Electrical engineers have many options
Hiring managers are looking for skills in wireless technology, circuit design and computer hardware
Hiring is increasing at software, robotics and financial companies, says Dr Kim Boyer at RPI
By Sonya Stinson
Job openings for electrical and electronics engineers are expected to increase by 6 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov).
This is a slower than average pace, but Dr Kim Boyer hasn't noticed any deceleration in the recruitment of his seniors. Boyer heads the department of electrical, computer and systems engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI, Troy, NY).
"All of our students, basically, are getting jobs," he says. "The market looks pretty good right now. We don't have a lot of kids sitting around waiting for job offers."
Boyer notes that wireless technology is one area where demand is great for EEs. Companies in the electronics industry are also hiring grads to design circuits and computer hardware, and hiring is increasing among software, robotics and financial companies.
Feedback from RPI faculty and students confirms his expectation that, when it comes to educational preparation, "a solid grounding in the fundamentals never goes out of style.
"What the kids are telling me is that they don't often get a lot of technical questions during an interview," Boyer notes. "What they get asked about are things like their ability to work in teams, or in a cross-disciplinary mode. The ability to communicate both orally and in writing is also very important, as is their understanding of the societal aspects of what they do."
Overall, Boyer says employers are looking for well-rounded job candidates, with resumes listing extracurricular activities, internships and other experiences that boost their leadership and creative abilities. Those qualities are more important than mastery of any specific cutting-edge technology.
"We want to make sure that we put the newest tools in the hands of our students: laboratory equipment, software packages and so forth. But we don't get too wrapped up in making sure we have the very latest version," he explains. "Those things change rapidly. What we want the students to understand is that the education should not be about the tool, because the tool is going to change."
Opportunities abound for diverse grads
What hasn't changed for many employers of EEs is their commitment to the goal of creating an inclusive workforce. Deborah Elam, vice president and chief diversity officer at General Electric Company (GE, Fairfield, CT), explains why GE stays focused on diversity.
"At GE, diversity is about the power of the mix, the strength that results from a team with varied experiences, backgrounds and styles," Elam says. "Our diversity fosters a limitless source of ideas and opportunities. Diversity is part of our foundation. From the commitment of our leadership team to our internal processes, inclusiveness energizes teams and fosters teamwork and innovation."
In its April 2012 Salary Survey, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (www.naceweb.org) reports that the median starting salary for 2012 electrical and electronics grads was $57,300, up 2.7 percent from 2011 and the largest increase of all the engineering disciplines. According to the BLS, the 2010 median salary for EEs at all experience levels was $87,180.
One of the advantages of being an electrical engineer is that exciting job opportunities are available in almost any industry. One of the EEs featured in this article is working on design projects that enable hospitals to enhance medical testing equipment. Another creates customized cockpit display systems that help Air Force pilots stay on course. We also spotlight EEs in the automotive, energy and utilities industries.
Tracey Baird: leadership rotation program at GE Healthcare
Tracey Baird is in the second half of her two-year stint as an Edison engineer at GE Healthcare (Milwaukee, WI). She entered the company's two-year post-college leadership program in July 2011.
Baird will complete the Edison Engineering program in June 2013 after four six-month rotations. In the meantime, she's sharpening her problem-solving skills working alongside senior colleagues in different engineering roles.
Baird is excited to soak up as much knowledge as she can. "I learn something new every day," she says. "It's just amazing how much there is to learn, and I don't know if I will ever get to the point where I'll feel like I'm finished."
Her first rotation had her troubleshooting problems for GE hospital products that use wireless networks. Next came an assignment working on MRI system transmit and receive chains, which involve the mechanism for capturing RF signals from the patient's body so that they can be processed into images. Her third rotation is with the X-ray tubes team, where she's working on a project for a new CT system GE is developing.
Baird graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY) in 2011 with a BSEE. She concentrated her studies on biomedical engineering, a choice she credits to parental inspiration.
