Electrical Engineer vs Electrician

Electrical Engineer vs Electrician – What’s the Difference?

For many people, the terms electrical engineer and electrician can seem identical, but there are some key differences between the two. These differences aren’t just superficial either, they affect the educational background that will be needed, the scope of the day-to-day work to be done, as well as salary expectations.

When choosing between the two careers, it is important to understand what skills will be needed, as well as the type of work you’ll be doing, as both professions require many years of training to become qualified.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the key differences between an electrical engineer and an electrician.

Electrical Engineer vs Electrician

Image of aspiring electrical engineers going over engineering principles

Is an Electrical Engineer the same as an Electrician?

In short, no. While both electrical engineers and electricians do work with electricity, their job roles are very different.

Electricians are responsible for dealing with electrical wiring, including installation, maintenance, and repair. In contrast, electrical engineers have a much broader job role.

Electrical engineers work in designing, studying, and manufacturing electrical control systems and components. The training and education paths for the two roles are also very different.

What type of work does an Electrical Engineer do?

Electricity is central to so many areas of industry and business, that electrical engineers are highly sought after. Electrical engineers design and maintain electrical systems in buildings, transport networks, power distribution networks, construction, manufacturing, and renewable energy.

Their work is critical in the electrical industry for diagnosing electrical problems that may arise from improperly installed electrical products and equipment.

The job responsibilities of an Electrical Engineer can include:

  • liaising with clients and identifying their needs
  • designing electrical products for the electrical industry
  • reading technical drawings and specifications
  • drawing up product plans and making models/prototypes using 3D rendering software
  • working with the rest of the design team
  • budgeting and timescale management
  • overseeing tradespeople
  • conducting feasibility studies
  • designing and conducting tests, and analyzing and reporting the data
  • Review safety measures, writing reports, and giving presentations
  • ensuring the project meets safety regulations

Electrical engineers can be based in a variety of locations, depending on the field they are working in. For example, they could be in a workshop, laboratory, production plant, factory, office, or even outdoors.

The job role can also involve working at heights or in cramped and dusty conditions. It can often include traveling to get to project sides, meetings with clients, or for training.

There is a fair amount of scope for overseas working, including in the manufacturing, oil, petroleum, and power sectors. These jobs can be direct with overseas firms, or with a US-based company that provides overseas positions.

Self-employment and consultancy positions are a potential route, but these are usually only accessible for established and experiences electrical engineers.

Electrical engineering is a broad discipline with a wide variety of specialties, including:

  • computer engineering
  • power engineering
  • telecommunications
  • signal processing
  • optics
  • radio-frequency engineering
  • systems engineering

What type of work does an Electrician do?

Image of electricians work in power plants

Electricians are skilled tradespeople who work in a variety of settings, including residential homes, businesses, and factories. They typically work directly with electricity, and are responsible for the installation, maintenance, testing and repair of electrical systems. This can include wiring, electrical control systems, electrical equipment, and machinery.

The job responsibilities of an Electrician can include:

  • planning electrical systems
  • electricians install and wire electrical equipment
  • forming electrical circuits, installing switches, circuit breaker panels, and relays
  • testing and fault-finding of electrical issues
  • reading and interpreting technical documentation and diagrams
  • maintaining electrical systems and ensuring that they are working safely and efficiently
  • repairing and upgrading faulty electrical equipment to ensure they are electrically sound
  • working as part of a team with other electricians and tradespeople to complete projects
  • electricians in larger factories and production plants need to repair and maintain complex machines as well as liaising with engineers and management to ensure that the machinery can continue to run safely

The responsibilities of an electrician can vary wildly, depending where they work or if they own their own business. Because electricity is so central to the operation of such a huge range of systems, equipment, and machinery, electricians can specialize in different areas that require different skills.

