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How to Become an Electrical Engineer

Growth Trends for Related Jobs

Electrical engineers design and develop a wide range of machinery, equipment and devices, from security systems to cellular phones to smart home appliances. The rapid advancement of technology requires engineers with combinations of knowledge and experience in electrical engineering, electronics engineering and computer hardware engineering. You must have a college degree to work as an electrical engineer. After completing your education, you can expect average job growth in your electrical engineering career.

What Does an Electrical Engineer do?

The role of an electrical engineer has changed over the years, and continues to evolve in the rapid computerization of our daily lives. Traditionally, electrical engineers designed and developed electrical equipment ranging from power generators to countertop toasters. Their work centered on analogue issues such as temperature regulation in refrigerators, energy efficiency in lighting fixtures and electrical safety in handheld equipment.

In the late twentieth century, electrical engineers often worked in concert with electronics engineers, designing, developing and testing electric-powered equipment that depended on electronic components, including stereos, televisions and burglar alarm systems.

Today’s technology requires electrical engineers to design and develop electric-powered equipment that integrates computers, electronic components and digital technology. For example, the old-fashioned refrigerator only kept our food cold. Modern, “smart”, refrigerators feature touch screen door monitors, Wi-Fi connectivity, computerized temperature control and Bluetooth technology. Some refrigerators even feature interior cameras, which allow you to see their contents on your smartphone while you are shopping in the supermarket.

Electrical engineers also design smart technology equipment that enables users to view and water their gardens remotely through their cellphones, even from thousands of miles away. They develop building security systems that can detect smoke, intruders and dangerous gases, notify authorities in a crisis and enable owners to visually and audibly monitor interior and exterior spaces in real time from a remote computer screen or handheld device.

Electrical engineers work in all types of industries, developing equipment, components and machinery for homes, automobiles, weapons, communication systems, power generating facilities and manufacturing plants. They develop new ways to use and conserve electricity in devices powered by alternating and direct current. Electrical engineers investigate and resolve problems associated with existing products. Typically, electrical engineers create the manufacturing specifications for the products they create and many supervise the production process.

Some electrical engineers also create computerized equipment components or oversee their development. For example, an electrical engineer might design a computerized automobile speedometer, or work closely with a computer hardware engineer to incorporate the component into the dashboard’s electrical system. Some employers seek engineers who have a combination of knowledge and experience in electrical and computer hardware engineering.

How to Become an Electrical or Computer Hardware Engineer

To become an electrical or computer hardware engineer, you must earn at least a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering or computer hardware engineering. Many electrical and computer hardware engineers gain practical experience through internships while attending college, which gives them an advantage when entering the workforce.

Electrical engineering coursework typically includes physics, mathematics, calculus, algebra and trigonometry studies. Some aspiring electrical engineers begin their training early by earning high school credits in course such as technical drawing, computer programming and electronics.

Engineering programs also feature laboratory classes, which enable you to get hands-on experience in working with electricity and electric-controlled devices. Laboratory coursework often includes exercises in creating electrical circuits and digital system design.

While most engineering programs follow a four-year schedule, some colleges and universities offer five-year programs that enable students to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the same time. Companies often require master’s degrees for some management positions and many research institutions seek engineers with advanced degrees.

Colleges and universities offer classroom and online electrical engineering programs. For example, Arizona State University offers an online program designed to prepare students for careers in energy distribution and production, healthcare technology, data networking and security. The ASU online engineering program includes coursework in microprocessors, digital circuits, solid-state electronics, electromagnetic fields and energy systems.

Computer hardware engineering bachelor’s degree programs also take about four years to complete. Computer hardware engineering and electrical engineering programs offer similar coursework. However, computer hardware engineering programs place an emphasis on computer science studies. Many high schools offer computer science, computer programming and software development courses, which can lay a groundwork for students planning to study computer hardware engineering in college.

Some colleges and universities offer degree programs that combine computer science and electrical engineering studies. For instance, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) in Brownsville, Texas, offers a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering (BSCE) degree that includes coursework in hardware and software design. The UTRGV program includes studies in computer systems engineering, electronics, software engineering, digital logic, algorithms, digital signal processing, networks, microprocessor systems and operating systems.

San Jose State University (SJSU) in San Jose, California, offers a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Engineering (CMPE). SJSU designed the CMPE degree program to prepare students to work for Silicon Valley’s technology companies, which require engineers with knowledge of hardware and software systems. The program’s curriculum includes coursework in coding, software development and computer system design.

Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, offers separate electrical and computer hardware engineering programs. However, Georgia Tech has designed both programs to prepare students for today’s workforce, in areas such as distribution systems and computer networking.

When applying to colleges and universities, search for engineering programs accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Since technology constantly evolves, engineers must continue their education throughout their careers, through continuing education courses and industry-sponsored seminars and workshops.

Essential Qualities of Electrical and Computer Hardware Engineers

Employers seek electrical and computer hardware engineers with college degrees, but they also must have certain personal and professional qualities to succeed in their careers. Engineering requires keen concentration, excellent mathematics skills, initiative to manage projects and analytical skills to solve problems.

Since electrical and computer hardware engineers often work in teams, they must have good interpersonal skills, along with speaking and writing abilities to explain the complex details of projects and create user instructions.

Electrical and Computer Hardware Engineer Licensing Requirements

Electrical and computer hardware engineers do not need a license for many entry-level jobs. However, electrical engineers who offer services to the public, and those who supervise the work of other engineers, must hold a Professional Engineering (PE) license. To qualify for a PE license, an electrical engineer must have at least four years of work experience, a degree from an ABET-accredited engineering school and pass a series of licensing examinations. Additional electrical and computer hardware engineer licensing may apply in certain states.

Electrical and Computer Hardware Engineer Salaries

In 2017, electrical engineers earned a median salary of around $95,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The median salary represents the middle of the electrical engineer pay scale. High earners took home more than $150,000. Engineering companies and research organizations paid the highest salaries, followed by electronic component manufacturers and semiconductor companies.

Meanwhile, computer hardware engineers earned a median salary of more than $115,000. According to a BLS survey, computer hardware engineers at the top of the pay scale made nearly $180,000 in 2017. Electronic component manufacturers and semiconductor companies paid computer hardware engineers the highest salaries.

Job Outlook for Electrical and Computer Hardware Engineers

The BLS expects job opportunities for electrical engineers to grow by around 7 percent, from now until 2026. Positions for computer hardware engineers should grow by around 5 percent during the same period. Closures of manufacturing facilities in the United States may cause slower job growth.

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About the Author

Michael Evans’ career path has taken many planned and unexpected twists and turns, from TV sports producer to internet project manager to cargo ship deckhand. He has worked in numerous industries, including higher education, government, transportation, finance, manufacturing, journalism and travel. Along the way, he has developed job descriptions, interviewed job applicants and gained insight into the types of education, work experience and personal characteristics employers seek in job candidates. Michael graduated from The University of Memphis, where he studied photography and film production. He began writing professionally while working for an online finance company in San Francisco, California. His writings have appeared in print and online publications, including Fox Business, Yahoo! Finance, Motley Fool and Bankrate.