousands of engineers every year. One well known company, Disney, recruits so-called imagineers to develop amusement parks. Another corporation, Pixar, hires computer scientists and computer engineers to help create animated films. Most developers of computer games hire engineers for design of both hardware (e.g., play stations) and software. The banking and finance industry now offers many positions both in analysis and forecasting and in computer-related areas. Several well known electrical engineering departments in US universities have seen more than a third of their graduating students hired by financial institutions in some years.
  • Education and Research - Many electrical engineers interact with educational and research institutions or industrial labs. Some go into college and university teaching and research after completing studies toward the PhD degree. Others may teach on a part-time basis while holding a full-time job with another organization. Some engineers work on the development of physical or virtual-reality laboratories for academic programs
  • Transportation and Automotive - In this category we include design of cars, highways, railroads and ships, as well as traffic management. All of these increasingly rely on electronics and computing. Sub-specialties that have seen growth include electronics for internal and external communication, navigation (including GPS devices), failure detection algorithms, automated highway traffic control, and displays. The transportation and automotive areas offer increasing job opportunities for electrical engineers of various technical specialties, including communications, computers, and control systems.

Earnings

According to a 2007 salary survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, bachelor's degree candidates in electrical engineering received starting salary offers averaging $54,915 a year. Our experience is that students who have been on co-op are often able to do 10-15% better.

Career Path Forecast

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, electrical engineers should have favorable employment opportunities in the next decade. The number of job openings resulting from employment growth and from the need to replace electrical engineers who left the labor force is expected to be in balance with the supply of graduates.

Historically, the inventiveness of electrical engineers has offered the public new devices and new services (from the DC motor to the telephone, to radio and television, to audio and video recording, to the Internet and the cellular telephone) that kept the profession expanding. In the past, whenever a stalemate was predicted, innovation had changed the forecast.

Continuing education is important for electrical and electronics engineers. The fast pace of innovation in electrical engineering requires that engineers keep reading, learn new methodologies, and change sub-disciplines of expertise every few years.

Note: The resources on this page were provided in part courtesy of the Sloan Career Cornerstone Center.