What Do Electrical Engineers Do?

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Electrical engineer wearing a lab coat working on a project at a desk.From the moment Thomas Edison invented the working light bulb in 1880, advancements in electrical engineering have laid the groundwork for many modern innovations. These innovations — such as mobile phones, GPS technology, and internet devices that connect the world with data and people — continue to shape our everyday lives.

What do electrical engineers do that makes such a significant impact on society? The work of electrical engineers undergirds the ability of future innovations to be the most disruptive technologies of their age. From artificial intelligence (AI) to the Internet of Things (IoT), mankind relies on devices powered by electricity. And because electricity powers innovation and technology, electrical engineers will continue to play a vital role in shaping how modern society functions.

Electrical Engineer Job Description

Electrical engineer duties include overseeing electrical equipment and systems, ensuring the safe operation of electrical systems, and building effective electrical infrastructures for various applications across industries, from construction to health care and beyond. These professionals combine their engineering knowledge with interpersonal, mathematics, communication, and writing skills to drive the development of electrical equipment or electrical systems from their design to manufacturing.

Part of the electrical engineering job description involves working alongside other engineers to design new electrical infrastructures and redesign existing equipment to improve efficiency or effectiveness. Electrical engineers also manage tasks and work with project managers. These core competencies are essential to ensure projects finish within established time and budget parameters.

Electrical engineers often work for corporations, nonprofit organizations, or government agencies in the following industries:

  • Academia
  • Aerospace
  • Automotive
  • Building construction
  • Chemical
  • Defense
  • Electronics
  • Consumer product goods
  • Marine and naval
  • Materials and metals
  • Oil and gas
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Power generation
  • Rail
  • Telecommunications
  • Technology

Electrical Engineering Tools

Since working environments of electrical engineers can be dangerous because of live electrical equipment and systems, electrical engineers must possess expert-level knowledge of various tools and equipment to perform and complete their tasks safely and effectively.

Advanced electrical engineering tools, equipment, and technology help electrical engineers work with mechanics, circuitry, and thermodynamics. Some of these tools include:

  • Current and voltage probes and meters to take electricity measurements
  • Oscilloscopes to study electricity flow
  • Signal generators to create high-speed serial data or RF signals

Electrical engineers also have strong computer skills, as demonstrated by their use of software that helps them perform numerical computations, conduct power system simulations, and analyze diagrams. For example, electrical engineers use computer-aided design (CAD) to build and design models, and PSpice software to simulate and validate analog and mixed-signal circuit performance.

Other technology and software used by electrical engineers include:

  • AutoCAD: This is used for various types of electrical design, such as the wiring plan of a building or machine
  • PLC Programming: A type of programming language, this is used for control process industries.
  • SCADA Software: SCADA stands for Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition. It is used to identify problems in equipment.
  • Proteus: This software is used to design circuits and check outputs in electrical infrastructure.
  • ETAP: This term stands for Electrical Transient and Analysis Program. It is used for design simulation, automation, and operation in industrial power systems.

Areas of Electrical Engineering

Electrical engineers are responsible for designing, testing, and developing electrical systems and motors. However, since electricity powers, virtually everything in today’s world, the concept of electrical engineering can be applied to various fields and industries. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), electrical engineers often work in the following areas.

  • Electric power generation: Organizations include Duke Energy, Exelon Corp, First Energy Corp, and American Electric Power.
  • Transmission and distribution organizations: Organizations include BODEC, Power Consulting Engineers, Quanta, and Burns & McDonnell.
  • Navigational, measuring, electromedical, and control instruments manufacturers: Organizations include Agilent Technologies, General Electric, Roche Diabetes Care, and
  • Research and development firms/life sciences organizations: These include J&J, AstraZeneca, Sanofi, and Merck
  • Semiconductor and other electronic component manufacturers: Organizations include Broadcom, Intel, Micron Technology, and Qualcomm.

Primary areas of electrical engineering focus on:

  • Development of electronics
  • Communications
  • Navigation and control systems
  • Semiconductor technology
  • Communications infrastructures
  • Power generation equipment

These different areas of electrical engineering may influence the design and development strategies an electrical engineer may apply. For example, an electrical engineer working in the technology industry may create designs that take up as little space as possible to provide end-users with technology that is convenient, like a smartphone that fits in a back pocket. In another example, an electrical engineer working in aerospace may be more concerned about designing lightweight electrical systems powerful enough for a jet engine.

What do electrical engineers do to influence societal functionality? Their work impacts society in different ways. For example, as climate change takes center stage as one of the biggest concerns of the 21st century, electrical engineers will help create solutions to reduce humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels — think of how electric cars today are reducing carbon emissions.