Different electrician specialties can include:

  • Domestic electrical installer – for residential properties
  • Installation electrician – for commercial properties and construction sites
  • Instrumentation electrician – fault finding and repair of environmental systems
  • Maintenance electrician
  • Construction site electrician
  • Electrical machine repairer
  • Highway electrical systems electricians – repairing and maintaining street lighting

The work environment can be anywhere that electricity is needed. This can include residential homes, construction sites, offices, factories, and businesses. Traveling is a possibility for many electrician job roles, as is on-call evening and weekend work.

What qualifications do you need to become an Electrical Engineer?

Image of a person graduating with a university degree

Electrical engineers are highly academically qualified, and several steps need to be taken to become fully qualified. Education requirements include:

1) Bachelor-level electrical engineering degree accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Electrical engineering courses include mathematics, engineering, digital systems, and electronic circuitry. They are mainly class-based, but many degree courses include lab work and fieldwork. There are opportunities for internships to complete training in a work environment.

2) To work in the utility field post bachelor’s, electrical engineers need to first pass their Fundamentals of Engineering exam. If they receive a passing grade, they become engineers-in-training.

3) After four years of relevant work experience, engineers-in-training can take their Professional Engineer exam. They will then be fully qualified electrical engineers.

4) A master’s degree is not required to work as an electrical engineer, but many do obtain one. In fact, there are a variety of engineering courses that bundle the bachelor’s and master’s level into a 5-year course.

What qualifications do you need to become an Electrician?

An electrician is a skilled tradesperson and requires a high amount of both classroom-based and on-the-job training to become fully qualified.

1) A high-school diploma or equivalent is required to begin electrician training.

2) Attending a trade school is not essential, but it can help with providing a basic understanding of electronics as well as making finding an apprenticeship easier. In some cases, the hours spent in a classroom can later substitute for some of the working hours needed to become a journeyman electrician.

3) An apprenticeship is needed to become an electrician. These can be applied to in a few different ways:

  • applying to a trade school
  • through a union, such as the Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC)
  • through a non-union, such as the Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC)

An apprenticeship combines classroom work, lab work, and on-the-job training. It usually lasts for 4-5 years and can include around 1,000 hours of classwork and around 9,000 hours of on-the-job work. Learn more about how long it takes to become an electrician.

4) Once the apprenticeship is complete, in some states a license or certificate is required to become a licensed electrician. This can include an electrical exam.

5) An electrician who has completed their apprenticeship and obtained their license is now a journeyman electrician. This is the entry-level electrician role. Journeyman electricians can work but their roles are limited in some ways. For instance, they can’t themselves take on apprentices, they can’t lead a team of electricians on a job site, and they can’t apply for permits.

6) Once a journeyman engineer has obtained two years of experience, they can apply to be a master electrician. In most states, they would need to take an exam. Once this is passed, they will now be able to take on all of the roles of an electrical, including training apprentices, leading teams, and applying for permits.

Who makes more? Electrical Engineer or Electrician?

Image of a how much an electrical engineer earns

While there is some overlap when comparing an electricians and electrical engineers pay scale, in general, electrical engineers earn more than an electrician. Below are the breakdowns of the different salaries one can expect in the United States.

The salary images below are sourced from payscale.com.

Electrical Engineer Pay Scale

The pay scale is around $59k – $114k. Male and female electrical engineers can expect to make the same amount for the majority of their careers, although there are slightly more men at the upper end of the pay scale than women.

Electrical Engineer vs Electrician - Engineer Salary

The median salary is $77k. The salary range varies depending on the state, with the highest being in Midland, Texas with a median salary of $93k and the lowest being in New York with a median salary of $72k.

Electrician Pay Scale

The pay scale for an electrician is around $39k – $83k. Men have a higher average salary than women in mid-career but it is the same for both at the early and late-career stages.

Electrical Engineer vs Electrician - Electrician Salary

The median salary is $44k and this again varies by the state. The highest is Enid, Colorado with a median salary of $71k and the lowest in New York with a median salary of $51k.

