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Electrical Engineer

How to Become an Electrical Engineer: 4 Soft Skills to Develop to Lead

Electrical engineering is a rewarding and challenging career. The field is also growing rapidly, and as a result, the demand for skilled professionals is high. A shift towards clean power sources and the increasing adoption of electric vehicles (EVs)2 are driving growth in this sector. New developments in solar arrays, communications technologies and semiconductors are also providing new job opportunities3. Read on to find out how to become an electrical engineer and the essential soft (human) skills that will really set you apart from other candidates in this field.

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What do electrical engineers do?

Electrical engineers exist because of the vital role that electrical systems and technology play in our modern world. Electrical engineers are responsible for designing, developing, and maintaining the systems that power our homes, businesses, and industries. This ensures they’re safe, reliable, and efficient. These systems include everything from small consumer devices to large-scale power generation and distribution systems. These are essential for the daily functioning of a modern society4.

Electrical engineers are also responsible for the development of new technologies. These include renewable energy sources and energy-efficient systems. This can help reduce the environmental impact of our energy consumption5.

They play a critical role in the communication industry, too. They manage the design, development, and maintenance of the communication systems that connect people and devices all around the world.

What areas can electrical engineers specialize in?

Electrical engineers can specialize in lots of different areas. One is power engineering, which involves the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity6. This includes designing and building power stations, transmission networks, and distribution systems.

Another specialization is control systems engineering. This covers the design and development of control systems such as computer-aided design and programmable logic controllers for industrial processes and manufacturing units7. In a company such as Airbus, for example, electrical engineers play an essential role in developing the flight control systems that make aircrafts safe and efficient.

In addition, electrical engineers may specialize in the installation, operation, and maintenance of electrical systems and equipment8. This can include everything from circuit boards to power generators. Boeing, for example, relies heavily on electrical engineers to maintain its complex production systems.

Finally, some electrical engineers can also specialize in the design and development of digital systems, such as those used in communications networks, data centers, and embedded systems9. This includes the development of new communication protocols and the design of digital components such as transistors and capacitors.

Where can electrical engineers work?

Electrical engineers can work in both the public and private sectors, with opportunities available in areas such as utilities, manufacturing, and consulting. The work environment for an electrical engineer is typically an office or laboratory setting, but they may also be required to visit sites or work in a factory or power station.

Some of the big global organizations that hire electrical engineers include Amazon, Google, and Sony. These companies rely on the expertise of electrical engineers to design and develop the systems and equipment that power their operations.

For example, at Amazon, electrical engineers are responsible for designing and maintaining the systems that power the company's data centers and cloud services. This includes everything from electrical wiring to the development of computer circuitry. Similarly, at Google, electrical engineers play a crucial role in the design and development of the company's data centers and servers.

Other big companies such as GE and Samsung hire electrical engineers to work on projects such as designing and developing consumer electronics, communication systems, and semiconductor manufacturing equipment.

What are some trends impacting an electrical engineering career?

One of the major trends in the industry is the growing use of automation and artificial intelligence10. Electrical engineers are increasingly using these technologies to improve the efficiency and reliability of their systems. 

For example, companies such as Amazon, Google, and GE are harnessing automation and AI to optimize their supply chain and manufacturing processes This makes their systems more efficient and cost-effective.

The development of smart and connected devices is another major trend in the electrical engineering industry. With the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), more and more devices are being connected to the internet, allowing them to share data and communicate with each other11. As a result, many electrical engineers are now working on the design and development of smart devices, such as smart home systems and connected appliances.

Another trend in the industry is the rising demand for renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power12. This is driven by concerns about climate change and the need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Electrical engineers are playing a critical role in the development of renewable energy systems. They’re designing and developing new technologies and components that can harness the power of the sun, wind, and water. Companies such as Tesla are leading the way in this field and rely on electrical engineers to help design and develop their renewable energy projects.

What are the skills needed to become an electrical engineer?

To become an electrical engineer, you need a combination of hard (technical) and soft skills. Technical skills are those that are specific to electrical engineering, such as circuit design, power systems, electrical machinery, and control systems. These are some of the essential skills that companies and organizations that hire electrical engineers are looking for. 

Employers include:

  • Power generation and distribution companies such as Exelon Corporation, CitiPower, and UK Power Networks
  • Manufacturers of electrical equipment such as L3Harris and Rojone
  • Consulting firms such as Stantec and Arup
  • Government agencies such as the Federal Government of the United States and NASA

While offering their engineering services to these employers, electrical engineers may work in specific roles that include:

  • Designing and developing electrical systems
  • Testing and evaluating electrical equipment
  • Managing projects, and providing technical support

Besides having the necessary technical skills, electrical engineers also need to have vital soft skills that relate to communication and collaboration, such as problem-solving, teamwork, and interpersonal skills.

