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Electrical Engineering

With technology expanding in more directions that ever before, the future of electrical engineering is bright.

By Colleen Hansen

Before Silicon Valley, before the Internet, before the computer, there were electrical engineers—engineers who researched and developed all things electrical and electronic. There was no question about who they were or what they did. If it had to do with electricity or electronics, electrical engineers probably had something to do with it.

But with the explosion of the high-tech industry, the definition of what it means to be an “electrical engineer” has expanded. Today's electrical engineer could be working for a law firm in Boston, a bank on Wall Street, or a manufacturing plant in Texas or California.

And the growth of this field shows no signs of slowing. Despite the economic downturn, electrical engineers are as much in demand as ever. With computers, networking and systems playing key roles in the operations of virtually all businesses today, electrical engineers can plan on being diligently pursued for years to come.

“All companies are looking for electrical and computer engineers,” says Nancy Evans, director of the Engineering Career Assistance Center for the College of Engineering at University of Texas, Austin. “It doesn't matter what your business is.“

The Rise of the Computer

In the future not only will it be harder to distinguish electrical engineering from its counterparts, it will be harder to limit electrical engineering majors to careers in the industry. “As the high-tech industry becomes more entrenched in the U.S. economy, you're going to see people with skills that are a part of that industry become more popular in non-technical-related firms,” says Mark Albertson, the American Electronics Association (AEA)'s senior vice president for California and the Western United States.

Electrical engineering students who have passed through MIT illustrate just that, says Anne Hunter, administrator of undergraduate and master's of engineering programs in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, adding that about 25% of MIT electrical engineering graduates head for Wall Street each year, going to companies like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Deutsche Bank and others.

“They are going to New York City to work in investment banking, mergers and acquisitions, Wall Street trading, things like that,” she says. “Not as technical support but for those companies' main lines of business.

“They have these quantitative problem-solving skills that are quite adaptable,” Hunter adds.

Jim Kirtley, director, vice president and chief scientist of SatCon Technology Corporation in Cambridge, Mass., and professor of electrical engineering at MIT, agrees. “It is becoming difficult to [hire] good engineers coming out of universities,” Kirtley says. “Wall Street is exerting a very strong pull on graduates with quantitative skills.”

But, Hunter says, Wall Street is not the only place trying to snag the top electrical engineers. “We send a lot of students on for Ph.D.s, to med school and to law school,” she says.

“I see engineering becoming more of a gateway to other professional schools,” forecasts Linda Katehi, associate dean for academic affairs and a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Referring to the movement toward a more well-rounded education for engineers that is sweeping the nation right now, Katehi says that although it “limits our capability of including more technology courses [in our engineering program], it gives us an opportunity to develop a degree that is broader.”

This means, “people can go into law with engineering, they can go to medical school with engineering, they can go to business school with engineering,” she says.

Sharpen Those Skills

Your quantitative skills will help, but what else is going to help you land the job of your dreams?

Knowing how to work in global groups, according to Katehi. “[Graduates] will need to understand how to work in global groups,” she says. “Electrical engineers will get together to design something, but that doesn't mean the whole group will be in the same place.“

Jim Lucy, chief editor of both CEE News and Electrical Wholesaling, also hints at the idea of global project collaboration. “In the future, [electrical engineers] will be getting a lot more of their information from the Internet, whether they're just doing research or collaborating on projects with people out in the field.

“Computers are an everyday part of the workplace and it's just going to get more and more so,” Lucy adds. “[Electrical engineers] will be tracking a particular product they may have designed with the people out in the field, and it will all be conducted using PalmPilots. They will have a lot more instantaneous communication via computer. They will send their designs electronically.

“It will all be digitized,” he says.

And the Internet will continue to increase in value and convenience for engineering students seeking advanced degrees.

“About half of the students enrolled in our master's-level courses are in industry, taking classes over video or online,” says Bruce Wooley, chairman of the Department of Electrical Engineering and a professor of electrical engineering at Berkeley, adding that although such classes have been around for over 40 years, only recently have they been implemented online.

Katehi, too, recognizes the role computer technology and the Internet will play in the education of electrical engineers in the future. “People will be able to do virtual experiments over the Web,” she says.

