Electronic Engineering: Innovation, employment and career prospects
Electronic engineering has long been a pioneering field, with its roots in ground-breaking inventions in the late 19th and early 20th century including radio, telephone and television. The modern day field has morphed into a diverse and dynamic area, covering everything from mobile phones to robotics. In this article, we take an incisive look at how the field emerged and what to expect in employment, including the training and skills required.
Electronic engineers are responsible for the design, development and testing of devices, components or systems with an electrical power source. This area of engineering is often viewed as a subfield of electrical engineering. The distinction usually drawn between the two is the focus in electronic engineering on circuitry and design of individual components of a device, whilst electrical engineering is broader, centring on power generation and transmission. It is of note that many universities have joint departments for electronic and electrical engineering, due to their inherent interconnection.
The field owes it origins to a number of innovations that took place at the end of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. These included the invention of the radio — accredited to Guglielmo Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braun by the Nobel Prize committee in 1909 . The related work In 1904 by Professor John Ambrose Fleming, at University College London, who invented the first radio tube — the diode. This was followed by the independent development of the amplifier tube two years later, known as a triode, by Robert von Lieben and Lee De Forest. The latter became incorporated into radios worldwide and allowed for long-distance telephone calls.
The subsequent invention of television, use and development of communication systems like sonar and radar in World War II, and the transistor in 1947, laid further foundations to the discipline. Other key 20th century inventions include the microprocessor in 1969 by Marcian Edward (Ted) Hoff, through his work at—what was then a small Silicon Valley start-up, Intel. Microprocessors have become integral in personal computers, and have also allowed for electronic technology development in any device that requires computation power, for example. cars and mobile phones.
Electronic engineering, in the form it exists today, can include the conception and design of electronic components and systems for a wide range of commercial, industry, or scientific research applications. A graduate degree is usually a pre-requisite for all entry-level roles. You can further specialise in sub-disciplines that include control engineering, signal processing, telecommunications engineering, computer engineering (including embedded systems) and instrumentation, through further postgraduate study. The world’s top ranked academic research centres for electronic engineering in 2017 included— Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford, University of California - Berkeley (UCB), University of California - Los Angeles (UCLA), Cambridge University and the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore .
International funding for research comes from a wide variety of sources, including national research councils and additionally, industry funders, due in part to the direct practical applications of projects. In the UK, the primary governmental funding body is the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). At the EU level, a number of relevant funding opportunities are available under the current Horizon 2020 framework under its Industrial Leadership pillar, many specifically under Information and Communication Technologies available to view here - https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en/h2020-section/information-and-communication-technologies. In the United States, government research funding is available from the National Science Foundation (NSF), under the division of Electrical, Communication and Cyber Systems (https://www.nsf.gov/eng/eccs/about.jsp), other federal agencies also provide funding in the field, for example the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
What to expect in employment
There are a variety of businesses that seek to employ electronic engineers including those operating in defence, aerospace, automotive, aviation, mobile phones, telecommunication, robotics and medical instrumentation, to name a few. Job titles include, Electronics Engineer, Electronics Design Engineer, Electronic Systems Engineer and more senior positions for example, Electronics Engineer Manager, Electronics Engineer Project Manager. Some of the biggest private employers worldwide include Apple Inc., Samsung Electronics, Hewlett Packard (HP), Sony, and Microsoft. As a qualified electronics engineer, you can be involved in any number of stages during the production of a new product, device or system. You typically work as part of a cross-functional project team, alongside a number of experts from other branches of engineering to handle all the differing development aspects of a new product or system. Typically you could be involved in proposing the initial concept, going on to design and develop the product according to plans, subsequent testing and optimisation of any prototypes that are created, before final manufacture. There will be financial constraints on given projects, so an ability to keep to budgets is important.
You will be required to have excellent communication skills, (verbal and written), in order to provide accurate technical details and project updates to colleagues and senior management. Furthermore, writing reports and technical specifications will be a key responsibility. You may be required to supervise technicians or colleagues and have keen project planning skills.
One thing to note in employment in the field is a significant gender disparity, with far fewer women than men working in the area. This is thought to be attributable to poor female retention rates in the sector and also, a consequence of the poor pipeline of graduates. Recent statistics show that only 16% of engineering and technology undergraduates in the UK are women . The most recent data from the National Science Foundation show this figure as 20% in the US , with India fairing better, with one of the highest level of female graduates in engineering at 30% . In terms of translation into employment, 11% of engineers are thought to be female in the UK , (the same report stated 10% specifically for electrical and electronic engineering), 15% of all of the engineering workforce is estimated to be female in the US  and 26% in India .