Electrical engineers need to be detail-oriented, too, so they can troubleshoot and resolve complex problems quickly and accurately. Strong attention to detail enables them to identify potential issues before they develop into complex problems. The soft skills you need to become an electrical engineer include:

Initiative and organizational skills

Electrical engineering is a demanding field. Successful engineers apply their knowledge and experience when undertaking projects independently and take charge to ensure the effective and timely execution of projects. An electrical engineer must stay up to date with industry trends and developments. So engaging in ongoing education and training opportunities is important.

Electrical engineers often work on several projects concurrently, so organizational skills are essential. To perform effectively, prioritizing and assigning tasks efficiently is key. Time management skills enable you to stay on track with tasks and meet deadlines.

Interpersonal skills

Collaboration skills are important for electrical engineers because they often work with other departments or specialists when executing projects. Electrical engineers may need to oversee other technicians or develop solutions to problems. Relating and communicating effectively with other team members is important.

Communication skills

An electrical engineer needs excellent communication skills to explain complex information and instructions clearly, even to people who lack technical knowledge. They need to express their designs and reasoning in an easy-to-understand way. A successful electrical engineer interacts professionally with clients and colleagues. They also have effective verbal and written communication skills.

Ability to solve complex problems

Electrical engineers often excel at solving problems. Logical and critical thinking skills enable them to apply their comprehensive knowledge and understanding to develop practical solutions to complex challenges.

Develop these important electrical engineering soft skills

To become an electrical engineer and advance your career, soft skills are just as important as technical knowledge and expertise. Soft skills enable you to communicate well with others, manage projects effectively, and show leadership potential.

They can also distinguish you from other candidates when applying for jobs or promotions. They are an effective way to demonstrate your value to a company. This can be particularly important if you’re a recent graduate lacking professional experience.

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How long does it take to become an electrical engineer?

What higher education is required?

Becoming an electrical engineer is challenging and demands dedication. An undergraduate degree in electrical engineering or a related field is typically the minimum requirement for aspiring electrical engineers. However, additional coursework in mathematics, physics, and computer engineering may be necessary.

Completing a bachelor's degree usually takes four or five years, but this depends on the country and the engineering school. For example, in the United States, it takes 4-5 years to finish an electrical engineering degree at Stanford University, while in other countries in Europe, such as Finland, it may take 3-4 years15

Engineers can pursue a master's or doctorate degree in electrical engineering, which generally involves 2-4 years of additional study. In these graduate degree programs, students may choose a specialization, such as power systems, control systems, or signal processing.

What licenses, certifications and registrations are needed?

After graduating, electrical engineers in the United States are considered engineers-in-training. Then, they must become licensed professional engineers (PEs), which involves passing an exam and meeting the requirements of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).

In addition to a PE license, many engineers choose to pursue professional certifications. Organizations that administer these include:

  • The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
  • The Project Management Institute
  • The International Society of Automation

To earn professional certification, you need to pass the necessary test, and you may require additional education or experience.

What internships or apprenticeships are typically undertaken?

Internships and apprenticeships are an excellent way for aspiring electrical engineering students to learn. They can gain hands-on experience and work with industry professionals. Some internships even lead to full-time job opportunities. 

Interns and apprentices typically work on projects under the supervision of experienced engineers. These may include:

  • Designing and building prototypes
  • Testing products
  • Installing and troubleshooting systems
  • Programming electrical devices
  • Designing embedded systems

Apprenticeships involve hands-on work experience alongside formal studies. They differ from internships because they are paid jobs. You can learn about areas of specialization, such as smart grid systems or systems engineering. Once your apprenticeship has finished, there is usually the opportunity to continue working or get promoted.

What advancement or specialization opportunities are there for electrical engineers?

After getting a bachelor's degree, there are many job opportunities in research, product development, and engineering management. You may specialize in an area such as:

  • Control systems
  • Communications and signal processing
  • Power systems
  • Electromagnetics

For example, as a control system engineer, you may design digital systems and program operating systems for robotics, industrial automation, or automobile engines. If you become a communications engineer, you could focus on the design and implementation of wired and wireless telecommunication systems. As a power system engineer, you may be responsible for designing, operating, and maintaining electrical grids.

Electrical engineers can also pursue a master's or doctoral degree to enhance their knowledge and improve their employability. Theoretical knowledge of engineering and in-depth practical experience can also help you get a teaching or research job at a university.

