The 40-Year-Old Electrical Engineer
November 13, 2009 12:59 PM   Subscribe

How are things looking for Electrical Engineers?

I'm considering going back to school to get a degree in Electrical Engineering and I was hoping that The Hivemind could provide some perspective.

Firstly, what is the market like for someone with a BS in Electrical Engineering? What jobs are commonly available in the US? I've done some looking around and the school's website is a little vague about the particulars.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, what kinds of hurdles will I be facing as a 40 year old with a freshly-minted degree?
posted by lekvar to Work & Money (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

What's your prior experience? That matters a lot with regard to things like salary and placement. One thing that might hurt you is a lack of experience in the field, which goes a really long way with a technical career. It says in your profile "prepress," which means you work with print technology, so that's a plus - you probably know a little bit about processes and procedures, computers, machinery and how they all interact. You're also older than most 'green' BSEEs so you might have some management experience as well, which is a big deal.

One 'hurdle' is that you might be headed for an entry level job, unless you have experience in a related field to the one your new job is in. If money isn't a problem, then that shouldn't be a problem either. Another is that you also will likely be working closely with people who are a lot younger and more immature than you are, which may or may not bug you.

What do you actually want to do? Something involving electronics? Communications? High voltage stuff? Design, architecture, creative work? All that stuff matters before you take class one. A BSEE can get a job as a test engineer, a circuit designer, you could go into embedded systems, you could specialize and do something like cleanroom technology, you could work on weapons systems, you could do a great deal of varied things depending on your interests and proclivities. There are too many jobs to list with just a four-year engineering degree as a springboard--it matters more what actually interests you.
posted by ostranenie at 1:46 PM on November 13, 2009

Note: An electrical engineer with a BS is a very different thing from an electrical technician who usually has only a high school degree or associates degree, and lots of on-the-job experience. An EE is going to be doing a lot more conceptual work, while a technician will strictly be working from processes and drawings developed by others, until they reach a level where they know more than the green engineers :)

Otherwise, exactly what ostranenie says. I work for a general engineering contracting firm which hires all kinds of engineers. Our demand for EE degrees is relatively constant but age might be a factor in that your salary requirements might be higher than a younger entry-level engineer. Otherwise we do not discriminate based on age - we get a lot of engineers coming out of the military who are in their early-to-late 30s).

One thing that is surprising to a lot of EE just starting out is that most EE jobs require some knowledge of common programming languages and general programming theory. This will depend on your field but will certainly be true if you work in circuit design or embedded systems. A lot of companies try to save money by hiring one EE to do design and programming, rather than an EE and a software engineer.
posted by muddgirl at 1:59 PM on November 13, 2009

Response by poster: What's your prior experience?
Aside from playing around with a soldering iron, zero practical electrical experience.

What do you actually want to do?
Ideally, I'd like to work in audio, signal processing, synthesis,and the like. On thing that gives me pause is that all those things are being handled almost exclusively by code these days. Mostly I'd like a steady paycheck, bennies and an occasional vacation, and play with the noisy stuff in my free time. But if I can combine the two, well, bonus points.

Money is always a problem, which is why I'm getting out of prepress. It's a dying industry, the pay is crap, and the benefits are non-existent. I'm a little worried about moving into a new industry just to see it die out from under me, again. My brother-in-law says that EE jobs aren't being outsourced at nearly the same rate as the software jobs are, so it gives me some hope.

most EE jobs require some knowledge of common programming languages and general programming theory.
I was hoping this wouldn't be the case, but if I'm going to be working with signal processing I'd be foolish to ignore it.
posted by lekvar at 2:17 PM on November 13, 2009

Learning a few programming languages is the least such difficulty you will encounter being an engineer in any field. You *are* really good at math, right? You *do* want to spend your days solving challenging analytical problems? If so, and if you succeed in school, I reckon you can probably find a job.
posted by flavor at 2:44 PM on November 13, 2009

I'm an electrical engineer although I've been out of school for several (ok, 20+) years.

