Electronics vs. electrical engineering

IMAGE SOURCE: S.J. de Waard, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license

The disciplines of electronics engineering and electrical engineering sound similar, and in many ways, they are. In fact, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) combines the two careers into a single job profile. Yet there are significant differences in the work of electronics engineers and electrical engineers. At engineering schools that offer these majors as separate programs of study, there may be important differences between the curricula of these programs, as well.

Electronics and Electrical Engineering Degrees

There are a lot of similarities between electronics and electrical engineering degree programs. In fact, ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) requires accredited degree programs in electrical and electronics engineering to meet the same criteria. These programs must cover advanced mathematics, specifically differential and integral calculus, probability and statistics, linear algebra, differential equations, discrete mathematics and complex variables. They must include science courses in biological, physical or chemical science. Through these programs, students must study the engineering and computer science principles and applications needed to analyze and design computer software, the hardware components of computer systems and electrical and electronic devices.

That said, electronics and electrical engineering programs aren’t necessarily identical. In an electrical degree program, students take courses such as introduction to electrical engineering, electromagnetics, signals and systems, circuits and semiconductors, according to U.S. News & World Report. Electrical engineering students might specialize in communications, nanotechnology or another academic concentration.

Students majoring in electronics engineering take more foundational courses in electronics, according to U.S. News & World Report. Rather than taking minimal coursework in circuits, they study alternating current circuits, direct current circuits, digital circuits and systems, and electrical components of circuits, including transistors and capacitors. Electronics engineers need to learn about programming, voltage, electrical currents and random signal analysis. Through laboratory work and fieldwork, aspiring electronics engineers develop their technical skills working with hardware and tools. Specializations in an electronic engineering degree include mechatronic systems, renewable energy and power systems.

Students interested in research and development or academia may be interested in a five-year dual degree program that awards both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in electrical or electronics engineering.

Jobs in Electrical and Electronics Engineering

The field of electrical and electronics engineering is diverse, with opportunities and applications in fields such as transportation and automotive, telecommunications, aerospace, manufacturing, computers, biomedical engineering, semiconductors and energy and electric power. Electrical engineers are responsible for designing, testing and overseeing the manufacture of electrical equipment. They use their knowledge of science and mathematics to develop new ways to harness electrical power in a wide range of electrical systems, from those used in aircraft and motor vehicles to generators, navigation systems, radar and communication systems, the BLS reported. In the course of their work, they must calculate standards and specifications, supervise manufacturing and installation processes and solve any problems with the equipment that arise.

Electronics engineers also design and develop equipment, but they work with electronic equipment and components rather than electrical equipment. This includes the parts and systems used in music players, broadcast systems, and Global Positioning System (GPS) devices and computer hardware, according to the BLS. The work of electronics engineers is often used in medical, commercial, scientific, industrial or military fields.

There are 188,300 electrical engineers and 136,300 electronics engineers working in the United States. Engineering services employs the most electrical engineers (almost one in five). About 10 percent of electrical engineers work in electric power generation and distribution, eight percent work in research and development, six percent work in semiconductor and electronic component manufacturing and another six percent work in navigational and control instruments manufacturing.

The biggest employer of electronics engineers is the telecommunications industry, which employs 18 percent of electronics engineers. The federal government employs 13 percent of electronics engineers, while the semiconductor and electronic component manufacturing industry employs 12 percent, engineering services employs nine percent and navigational and control instruments manufacturing employs 7 percent.

As a whole, electrical and electronics engineers earn a median salary of $97,970, slightly higher than the $92,220 median wage for all engineers and well above the $37,690 median salary for all occupations in America. Electronics engineers working outside the field of computers earn a median salary of $102,180, compared to $95,060 for electrical engineers, the BLS reported. The field of electrical engineering is growing slightly faster than electronics engineering. The BLS expects job opportunities for electrical engineers to increase by nine percent, or 16,200 jobs, over a decade, compared to a four percent increase (just 5,100 jobs) for electronics engineers.

In the highest paying industries – research and development for electrical engineers and navigational and control instruments manufacturing for electronics engineers – both types of engineers earned median salaries above $110,000.