"My dad is an engineer and my mom is an RN, and both of their careers have always been interesting to me," she says. "I love the medical side, but I knew I didn't want to be a doctor, or a registered nurse like my mom. I wanted to do something to help people, and engineering has always been very interesting. Now I've found a way to combine the two."
Baird notes that it's sometimes tough to connect a new task to what she learned in college. Her most valuable college courses, she's found, have turned out to be the ones that included lab work, because they taught her to do the kind of documentation required in her current job.
"There have been projects where I've thought, 'I know nothing about this,' but then I think back and there's always a class where I learned the concept," she says. "But it's just piecing it all together; that's the challenge."
Jonathan Mejias designs cockpit display circuits at Rockwell Collins
Jonathan Mejias is realizing his long-time dream to work in aerospace. He's designing cockpit display circuit card modules for air transport aircraft at Rockwell Collins (Cedar Rapids, IA).
Mejias grew up in a military family and moved to the U.S. mainland from his native Puerto Rico when he was twelve. "I went to school in Puerto Rico on a Navy base that had a lot of Air Force planes coming in and out," says Mejias. "Planes were something that I was very interested in as a kid." The U.S. Air Force is now the primary customer for the instrumentation he designs.
Mejias got his BSEE from Florida Atlantic University (Boca Raton, FL) in December 2010 and interned with NASA as a student. He landed the job at Rockwell Collins after meeting a recruiter at an engineering conference and flying in for an on-site interview.
Mejias says he's had to master a lot of industry acronyms in his new job, something he didn't learn in school. But he's finding that his coursework is very relevant. "In college you study math and theory and do the paperwork, but you don't know exactly how it all applies to real life. For example, how do I apply basic electromagnetic interference theory?" he asks. "Now that I'm in the industry, I'm able to see firsthand what the professors were talking about."
Mejias is currently studying for an MBA in finance at Nova Southeastern University (Fort Lauderdale, FL). He's on track to complete that degree in 2014. "Maybe in five or ten years, if I want to change careers or move up the corporate ladder, I'll have that option," he says with a smile.
For now, as a relatively new hire at Rockwell Collins, Mejias is humble about the role he plays. "I'm on a very good team," he says. "Everyone is a subject-matter expert. I'm still learning and trying to find my way."
Electrical engineering students who consider Rockwell Collins a target employer would be wise to acquire some subject-matter expertise in other disciplines as well, suggests Steve Schulz, the company's director of talent acquisition.
"The need for traditional, hardware-focused electrical engineers is on the decline," he explains. "Electrical engineers that have cross-domain skills in software, electromechanics and systems are going to be in greater demand. At Rockwell Collins, that's driven by our move to be a holistic solutions provider."
Eduardo Carvalho tests vehicle navigation systems at Honda R&D Americas
Eduardo Carvalho is an infotainment test engineer at Honda R&D Americas, Inc (HRA, Raymond, OH), where he develops vehicle navigation systems. He and his team also provide support during the launching and marketing of new Honda and Acura models.
Carvalho grew up in Santos, Brazil, an island forty-five minutes from Sao Paulo, the largest port in Latin America. His father was also an engineer and he recalls going with his dad to the office on "take your child to work" days.
"I was always fascinated with electronics, always liked playing with computers," he says. "When I was a kid, I liked playing with CB radios. I'm still an amateur radio operator."
After graduating from Wayne State University (Detroit, MI) in 2007 with a BS in electrical and computer engineering, Carvalho spent a year at Ford Motor Company (Dearborn, MI), where his work focused on hardware design implementation and multimedia applications. He joined Honda in 2009.
Carvalho helped design the navigation system for the 2011 Odyssey, the first Honda vehicle to use data from local FM stations, as opposed to satellite technology, for its traffic updates. The system allows car customers to get traffic tracking as a standard feature.
He looks forward to being more involved in the planning and development of future projects. "I hope to become part of the decision-making process early on," he says.