What Can I Do with a Degree in Electrical Engineering?

Examples of what you can do with a degree in electrical engineering are everywhere — in the sky as you fly on a plane, on the road as you drive your car, or right in front of you as you check your social media activity on your smartphone.

Below are some examples of positions that are open to graduates who hold a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering (MSEE) degree.

Aerospace Engineer

The role of the aerospace engineer is to design and manufacture aircraft and spacecraft, as well as operational, propulsion, and navigational systems and components. For example, components in an aircraft include operating systems and equipment for navigation, temperature control, fuel management, and more. Aerospace engineers also design and build satellites and missiles. A critical part of aerospace engineering is testing aircraft and aerospace products and systems. Other activities include conducting design reviews, validating designs, and integrating systems and components.

The types of aircraft aerospace engineers work with typically include:

  • Passenger and commercial planes and jets
  • Military fighter jets
  • Propeller-based aircraft such as helicopters
  • Lighter-than-air aircraft like airships and dirigibles
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which are called drones

The types of spacecraft aerospace engineers work with may include manned spacecraft such as:

  • Space shuttles
  • Flyby spacecraft
  • Orbiter spacecraft
  • Atmospheric probes

Aerospace engineers have a deep understanding of aerodynamics, an area of physics focused on determining the forces at play when objects move through the air and propulsion. This knowledge enables engineers to determine the mechanisms needed to move an object forward or upward. They also have knowledge of materials and structures, propulsion, vehicle dynamics, control, and software development.

With the rising use of drones for various applications, aerospace engineers are also working in nontraditional, non-aeronautical sectors. For example, aerospace engineers can work in the construction and real estate sector to develop drone systems with mapping, surveying, and filming and photography capabilities.

It is typical for aerospace engineers to work in formal office environments for systems and software suppliers, corporations, government agencies, and universities. In military settings, aerospace engineers often collaborate on research programs and work with military members and other engineers to design military aircraft and aerospace equipment.

The median salary for an aerospace engineer is $118,610, according to the BLS. It is also a growing field — the BLS projects 8% job growth from 2020 to 2030.

Automotive Engineer

Automotive engineering is a branch of engineering focusing on the design, manufacturing, and testing of mechanical systems and components in vehicles, including automobiles, trucks, motorcycles, buses, and earthmovers (vehicles used at construction sites). Traditionally, automotive engineers worked on designing and manufacturing cars with internal combustion engines. However, they are increasingly designing plug-in hybrids and battery-electric vehicles, which are becoming mainstream.

Automotive engineers create and improve designs and mechanisms related to automotive bodies and engines. They also work with developing electrical wiring and circuitry, software, and operational systems, sensors, and equipment for functions such as navigation and data backup. Automotive engineers work with CAD software to develop innovative designs. They also build prototypes that require the use of hand tools and equipment to shape parts and components.

With the proliferation of cars, automotive engineers are concerned with safety in their designs. Additionally, fuel economy and emissions are key considerations in automotive design to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Successful automotive engineers have the following skills:

  • A strong understanding of mechanics to build frameworks for car bodies and engines
  • Mathematics and physics skills to help them calculate the impacts of power trains and other parts on the road
  • Creativity and ingenuity for designing vehicles that are innovative and attractive to consumers

In addition, they possess strong communication and management skills to interact with other engineers, keep projects on track, and delegate tasks to colleagues working on different components of a design. They must address problems, as they conduct tests on designs and engine performance, and solve issues identified in earlier models.

It is typical for automotive engineers to work in office settings for car manufacturers and original equipment manufacturers of car parts. Sometimes, fieldwork is necessary to gain a perspective regarding the real-world performance of their designs.

The median salary for an automotive engineer is around $79,100, according to the compensation source PayScale. Based on work experience and the location of the job, an automotive engineer may earn more. For example, PayScale reports the median salary for automotive engineers with 10-19 years of experience is around $91,600. Individuals located near Detroit in Warren, Michigan, the largest suburb of U.S. auto manufacturing, earn about 20% more than the national median salary.

Semiconductor Engineer

Semiconductors conduct heat between a conductor and insulator in microprocessor chips and transistors to power electronic devices. These tiny devices have had a monumental impact on our society. So much so that a region in California — where many of the largest technology companies operate — is known as Silicon Valley, because semiconductors are at the heart of technology and electrical products, from smartphones and electrical appliances to medical devices and bank ATMs.

