When you decide to become an electrical engineer, you're committing yourself to a profession that involves developing, designing, testing and supervising the manufacturing of electrical devices and equipment, including navigation systems, electric motors and power generation equipment.
Therefore, to be able to handle such complex concepts and theories, and understand how to apply them to real-life projects, you need to possess a very unique and tailored skillset. Indeed, it's no secret that a high proportion of engineering students drop out or change course, with a lack of preparedness often cited as the biggest reason for this unusually high attrition rate.
So, to see if you have what it takes to stay the course and develop a promising career in the field, here are the top 10 electrical engineering skills that you will need.
1. Problem-Solving Skills
Regardless of their discipline, engineers are, at their core, problem solvers. This is particularly true in electrical engineering, where you are often required to think logically and apply a particular rule or concept to a problem in order to solve it.
This is easier said than done, of course, but there are numerous techniques that can improve your approach to problem solving. It's pointless, after all, having all that expertise if you don't know how to troubleshoot issues or approach a new project in the right way.
2. Critical Thinking Skills
Critical thinking is a broad skill that can be applied to a wide array of situations, but it's just as important in electrical engineering. Possessing the ability to approach things differently or take a different view to the norm can make a big difference when you are trying to achieve a certain goal with your project.
This includes analysing the strengths and weaknesses of the project or the problem in front of you, and offering alternative solutions, approaches and conclusions – all key aspects of critical thinking.
3. Basic Circuit Knowledge
Electrical design can become a very complex topic, especially where large installations are concerned (such as energy grids), or even within highly advanced pieces of small hardware, such as those used in smartphones. Therefore, if you're to have any hopes of getting to grips with it all, you need to first have a solid understanding of basic circuit design.
If you struggled with the fundamentals during your physics lessons in school, then you need to ask yourself if electrical engineering really interests you. Meanwhile, working on small (and safe!) projects at after-school clubs or in your own time can develop your knowledge and dexterity.
4. Enthusiasm for Learning
Although it's an essential and unavoidable step, having a degree is not the end of the educational road for an electrical engineer; in fact, it's just the beginning of your active learning journey.
Much of this is borne out of necessity. Electrical engineering is one of the fastest evolving and fiercely competitive engineering fields, so you'll need to be constantly up to date (particularly if you work in the product design and manufacturing sector). It's also a good quality to possess for your professional growth and development, too, with the ability to learn new things quickly being highly valued by top employers.
5. Communication Skills
There is barely a profession in the world where the ability to communicate isn't important, and electrical engineering is no different.
Whether it's understanding the needs and requirements of a client, working within project teams to develop or improve a piece of hardware, or working with other departments and stakeholders, communication skills are an essential part of the role.
6. Organisational Skills
The ability to organise and manage your time is important for an electrical engineer, as much of your work will likely be time-sensitive or project-based, regardless of which area of engineering you specialise in.
It's not just in the workplace that these skills will come in handy, though. They will also prove invaluable during your studies, where you will be learning and comprehending complex topics on top of everything else that higher education demands. Being able to manage it all and stay on top – especially during exam season – will stand you in good stead.
7. Numerical Skills
Writing for HowtoBecome.com, Louisiana Tech University professor Paul Hummel says that a common issue for electrical engineering students is that their mathematical background is not strong enough. Therefore, he highly recommends focusing on calculus at school, as well as taking as many maths-related electives as possible at university.
'Math to an engineer is like a wrench to a mechanic', he says. 'The mechanic doesn't need to know all of the intricacies of how a wrench works, but he does need to know how to use it to fix things.'
8. Creative Thinking Skills
Engineers are not just problem-solvers – they are pioneers. Whether it's on a grand scale or a simple one, the solutions they provide change the way we live; therefore, to be able to explore and implement such radical ideas, you need to be able to think outside the box.
This is especially true in the commercial sector, where electronics giants are constantly competing to develop new and exciting technologies; it's also an essential quality that top engineering schools look for in potential candidates. Remember: you can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you don't know how to be creative and explore new possibilities with it, then you're going to be left behind.
9. Work Ethic
According to Hummel, a strong work ethic is another hugely important part of a successful engineer's makeup. 'You do not have to be incredibly intelligent to get a degree in electrical engineering', he says, '[but] you must be willing to work hard'.
Hummel claims that the typical workload for an electrical engineering student involves around four hours of additional work for every hour in class, a ratio that is also reflected in the workplace – particularly if you are working on a high-stakes, time-sensitive project. Therefore, you must be determined and willing to work until you find a solution to whatever technical problems you encounter in your role.
10. Programming Skills
Although the importance of coding is higher in some areas of electrical engineering than others, it's still a very useful skill to possess, particularly when working with low-level embedded systems or when analysing data.
Java, C, C++ and Basic are the most useful languages to learn in this field, although any programming knowledge that you can bring to the table is valuable. In the long run, it will certainly make your job easier as well as boost your CV, so if you haven't already, invest some time into picking up some coding skills.
As you can see, the career of an electrical engineer – as with many STEM professions – is demanding. Apart from possessing the requisite technical knowledge, it is also mandatory for you to incorporate other key soft skills into your employability repertoire, such as decision-making, leadership and attention to detail. The rewards are high, though, with electrical engineering one of the highest-paying sectors in the industry.
Are there any other skills you would recommend for a prospective electrical engineer? Let us know in the comments box below.
This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published in April 2015.