Making some sense of the electrical engineering job market
>What do electrical engineering jobs look like, and how do you get one? And how much do they pay? Those are the questions that seem to be top of mind for most electrical engineering graduates—and we understand why you’d be asking. You just got a great degree in a fantastic field, and you might be asking yourself, “Now what?”
- How Do You Become an Electrical Engineer?
- Should You Get an Undergraduate or Graduate Degree?
- Where Can an Electrical Engineering Degree Take You?
- What’s the Demand for Electrical Engineers Like?
- Common Electrical Engineering Jobs and Salaries
First, we’ll start with an important question for anyone interested in the discipline: How do you become an electrical engineer?
How Do You Become an Electrical Engineer?
You have to be naturally curious. Engineering is, at its heart, a creative discipline that makes heavy use of mathematics and physics (and at times computer science). If you’re naturally curious about the world around you and how you can wield science and technology to make it better, you might be cut out for engineering.
As far as electrical engineering goes, the principles are the same, except apply that curiosity toward electricity. In his youth, Nikola Tesla started down the path toward legendary status when he witnessed an electrical demonstration that made him “want to know more of this wonderful phenomenon.” If you can be charmed by arcs and currents in a way that makes you want to know more, you’re headed down (almost) the same path.
But curiosity will only get you so far. On top of being curious about the world, you need to be comfortable with math. There are few disciplines that utilize math more than engineering. But don’t worry about understanding all the advanced math a degree will require—just be comfortable enough with what you already know to learn even more.
It also doesn’t hurt to have a background in electronics of some kind, whether you know how to solder a PCB or can design some basic circuits. That’s a great place to start, but rest assured: you’re not expected to know all these things going into the discipline. That’s where your education comes in—it’s what makes you an electrical engineer.
Should You Get an Undergraduate or Graduate Degree?
Getting a degree in electrical engineering is an important step in your career development. Your level of education confers certain benefits in both compensation and experience.
Undergraduate degrees are the bare-minimum requirements for most electrical engineering jobs. You’d be hard-pressed to find a place that’ll let you come aboard without at least four years in college. And then there’s certifications to consider.
See, engineers have to get certified before they can practice their craft. Any engineering program worth its salt is going to prepare you for your Fundamentals of Engineering exam (FE) upon graduation. Then four years down the road, you have to take your Principles of Engineering (PE) exam in order to keep practicing your profession. There’s a caveat: to take the PE, you need four years of experience under a PE-licensed engineer. This is where graduate school might come into play.
A graduate degree in electrical engineering, among its many advantages, has one major standout benefit: you can count your two or four years of education as experience toward your PE exam. A completed PE exam also enables you to move up in companies quicker, as you have relevant experience.
On top of just being able to complete your PE earlier, STEM graduate degree holders benefit from a number of unique advantages compared to other degree holders:
- Higher salaries
- Working in growing fields
- High levels of job satisfaction
- High levels of impact
- Career flexibility
- Working in a diverse environment
Where Can an Electrical Engineering Degree Take You?
Electrical engineers work all over the place and in a variety of different settings. They generally work indoors, in an office, but can often be found visiting sites to oversee a project or advise other engineers and workers. They can most often be found in industries such as telecommunications, manufacturing, IT, telecommunications and aerospace.
The field of electrical engineering has a few specific subdisciplines that can help guide your career search. There’s electronics engineering, microelectronics engineering, signal processing engineering, power engineering, control engineering, telecommunications engineering, instrumentation engineering and computer engineering. These subdisciplines should give you an idea of where you can take your career:
These engineers work with electronics; specifically, in research, design, and testing. Compared to electrical engineers, who manage entire systems, electronics engineers are more at home in the small picture. They often work in telecommunications, acoustics and aerospace.
This is a subfield of electronics engineering that’s all about the small picture—microfabrication, circuitry design and small electronics. As electronics continue to become smaller and slimmer, microelectronics engineering is seeing more and more growth in manufacturing industries, especially in consumer electronics.
Signal Processing Engineering
A big part of electrical engineering is working with electrical signals. These engineers apply their knowledge to develop, manage and update digital signals. They also work to create new methods to parse signals more effectively. Though they commonly work in the telecommunications industry, there’s also a good portion of signal processing engineers who find gainful employment in fields such as image processing, speech processing, chip design, and medical and military communications.
Sometimes called a power systems engineer, power engineers work on the creation, distribution and transmission of electrical energy. They also focus a good portion of their energies (no pun intended) on electrical equipment as they’re related to power grids. Power engineers often find work in transportation industries (ever seen a light rail?), power generation and storage and aerospace.
In an attempt to improve digital communications, the telecommunications engineer was born. A telecommunications engineer works to improve circuitry as it relates to digital communication, create new fiber optic systems, networks and other communication technologies. Naturally they’re at home in the IT, communications and military industries, though there are few industries that don’t rely on their work. They have tremendous versatility regardless of their industry.
Instrumentation engineers are kind of like electronics engineers, in that they both create useful devices. But where electronics engineers are concerned with creating electrical tools, instrumentation engineers deal with the design of tools for measuring pressure, temperature and flow. They’re most at home working in industrial and telecommunications settings.
Perhaps the best-known branch of electrical engineering, computer engineers work to build new computer parts like motherboards, RAM sticks, routers, microcontrollers and other computer parts. They can mostly be found in private telecommunications industries, manufacturing and IT.
What’s the Demand for Electrical Engineers Like?
The demand for electrical engineers is steady. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that the field will grow by 3% through 2029, which is about as fast as average. The BLS also estimates that there are about 328,100 electrical engineers in the country, so if we do the math, we should expect to see about 10,800 new electrical engineering jobs added to the already growing pool of jobs.
Common Electrical Engineering Jobs and Salaries
As you’ve seen, electrical engineers work in a number of different fields and under a variety of titles. The BLS lists the average salary for an electrical engineer as $101,250, but we can get a little more granular than. In this section we’re going to cover common titles and salaries for entry-level electrical engineering jobs, as well as senior positions, or jobs that require an EE degree. Keep in mind these are just averages, and will vary heavily with experience and cost of living.
- Electrical Engineer – $101,250
- Design Engineer – $68,680
- Electrical Design Engineer – $84,478
- Electronics Engineer – $79,348
- Software Engineer – $92,046
- Electrical Test Engineer – $109,354
- Controls Engineer – $77,263
- Hardware Design Engineer – $97,617
- Instrumentation Engineer – $85,463