Semiconductor engineers are a type of electrical engineers responsible for designing, implementing, and integrating semiconductors. Semiconductor engineers work with tiny components, such as silicon wafers. Critical processes in developing semiconductors are wafer bonding and etching to create conduction pathways for chips that power electronics and devices. Semiconductor engineers also test semiconductors to ensure they function well for everyday use and identify and resolve problems and issues that may arise during the semiconductor development process.

Since semiconductor engineers are often involved in developing proprietary systems for high-tech companies, the ability to maintain confidentiality is critical. Other essential skills for semiconductor engineers include:

  • Attention to detail to be thorough in completing work tasks
  • Ability to gather business and technical requirements
  • Knowledge in determining the best materials and designs for semiconductors to ensure the effective operation of devices
  • Diligence and interpersonal skills to engage with other engineers and professionals in the product manufacturing process
  • Strong reporting and writing skills to maintain records and provide briefs about the progress of a project

Semiconductor engineers often work in office settings or labs, but time in the field may be required depending on the type of work. The tiniest speck of dust can destroy a semiconductor, so semiconductor engineers often work in cleanrooms, which are sterile, enclosed spaces designed to help keep airborne particulates out and enable tight control of other factors (air pressure, airflow, temperature, and humidity).

The median annual salary for a semiconductor engineer is around $83,000, according to PayScale. However, depending on location, semiconductor engineers can earn more. For example, individuals in Santa Clara, California, earn about 75% more than the national median salary for semiconductor engineers.

Embedded Systems Engineer

An embedded system is a physical device or product consisting of hardware and software designed to do a specific task. Examples of embedded systems people use daily include health trackers and smart home appliances such as refrigerators or microwave ovens. An embedded system can also be part of a more extensive system that functions as its host, which means that it only works when it is connected to that system. For example, anti-lock braking systems (ABS) in cars only work as part of an automobile system. Disconnected from the vehicle, the ABS is not functional.

The role of the embedded systems engineer is to make physical devices and products work with their software. These devices may range from smart home devices and physical health trackers to medical devices, airplane components, and far beyond. The embedded systems engineer designs the software to run only on a specific piece of hardware. General responsibilities include developing embedded software and systems from design to debugging stages. They also conduct code and design reviews, validate designs, and integrate systems and components.

Embedded systems engineers’ skills encompass software development and programming. The most common programming languages for embedded systems engineers are C and C++. Embedded systems engineers also have knowledge of system architectures and the ability to work with hardware (such as sensors and electronic boards), different microprocessors and processors, and control mechanisms. With the rise of intelligent products, embedded systems engineers often know machine learning and the protocols for the Internet of Things.

Since embedded systems engineers frequently develop highly specialized systems, attention to detail and project management understanding are essential. Working with various engineers also means that embedded systems engineers need to have strong communication and problem-solving skills.

It is typical for embedded systems engineers to work indoors, from formal office environments for writing code to workshop settings for creating prototypes or building hardware components.

The median salary for an embedded systems engineer is about $79,700, according to PayScale. However, depending on location, embedded systems engineers can earn more. For example, in San Diego, they can earn 12% more than the national median salary of the profession.

Pursue a Game-Changing Career

What do electrical engineers do to have such a significant impact on our daily lives? They develop the sources of electricity — from large power plants to microchips — that power whole cities, the machines we use, and the devices that connect us to data and each other. As technology and electricity converge to expand the digitization of everything, electrical engineers will support continual advancements in technology across industry and society.

If you’re looking to help build the future, Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Electrical Engineering program teaches the core principles to help advance your career as an electrical engineer.

In addition to foundational courses in engineering writing and computational tools, the program offers a choice of six concentrations: Autonomous Unmanned Vehicles, Communications and Digital Signal Processing, Computer Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Electronic Navigation Systems, and Micro-Nano Devices and Systems.

Learn more about the Ohio University online MSEE program.

Recommended Readings

7 Socially Significant Electrical Engineering Inventions

7 Popular Electrical Engineering Careers

Electrical Engineering vs. Computer Science: Which Career is Best For You?

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Civil + Structural Engineer, “Emerging Commercial Drones Industry set Massive Growth in Construction & Aviation Sector”

Electrical Engineering, “How Electrical Engineering Benefits Society”

HCL Technologies, Embedded Software Engineering

MRL Consulting, “What Does a Semiconductor Engineer Do?”

PayScale, Average Automotive Engineer Salary

PayScale, Average Embedded Systems Engineer Salary

PayScale, Average Semiconductor Engineer Salary

Society for Human Resource Management, Automotive Engineering Technician

TechTarget IoT Agenda, Embedded System

Today’s Military, Aerospace Engineers

Trenton Systems, “What Are Embedded Systems?”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Aerospace Engineers

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