Future engineering grads can expect to see job opportunities at Honda R&D Americas, says Bill Konstantacos, VP and Ohio Center general manager. "We've hired more than 100 new engineers so far this year, and plan to continue hiring for the next several years."
Patrice Niles: group leader at LG&E and KU
When a major storm causes a power outage for customers of LG&E and KU (Louisville, KY), things get hectic in the office where Patrice Niles works. It's the kind of environment where she thrives.
Niles is group leader for electrical system coordination at LG&E and KU's transmission control center in Simpsonville, KY. "In the operations environment, when problems hit you've got to solve them right now," she says. "I like that. I like the dynamics of how quickly things can change, how fast an outage happens and how fast you have to respond."
Getting that response right is the most rewarding part of the job for Niles. "Meeting the challenge requires a high level of flexibility and knowledge, as well as an awareness of what you don't know," she says. "You have to be adaptable to changing environments, understand that information is constantly changing, and be willing to accept information from other sources. You can't just work in a silo."
Niles has a 2004 BSEE from Auburn University (Auburn, AL) and a 2006 MSEE from the University of South Alabama (Mobile, AL). After earning her undergraduate degree, she participated in an eighteen-month development program at Alabama Power Company in Mobile. Then she joined Kentucky Utilities in Shelbyville, KY as a distribution engineer.
Just prior to her current assignment, she was a system operations engineer at LG&E and KU. Now, as one of two group leaders at the transmission control center, her role is less technical and more managerial. She supervises a group that's responsible for maintaining and monitoring all the power transmission operations for the state of Kentucky, working in round-the-clock shifts. As they perform tasks like safety clearances, reliability checks and compliance reports, they consult Niles when they have technical questions.
"Now I depend on the engineers in the group I came from to run the studies, and I'm responsible for communicating the results," she says.
To take her career at the company to the next level, Niles would like to expand her knowledge beyond transmission and distribution to a broader understanding of the utilities industry. She'd like to learn more about budgetary issues, regulatory constraints and utility rates: "things that drive why we do what we do."
Daniella Shepard: North Slope EE at BP
Newly graduated engineers at BP (Houston, TX) start their careers in the company's three-year Challenge Program, which pairs them with mentors, exposes them to several business sectors and gives them annual evaluations before declaring them ready to stand on their own as members of the engineering staff.
Daniella Shepard finished her Challenge Program training in 2010. Today she's a North Slope electrical engineer at BP's Greater Prudhoe Bay, Alaska facility. One of the projects she led as a new EE still ranks as one of her proudest accomplishments.
"I worked as a facility engineer at Milne Point during the last stage of my Challenge Program," she says. "At Milne Point we have a particular problem because we sit so far out in the ocean that a lot of the old transformers have corroded. So we put a program in place to have General Electric come up and rehabilitate the transformers."
The assignment came with several challenges, like how to prevent the spillage of mineral oil as it was drained during the work, and how to safely move the large structures and the cranes that carried them over the process pipes. "We were able to do the job with no mineral oil spills, and nobody got hurt," she states proudly.
Shepard has been fascinated by electrical power since childhood. "My father used to work in a power plant. He would take me there when I was a little girl and show me all the equipment," she says. "I always found that interesting."
Shepard joined the U.S. Navy after high school and spent four years as a nuclear electrician's mate. When an illness led to a medical retirement from the military, she went to work for an electrical testing firm in Seattle, WA. With financial assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs, she went back to school. After earning her 2006 BSEE at Seattle University, she spent a couple of months at a Seattle consulting firm before joining BP.
For the past two years, Shepard has been providing engineering support for the transmission and distribution crew at the North Slope's nineteen facilities. She'd like to expand her BP experience into the areas of transmission and distribution, especially for alternative energy sources.
"There is a big push for wind and solar power, but the question is, how are we going to get that power to the consumer?" she asks. "BP has a lot of big projects coming up in the future that put a focus on creating a really good, efficient distribution system."
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