Relevant industry experience and an accredited degree can significantly increase your chances of getting a job as an electrical engineer

As an electrical engineer, you'll design, develop and maintain electrical control systems and components to required specifications. Your work will focus on:

  • economy
  • quality
  • reliability
  • safety
  • sustainability.

The electrical equipment that you'll design and manufacture is used across many sectors, including:

  • the building industry and services, including lighting, heating and ventilation
  • transportation and transport networks
  • manufacturing and construction
  • production and distribution of power.

Electrical engineers are involved in projects from the concept and detail of the design, through to implementation, testing and handover. You may also be involved in maintenance programmes.

Most electrical engineers work in multidisciplinary project teams, which are likely to include engineers from other specialist areas as well as architects, marketing and sales staff, manufacturers, technicians and customer service personnel.

Responsibilities

Depending on your employer, you may be involved in all parts of the design and development process or just one particular stage. While the work can vary according to the industry, you'll typically need to:

  • identify customer requirements
  • design systems and products
  • read design specifications and technical drawings
  • research suitable solutions and estimate costs and timescales
  • make models and prototypes of products using three-dimensional design software
  • work to British (BS), European (EN) and other standards
  • liaise with others in the design team
  • communicate with clients and contractors
  • attend meetings on site
  • design and conduct tests
  • record, analyse and interpret test data
  • propose modifications and retest products
  • qualify the final product or system
  • service and maintain equipment
  • prepare product documentation, write reports and give presentations
  • monitor a product in use to improve on future design.

Salary

  • Graduate starting salaries are around £26,000.
  • Average salaries for engineers with experience can range from £35,000 to £60,000.
  • Salaries for specialist engineers or those with chartered status can be considerably more.

Salaries vary widely according to location, the size of the employing organisation and the nature of its business.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You'll typically work around 40 hours a week. You may need to work extra and unsocial hours to meet deadlines or resolve design difficulties. Some jobs offer flexible working.

What to expect

  • You may be located in a production plant, workshop, office, laboratory, factory or on site, or a mixture of several of these. Depending on the location, conditions can be hot, dusty or cramped.
  • Jobs are available throughout the UK, with those in the manufacturing sector concentrated in industrial areas. Travel within the working day is common.
  • Women are still underrepresented in all areas of engineering, although numbers are increasing. Initiatives are in place to encourage more women into the industry, including WISE and Women's Engineering Society (WES).
  • Self-employment and consultancy are possible after building up expertise and a reputation within the profession. You will usually hold chartered engineer status before entering consultancy work.
  • There are good opportunities to work overseas, particularly in the oil, petrochemical and power sectors, large consulting firms and large building contractors. This could be either an overseas posting with a multinational employer or by applying for a job based overseas.

Qualifications

Many people enter the profession with a degree in electrical or electronic engineering. However, entry may also be possible with other engineering degrees, particularly mechanical engineering. Other relevant subjects include:

  • aeronautical engineering
  • building services engineering
  • communications engineering
  • computing and software engineering
  • electromechanical engineering
  • mechanical and production engineering
  • physics and applied physics
  • power and energy engineering.

When choosing a degree course, check your qualification is accredited by a relevant professional body such as the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) as this can help you achieve the status of incorporated engineer (IEng) or chartered engineer (CEng) at a later date. Details of accredited courses are available at Engineering Council - Accredited Course Search.

Entry is also possible with a HND or foundation degree in subjects similar to those at degree level. You'll increase your chances of success if you also have relevant work experience. A number of university courses will allow you to enter directly into the final year of a degree programme if you've got a HND or foundation degree. As some employers prefer graduates, it may be worth considering this route.

If you don't have a degree, HND or foundation degree, you'll need further training or qualifications to reach full engineer level. Some organisations recruit at A-level (or Higher) standard for apprenticeships and select the best candidates for sponsorship on full or part-time degrees.

You don't need a postgraduate qualification to get a job. Employers will be more impressed by your enthusiasm to gain professional status and by relevant industrial experience. However, a relevant Masters can help with career progression. Search for postgraduate courses in electrical engineering.