“Graphics and visualization are changing the field drastically.” In addition to improving your collaborative skills and becoming technically savvy, Katehi stresses the importance of knowing the basics. “The average right now is for an electrical engineer to have seven different jobs throughout his or her career,” she says. “They need to have enough background to be able to change topics multiple times.”

John Steadman, vice president for career activities on the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers' (IEEE) USA Board of Directors, is quick to agree. He believes “students should pay as much attention as they can to electronic fundamental concepts.” This, he says, will help them keep up with ongoing trends and allow them the flexibility of career changes.

But there is more to success than having those technical skills down pat. Students should be well-rounded, says Albertson. “Given the competitive nature of the high-tech industry, any graduates that have solid business skills in addition to good technical skills will probably do better than most.

“While diversification is still important and companies do look for specialty technical skills, having a broad base of knowledge will give candidates a more significant edge in the future,” he adds.

Where's the Action?

Electrical engineering covers a wide range of areas in the high-tech sector. “A lot of the areas which are coming up [require a knowledge of] other fields,” Katehi says, referring to the more interdisciplinary shape electrical engineering will take in the future.

Take for example, biomedical engineering. Bruce Wooley, chairman of the Department of Electrical Engineering and a professor of electrical engineering at Berkeley, hints at the possibilities that lie before electrical engineers in biology, trying to understand the body as a system. “The core of electrical engineering is the ability to process signals and information,” he says. “Extending that signal processing into other domains will be characteristic [of the future].”

Another example is nanotechnology, manipulating and replicating materials on a molecular scale, which requires the pooled resources of chemists and electrical engineers.

And there will be plenty of opportunities and expansion in electrical engineering itself. Wireless continues to be a buzzword for the telecommunications industry, and with optical networks stretching across the country and around the world, the industry shows little sign of slowing.

“We're seeing a situation beginning to develop now where many of the large, established high-tech firms are building important market niches in the telecommunications area,” Albertson says. “That is going to be a very important growth trend as we move more into this decade.“

Many expect optics (the use of thin strands of glass to carry information by lasers) and photonics (capturing photonic energy to transmit information by light), both important facets of telecommunications technology, to thrive in the years to come.

Says Steadman, who is also head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Wyoming, “We will hopefully see the development of true optical switching and optical repeating, so that bandwidths can be maintained over larger distances and with large networks.“

Job Hunting

As good as the job market is for electrical engineers, don't expect jobs to materialize out of nowhere. Hiring is down nationwide, which means everyone—even the electrical engineer—is feeling the heat.

For example, in early August Lucent Technologies announced it would cut about 15,000 jobs, bringing its employment numbers down from 155,000 a year ago, to about 60,000. ADC Telecommunications Inc. has cut almost 10,000 jobs and Global Crossing Ltd. has cut about 2,000-15% of its work force.

While Albertson admits that hiring has not been as robust in 2001 and unemployment will probably rise, he says, “Companies are still hiring for key technical positions—that's necessary no matter what the economy is like because the strength of a company's future is in its innovative technology products.”

AEA's report, Cyberstates 2001: A State-By-State Overview of the High-Technology Industry, appears to support his beliefs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a main source for Cyberstates, electrical engineers' 1.1% unemployment rate in 2000 was the second lowest for all high-tech occupations examined, extremely low compared to the national average of 4.3%.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 26% growth rate in the number of electrical and electronic engineers employed in high-tech occupations from 1998 to 2008.

And, in a nationwide job search conducted in mid-August on America's Job Bank, 5,258 positions were listed for electrical engineers, second only to computer engineers of systems software (7,400). This is compared to 100 for agricultural engineers, 961 for aerospace engineers, and 4,241 for mechanical engineers.

Where to?

Where do you have the best chance of landing your dream job? In a state-by-state search for electrical engineering jobs on America's Job Bank, California and Texas offer the most opportunity, and the number of job openings in California (1,040) is more than double those of Texas (409).

Information from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics supports these findings, with data showing that more than one-third of all electrical and electronic engineers have jobs in California, Texas, New York and New Jersey.

Lucy admits that certain parts of the country might be more eager for electrical engineers than others, namely Florida, Texas, California and the Rocky Mountain states, but believes that if you're prepared, have the basic skills and want to work, you won't have a problem landing that job and keeping it.

He adds, “For a person with the right background, I can't imagine that there won't be good opportunities basically anywhere.”

Colleen Hansen was an editorial intern for Graduating Engineer & Computer Careers.

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