Given what you said about your interests, I would suggest you focus on DSP and FPGA programming. Although it's "programming" it's not like writing a "hello world" program. (Disclaimer: I have never written DSP or FPGA code, but I've managed several engineers who do :)). You will be working with hardware & instrumentation, but programming a chip to do it rather than designing a circuit. It's harder to outsource or offshore this work because you need access to the hardware to make it work. I work with the team that designed this product -- much of what it can do is because of DSP.

Here's a page that discusses DSP technology and what types of consumer products it enables.

Good luck with your new career.
posted by elmay at 3:52 PM on November 13, 2009

I obtained a BSEE over a decade ago, and even then it was pretty obvious that most (computer-related) electrical engineering work was going to involve a lot of programming...which led me to pursue a concentration in Computer Science and then work as a software engineer. For example FPGA design was done by writing programs in VHDL. If you are going to work with audio you're going to have to be very familiar with programming, as almost everything new is digital now.

A friend of mine is an EE and he says that "real engineering is for suckers". What he means by this is that a lot of the hands on engineering work is entry level or has been outsourced - most engineering jobs in the US are for people managing other engineers working outside the country. A lot of EE jobs have been outsourced to India and Asia, where technical talent is plentiful and cheap...and this trend isn't slowing down. The rate of outsourcing may be slower than the software industry, but there is a smaller pool of electrical engineering jobs in the US to begin with compared to programming jobs.
posted by kenliu at 10:11 AM on November 14, 2009

I found this site to be very informative and should answer most of the questions you posed, despite the aged graphics. As an EE recently graduated with an MS, there are a good number of opportunities in defense and government work, because most of these positions require US citizenship in order to access classified information. My experience is that engineering today involves learning to use the tools available to get the job done - and 99% of my tools are software. Learning to use multiple development programs will be unavoidable, but classes will generally ease you into it. I have been heavily involved with programming, but others I have met work more with design tools which have a WYSIWYG interface, such as PCB layout.
On a different note, I have been told several times by different companies / agencies that a large portion of the workforce is nearing retirement due to a lack of funding which cut off hiring in the late 80s-90s. A histogram graph of workforce age looks like the breaking crest of a wave hovering over "55", with a mammoth dip between late twenties and early forties. Many of my colleagues are much older than the OP, but they have been working in this field for decades.

Best of luck to you.
posted by Pimonkey at 12:48 AM on November 15, 2009

Response by poster: Great answers, thank you all for the time and insight.

So, it looks like programming languages are in my future, which is something I hadn't anticipated, but that's not unwelcome news.

What languages are commonly used? I'd imagine that the C family figures prominently. Is that a reasonable assumption?
posted by lekvar at 11:06 AM on November 15, 2009

C and/or C++. You'll also want to learn how to program in assembly language.
posted by elmay at 12:44 PM on November 15, 2009

Definitely C and assembly. FORTRAN if you are doing any computational work. VHDL or some other hardware description language. Java will probably be taught as a "first" programming language. You'll also want to become familiar with some Unix variant like Linux or Mac OS X and some basic shell scripting.

It would be useful to learn something like Python, but it probably won't be taught in school.
posted by kenliu at 6:10 PM on November 16, 2009

One bit of advice I give to anyone I meet in engineering school - GET AN INTERNSHIP OR CO-OP. It was the best thing I did when I was in school and it will absolutely make a difference in your career.
posted by kenliu at 6:15 PM on November 16, 2009

General programming theory doesn't only help with writing software - it's a skill and set of techniques that can be used to solve more problems than those that can be solved by just coding something. It's the same with scripting (which is just programming in an interpreted, specialized language) - learning how to write a simple, reliable procedure is a skill a lot of people think they have (but don't).

On the DSP front, LabView is worth a mention. MatLab is worth a mention as well. Yes, DSP is typically done these days with software but you sometimes have to run that software on a specialized hardware platform, and you have to be familiar with all of said hardware's trappings and foibles to do a good job. I'd learn C and C++ first because they're the easiest and most useful language, and there are a lot of derivatives (some embedded systems compile right from C; Java and JavaScript are sort of C-like; the syntax is easy to learn and understand).

Also, I'd like to just say: Please comment your code clearly. For all of us.
posted by ostranenie at 11:20 AM on November 17, 2009

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