As with engineering in general, electrical/electronic engineering has always had its specialties. We have our processo"> As with engineering in general, electrical/electronic engineering has always had its specialties. We have our processo">

Electrical systems engineers take a well-deserved bow

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As with engineering in general, electrical/electronic engineering has always had its specialties. We have our processors, software (depending on your perspective), analog and logic circuits, RF, and active and passive components, to name just a few of the many disciplines in which EEs can focus their training and efforts.

Until about two decades ago, all of these specialties were held in somewhat comparable esteem, with two exceptions. One was the RF engineers working “out there in a corner” as they fused Maxwell’s equations with their unique esoteric design “magic” to create impressive wireless devices, despite the challenges and the apparent strangeness of much of what they were doing. Other EEs may not have fully understood what they were doing, but had a lot of respect for it nonetheless.

The other exception was for those who made higher wattage systems that operated at several hundred volts and amps and higher. For reasons I have never understood, after electronics came onto the scene – characterized first by tubes, then by semiconductor devices and integrated circuits – engineering students and practitioners electrical were seen by many other EEs as the ones that couldn’t “make it” with the hottest, glamorous areas like processors and software. It had an undeserved reputation as a place for EEs that could only be in the boring and laborious realm of power rather than the trendier and more visible realms, even though that was the dominant discipline in the early years of the electricity (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Early electrical engineering focused on power and motors, as seen in this photo of a University of Michigan laboratory circa 1920. The students (all male) also dressed heavily more formally than today. (Source: University of Michigan Archives)

Demonstrating the diminished stature of energy engineering, parents would brag that their child is “studying computers”, but would not say the same for “electricity and energy”. Ironically enough, EEs who specialized in the extreme ends of electrical engineering such as Tesla coils at thousands of volts were often considered eccentric geniuses.

The status and recognition of the electrical systems designer has certainly improved dramatically over the past few decades, and for good reason. With the push for electric vehicles of various types, renewable energy (solar, wind and others), and energy efficiency in general, there has been a long overdue recognition that the engineers who understand the issues and design these systems are doing sophisticated things and hard work.

There’s no question that electrical systems engineering doesn’t move or change as fast as some other areas of EE – that’s part of the nature of its technology and very legitimate user caution. When you talk about these power levels, errors of any type are very serious in terms of safety, cost, repair and loss of time.

All of this got me wondering: Where do today’s engineers come from? Being a designer of such systems requires university studies; practical practice; deep understanding of physics; an overview of suitable components; respect for “mundane” issues, such as contacts, connectors and wiring; regulatory mandates; technical standards; and more. While some of this skill is undoubtedly learned on the job, much of it simply cannot be.

I decided to research basic information, such as where this subject is taught, the number or percentage of EE students and employed EE who now focus on electrical system design, etc. I’m going to skip the story until the end: I had a lot of trouble.

Yes, there are a few schools with strong programs, but only a few. Several years ago, I asked a department head why his school only had a symbolic power program, and he was candid in his response. He said that due to the voltages and currents, it was expensive to set up and maintain the physical layout of such a laboratory and its instrumentation, it required a lot of space, it required special wiring with a Substantial AC line as well as batteries for energy storage. , there were inherent security concerns, and it simply lacked the prestige to attract outside donors.

I have tried to obtain significant numbers from various educational, government and professional sources. Unfortunately, these sources use different terminology for similar roles as well as similar terminology for different roles; furthermore, some grouped “computer science” with “electrical engineering”, while others did not.

I learned that through an evaluation, colleges in the United States awarded about 31,000 undergraduate degrees in EE in 2017-2018 (Reference 3), but with a combined electrical and electronics enrollment of about 78,000 (Figure 2, reference 5) – a disparity that puts all the figures in serious doubt.

Figure 2: These engineering enrollment figures by discipline should only be used as a guideline due to overlaps and differences in the definition of these majors. Note that the number of mechanical engineering students is much higher than the number in electrical engineering. (Source: American Society for Engineering Education)

Adding to the confusion, “computer science” and “electrical/computer engineering” are listed by this source as additional disciplines, as is biomedical engineering. In short, there is no simple and unequivocal way of analyzing all these disciplines.

Equally confusing was the breakdown of electrical engineering into professional roles. For example, in an assessment, “electrical engineer” is a broad title, covering the design or installation of such a system, or a maintenance engineer in a large facility. In others, the definition of electrical and electronics engineers appears to have significant gaps (Figure 3, reference 9).

Figure 3: The engineering job classifications and definitions used by the US Department of Education may leave a lot to be desired, but improving them is much easier said than done. (Source: United States Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics)

There were also the usual articles worrying about the shortage of electrical engineers, but such worries are perennial and pervasive in all engineering disciplines and are even true except when they are not.

In the end, I simply gave up on the investigation. I didn’t have the time, expertise, or personal resources to research a question that might even be impossible to answer or that would require digging very deep, making judgments about what constitutes a course, program, or job.

What has been your experience as an electrical system designer or someone who has worked with a system? Where did you (or did they) discover the cutthroat world of designs and products with hundreds of volts and amps and all the unique problems they bring in both concept and implementation? Are there any specific programs you would recommend?

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  1. IEEE Electrical Engineering Society. (2006). “Power Engineers Needed: What PES Does to Attract Talent.”
  2. Vancouver Island University. (2020). “VIU aims to fill a shortage of electrical engineers.”
  3. Factual College. “2022 Electrical Engineering Degree Guide.”
  4. “Electrical engineering.”
  5. American Society for Engineering Education. “Engineering by the Numbers.”
  6. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “What Electrical and Electronics Engineers Do.”
  7. National Science Foundation. “How many degrees are earned in engineering and which subfields are the most popular?”
  8. Zippia, Inc. “Demographics and Statistics of Electrical Engineers in the United States.”
  9. US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. “Detail for CIP Code 14.4801: Energy Systems Engineering, General.”
  10. University of Michigan. “Electrical and Computer Engineering in Michigan: A Story of People Fueling Innovation.”

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