Careers in Electrical Engineering

Published: Mar 10, 2009

 Job Search       

America's dependence on electronics is so great that most people can't get through a day without using a product that has a microcontroller or other electronic circuitry. And this is all part of electrical engineering. Digital alarm clocks, automotive controls, computer networks, TVs, cell phones and MP3 players were all designed in large part by clever people who studied electronic engineering in college. Indeed, many of the products we take for granted today, from the smallest chip to the large supercomputers that help predict weather, stemmed from the minds of electronic engineers who wanted to build something new and different.

From ideas that range from seemingly crazy to really nifty to just plain useful, engineers come up with working products. Marketing people might come up with concepts and software developers play an important role in design, but engineering is where it all begins. The digital revolution that's changing the world wouldn't be possible without it--electronic engineers are developing the hardware that is truly changing the world.

Entering this fast-paced field requires an inquisitive mind, and an ability to understand difficult technical principles that are often mathematically based. A creative bent and the ability to analyze problems from different angles also help. If you have these traits, you'll find that you'll always be challenged by a career as an electrical engineer and particularly by the fast rate of technical change.

There are a number of other beneficial paybacks for those who choose electrical engineering. Electronic engineers earn good salaries while getting to work with interesting technologies. And because many products require electronic technologies, it's fairly easy to find a field you can understand and enjoy.

On the downside, staying abreast of technology in a global economy is a challenge. Technologists must keep up to date so they don't lose their job to cheaper offshore workers. The impact of international competition from low wage countries is being hotly debated throughout the electronics industry.

The Scoop

Since electronic engineers are the men and women responsible for developing concepts for new technologies, they play an integral part in the digital revolution. Among other advances, electrical engineers made the Internet a vehicle for communicating freely to people anywhere on earth. They devised techniques for sending data, the methods for making sure everything gets to its destination. They designed the PCs, servers and other equipment that let people see images from around the globe in a matter of seconds.

When people talk about smart appliances, smart phones and other so-called smart products, they're unknowingly complimenting the intelligent people who made those products. Electrical engineers are responsible for making cell phones small enough to fit in your pocket, and they also figured out how to put cameras into a mobile phone that can last for hours without recharging.

But electrical engineers have been changing the world for most of the 20th century. The term electronics didn't exist at the dawn of the 1900s. But the engineers of the day quickly realized that the science of moving electrons had enough potential to have its own name.

Some History

During the first half of the 1900s, engineers made radios with tubes (glass enclosures surrounding large, fragile electronic circuits, often assembled by hand). The first TVs also had many tubes besides the picture tube, which is still widely used as the television's screen. These tubes were so large and bulky that Eniac, the first real digital computer, weighed thirty tons when it started churning data in 1944.

The stage for the era of electronics was set by research scientists at Bell Labs, who did the work of electrical engineers, even though many didn't hold what was then a new degree. In 1947, Bell researchers figured out how to make a transistor, which became the basic building block of the silicon chips now used in millions of products.

In the 1950s, a transistor radio the size of a cigarette pack was a marvel. Today, there are literally millions of transistors on a chip. The size benefits of digital electronics over tubes are obvious: for example, compare the bulky cathode ray tube computer screens that have been used for decades to the sleek flat panel displays of today. The CRT, which is also the technology used for conventional television screens, is the last of the tube technologies to become obsolete, falling victim to replacements that were developed by electronic engineers.

This act of replacement is a mainstay of engineering. The nature of the field involves tinkering -- looking at something and figuring out how to make a better version. Whether an engineer is looking at equipment on a factory floor, in an airplane, or in his office, he's likely to take the shell off a product, see how it works and then come up with something better.

This kind of tinkering forms the basis for new technologies. The scope is staggering -- everything from compact disk players, airbags and anti-lock braking systems, to computer networks and calculators derive from new technologies developed by electrical engineers who thought there was a better way to do something.

The history of electronics is loaded with people who had a novel idea and then worked diligently to bring their products to life. Hewlett Packard was started by a couple of guys working in a garage, where they created a novel instrument first used by sound engineers making Disney's Fantasia.

Decades later, an HP engineer worked nights to come up with a new product that contained a new technology -- some referred to this product as a personal computer. Steve Wozniak wasn't the first to make an affordable computer, but he helped found Apple Computers, the first company to make computers available to the average family.

There are many other companies that have significantly impacted the electronics industry; as a matter of fact, electrical engineers at IBM have led the country in patents for decades, providing breakthrough after breakthrough. And engineers at Texas Instruments invented the integrated circuit -- commonly known as a microchip -- and also popularized compact calculators.