Skills

You'll need to show:

  • relevant technical knowledge and up-to-date sector knowledge
  • project management skills
  • the ability to multitask
  • commercial awareness
  • an analytical and problem-solving approach to work
  • oral and written communication skills to make technical information easy to understand for non-technical people
  • flexibility in order to adapt to evolving technologies
  • planning and organisational skills, such as time and resource allocation
  • the ability to work in a multidisciplinary team
  • leadership and management skills to help with career progression
  • a commitment to continuing professional development throughout your career.

A second language may be useful when applying to international companies.

Some work, for example in defence-related and nuclear power industries, has security implications and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) may debar applicants who have a criminal record, are not UK citizens or do not pass security clearance.

Work experience

Any relevant work experience through a vacation placement, work shadowing or industrial year out is valuable. Some degree courses will include a year's paid industrial or commercial placement as part of the degree. This provides the opportunity to develop your professional experience and to build a network of contacts, which can be useful when looking for a job on graduation. For more information on the types of work experience and how to get it, see the IET Work and Careers.

Student membership of one of the engineering institutions such as the IET provides up-to-date sector information, including new developments in the industry, regular newsletters and access to networks and contacts. Active membership will help you consolidate and learn from any work experience you do.

If you're on an accredited electrical or power engineering degree, you may be able to get financial support and workplace mentoring from the Power Academy, which is run by the IET.

Employers

Electrical engineers work in many sectors. Employers range from multinational, multifaceted companies that cover a variety of industries to small to medium-sized specialist enterprises. They include:

  • power and renewable energy companies
  • manufacturing and industrial production organisations across a range of products
  • the construction and building services industry
  • transport organisations, including road and rail networks
  • specialist engineering and consultancy firms
  • telecommunications companies
  • petrochemical industries in production and distribution
  • research and development companies in the defence-related industries
  • the armed forces, mainly the technical corps.

This range gives you a large choice of entry points into the profession and a variety of organisations in which to gain experience and build a career.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies handle contract vacancies, particularly for experienced engineers.

Professional development

Some companies offer an established training programme that includes on-the-job training and structured continuing professional development (CPD). Smaller employers may be unable to provide such a broad training experience, so it's worth checking what arrangements are in place when applying for jobs.

Some larger organisations offer graduate training schemes, which involve a rotation of posts in the first two to three years in order to help you gain the necessary competencies and experience.

You may also receive training in core business skills, such as project management, report writing or presentation skills.

Many electrical engineers work towards gaining professional status at either incorporated engineer (IEng) or chartered engineer (CEng) level. Both qualifications are awarded by the Engineering Council and provide recognition of expertise and a higher earning potential.

To gain professional status you need to be a member of a relevant body such as the IET so that you can apply through them. The process of becoming incorporated is more straightforward if you have a relevant accredited degree, or an accredited HND plus appropriate learning to degree level.

To become chartered, you will ideally have an accredited undergraduate degree along with a Masters or an accredited integrated MEng degree.

You also need to demonstrate that you're working at a particular level and have the required professional competences and commitment, as set out in the UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence (UK-SPEC).

Career prospects

There's no set route for career progression and your prospects will depend to a certain extent on how you choose to develop your career and your preferred specialist area. As you gain experience, you may decide to stay in an engineering role or work in research and design (R&D). Alternatively, you may choose to:

  • go into project management
  • take on a management role
  • pursue an academic career
  • become a consultant or contractor.

Professional status and membership of a relevant professional body, for example the IET, is essential for successful career progression. This will enable you to keep up to date with developing technologies, establish contacts and network with other engineering professionals in your field, and related fields, at conferences and regional meetings.

Some electrical engineers choose to develop their careers abroad. UK engineering qualifications are recognised in most countries, although in some you'll have to take additional tests. Most overseas organisations will expect chartered engineer status. Check with your professional institution and the country where you intend to work for further details.