Key skills sought
- Relevant academic qualifications: This is often minimally a Bachelor’s Degree in Electronic Engineering but may require a Masters or PhD., depending on the level of specialisation sought.
- Attention to detail: Developing complex electronic components and products requires a exceptional focus and attention to detail. You’ll need to grasp and monitor several technical elements of a product, throughout its development.
- Adaptability: Projects may vary and can change rapidly according to demand or be scrapped if unsuccessful. As such, the pace is fast moving and you will need to feel comfortable using your existing knowledge in novel situations. Continual training and education come as a prerequisite.
- Team-working skills: You will be required to work closely with others during the development and manufacturing process, to ensure that plans are executed accurately. You’ll need to troubleshoot as part of a team for any problems arising.
- Mathematics and analytical skills: Advanced maths skills are critical in all fields of electronic engineering where you will use them to trouble-shoot, analyse and design electronic devices or components.
- Excellent written and verbal communication skills: As an electronic engineer you will need to describe your designs and logic, providing clear instructions to colleagues during product development. In a cross-functional team, there may be those from adjacent arms of the business who do not have the same technical expertise as you, so excellent verbal communication skills are required. Often, part of your remit is to draft technical specifications, instruction manuals, product proposals — all of which require excellent written skills.
The median wage for electronics engineers in the US, excluding those in computer fields, was $99,210 in May 2016, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics . In the UK, an Electronic Engineer working in the private sector, you could earn between £23K - £46K dependent on experience. More experienced and Senior Electronic Engineer salaries are from £46K+ depending on experience and demand .
Future career outlook in the field
Several indicators demonstrate the employment market for electronic engineers is set to continue to expand in the future. An ongoing demand for innovation in consumer electronics including mobile phones and smart-technology, expansion in medical technology devices and a growing need for microelectronics have helped bolster this trend. According to recent projections in a report by Statista, the global revenue growth for the industry sector is predicted at 4% in 2018, with Asia and the Americas showing the highest increase at 5%, Europe the lowest at 2% . India and China are key areas of growth for the Asia region.
In a 2017 survey of 800 engineering and technology employers in the UK , electrical and electronic engineering firms had the third highest net increase in the workforce employed over the last three years at 32%. IT and communications and aerospace/defence categories were first and second, with 43% and 38% net increase, respectively. Energy sectors have seen a loss of -30% over the same period in the UK. Over half of the UK businesses surveyed in electrical and electronics engineering stated a skills shortage in the employment pool as a barrier to success. The latter is indicative of an ongoing employment demand in the sector. On the other side of the Atlantic, the job market in the US has been predicted to grow by 7% over the ten year period between 2016-2026 .
- Nobel Prize in Physics 1909 - https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1909/
- QS 2017 World University Rankings for Electrical and Electronic Engineering - https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings/university-subject-rankings/2017/engineering-electrical-electronic
- Women in STEM: Facts and statistics - https://communities.theiet.org/files/8042
- Women, Minorities in Science and Engineering: National Science Foundation - https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2017/nsf17310/digest/fod-women/engineering.cfm
- Statistics on women in engineering: Women’s Engineering Society - http://www.wes.org.uk/content/useful-statistics
- 12th Engineering and Technology Skills and Demand in Industry report: The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) 2017 - https://www.theiet.org/factfiles/education/skills2017-page.cfm?
- NSF: Employed women scientists and engineers, as a percentage of selected occupations - https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2017/nsf17310/digest/occupation/women.cfm
- Tech companies have only 26% women in engineering roles: Belong Survey - https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/ites/tech-companies-have-only-26-women-in-engineering-roles-survey/articleshow/61171280.cms
- Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Handbook. Electrical and Electronic Engineers 2016. Pay - https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/electrical-and-electronics-engineers.htm#tab-5
- Salaries expected for an Electronic Engineer. Glassdoor - https://www.glassdoor.co.uk/Salaries/electronics-engineer-salary-SRCH_KO0,20.htm
- Statista: Estimated growth rates for the global electronics industry from 2016 to 2018, by region - https://www.statista.com/statistics/268396/estimated-growth-rates-for-the-electronics-industry-by-region/.cfm?
- Bureau of Labor Statistics. Job outlook, 2016-26. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/electrical-and-electronics-engineers.htm
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