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What are the career opportunities and outlook for electrical engineers?

Job growth

The demand for electrical engineers is increasing globally. The International Energy Agency predicts the world will use twice as much electricity in 2050 as it does now, and by that same year, 90% of the world's electricity will come from renewable sources, such as solar and wind power16. The demand for electrical engineers will be high, as they will be responsible for designing renewable energy systems and smart grids and ensuring they work well.

However, this growth will vary by region and by specific subfield within electrical engineering. In the United States, electrical engineers are in high demand in the fields of renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, as well as in the automotive industry for the development of electric cars17.

In the United Kingdom, the growth of renewable energy and the expansion of 5G technology are also driving demand for electrical engineers18. Similarly, the increasing adoption of renewable energy and the IoT in Australia and New Zealand is creating job opportunities for electrical engineers in both countries19.

Electrical engineering roles

Roles in the electrical engineering field are wide-ranging, and opportunities exist globally in key industries, including:

  • Aerospace
  • Defense
  • Automotive
  • Telecommunications
  • Energy

Engineers may specialize in disciplines such as:

  • Computer hardware and software
  • Control systems engineering
  • Digital signal processing
  • Power electronics

Other roles include:

  • Product design and development
  • Project management
  • Field service engineering and
  • Systems integration

Electrical engineers may also work in:

  • Research and development
  • Production test engineering
  • Education

Where can electrical engineers work?

Prospective employers and organizations

Electrical engineers have many career options in industries and organizations.
Opportunities exist in the public sector with divisions such as:

  • NASA
  • The U.S. Department of Defense
  • Local or federal government agencies

In the private sector, electrical engineers may find jobs with:

  • Telecommunications companies
  • Software development firms
  • Automotive companies
  • Computer hardware manufacturers
  • Pharmaceutical companies
  • Manufacturing companies
  • Consulting firms

These will generally be hardware engineer roles researching and designing electronic equipment, manufacturing electrical systems and parts, improving existing designs, or developing new technologies.

What are the common career paths?

A common career path for electrical engineers often starts with obtaining an associate or bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from an accredited university. This provides a strong foundation in the principles of electrical engineering and prepares individuals for entry-level positions in the field.

After completing their education, many electrical engineers begin their careers by participating in internships or co-op programs, which provide hands-on experience and the opportunity to work on real-world projects.

As they gain experience and skills, electrical engineers may progress to more advanced roles such as project engineer, design engineer, or system engineer. These roles involve more responsibility and may include leading teams of engineers, overseeing the design and construction of new systems, and ensuring that systems meet safety and performance standards.

After gaining several years of experience, some electrical engineers may choose to pursue advanced positions such as lead engineer, manager, or director roles. This may involve managing teams of engineers, overseeing multiple projects, and ensuring that systems meet safety and performance standards.

Electrical engineers can also choose other career paths such as:

  • Research and development
  • Consulting
  • Sales and marketing
  • Teaching
  • Entrepreneurship

How much can electrical engineers earn?

The median annual salary for electrical engineers in the largest global markets varies. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for electrical engineers in the United States as of May 2021 was US$100,42020. In Australia, it’s around AU$114,828 (US$77,272) per year21, and up to £60,000 (US$72,162) in the United Kingdom22.

Salaries may vary depending on an individual's level of professional experience, the location, and the industry in which an electrical engineer works. Engineers with extensive experience and specialized knowledge typically receive a higher salary than those in entry-level positions.

Frequently asked questions

How to become an electrical engineer without a degree?

It is possible to become an electrical engineer without an electronic engineering degree if you receive education in electronics systems and circuits, computers, and product design. You can undertake courses online or through vocational training. After completing technical training, aspiring electrical engineers can seek apprenticeships or internship opportunities to gain practical experience.

What subjects are needed to become an electrical engineer?

Aspiring electrical engineers typically need a solid foundation in mathematics and physics. If you do not have extensive knowledge of these subjects, the first two years of an electrical engineering degree will provide you with the necessary skills23.

How much does it cost to become an electrical engineer?

The cost of becoming an electrical engineer depends on the educational institution and the degree. Most universities that offer online electrical engineering programs charge between US$29,000 and US$83,000 in total for tuition24.

How many years does it take to become a senior electrical engineer?

Becoming a senior electrical engineer typically requires 8–10 years of relevant work experience. This may vary depending on the specific tasks and responsibilities of the position, the engineer's level of experience, and the employing organization.

Senior electrical engineers generally have the necessary education and extensive experience in designing, constructing, and maintaining complex electrical systems. They may also need specialized knowledge or relevant skills.

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