Professional Development Requirements

With both careers, professional development is key for increasing salary. For electricians, the most lucrative skill to learn is electronic troubleshooting, which can increase salary by around $3,500.

For electrical engineers, the most lucrative skills are to learn programmable logic controls (PLCs), field-programmable gate array (FPGA), and other widely used programmable systems which can increase salary by around $14,000.

Can an Electrical Engineer work as an Electrician?

While it can be tempting to think that because an electrical engineer has an advanced degree and an electrician does not, that they would automatically be able to work as an electrician.

This is not actually the case.

The training required to become an electrical engineer does not cover the sort of knowledge and skills that are needed to work as an electrician. As well as the practical aspects of the job, electricians are also required to be knowledgeable about safety codes and how to apply them.

Performing any electrical work without knowledge of these codes can be dangerous.

Electrical engineers don’t have the same practical or safety training that electricians do so would be unable to properly complete any work that needed to be done without any additional training.

In other words, to work as an electrician, an engineer would need to pass all of the assessments and complete the same amount of on-the-job training as an apprentice electrician.

What are the disadvantages of being an Electrical Engineer?

Electrical engineering has many advantages, such as a high salary, job security, and prestige. With that being said, there are some disadvantages to a career in electrical engineering.

1) High pressure

Electrical engineers tend to face a relatively high-stress working environment. The jobs that they take on can often be large and with a high amount of investment sunk into them, which can mean that there is a lot of pressure to not make a mistake. There is also a lot of competition within the field for contracts, job roles, etc.

2) Long working hours at times

Just like in the tech industry, electrical engineers can find themselves in crunch situations where they have to sink a lot of working hours into getting a big project completed. This can make finding a decent work-life balance difficult during certain periods and can lead to high levels of stress.

3) Managing clients needs

In some electrical engineering jobs, there will direct client interaction. Managing the client’s wants and needs can be difficult and can make the job high-pressure.

4) Can be dangerous

Some electrical engineers will be working directly with electronic equipment. This can put them at risk, in particular, of electric shock, but injuries can also be obtained from falls, machinery falling on them, or cold weather.

5) Ongoing education

While only a bachelor’s degree is required to qualify as an electrical engineer, in reality, it is very difficult to move up the salary ranks without continuing education. Some electrical engineers need to go on to complete a master’s, but most need to at least continue to complete to stay relevant with emerging electrical technology.

6) Limited employment growth

The employment growth of electrical engineers is not on a high trajectory. This is partly due to an increase in competition from overseas electrical engineers.

7) Barrier to entry is quite high

Many years of training and certification are needed to become an electrical engineer. Even after the completion of a bachelor’s degree, further certification and training will be needed before beginning work. The content of the bachelor’s course is technical and math-based, which can be intellectually challenging.

What are the disadvantages of being an Electrician?

Working as an electrician is considered recession-proof because there will always be a need for electricians. Beyond that, it provides a decent salary without needing a college degree and the work can be interesting. There are, however, disadvantages to being an electrician.

1) Apprenticeships take a long time

While the draw of not needing a college degree can be powerful for many, actually the amount of training required to become an electrician takes the same (or even longer) length of time. Apprenticeships can last 4-5 years compared to 4 years of technical training at a college or university.

2) It can be dangerous

Electricians are more likely to suffer injuries than other workers. Since they work directly with electrical components, there is more risk. Risk of injury or even fatality is always a top-of-mind when working with high-voltage power systems, but they are more likely to be minor injuries such as burns, shocks, and falls.

3) Difficult to maintain with age

Being an electrician is a physically demanding job role. While the late-stage career salary can be relatively high, it can be difficult to continue working as an electrician during later years. This can be offset by continued training to move up to more of a desk-job role, but this isn’t always easy to achieve.

4) Unsociable working hours

In many electrician roles, there will be a requirement to work unsociable hours, such as evenings, weekends, and holidays. Regardless of the time of year or day, if there is a fault with the electricity it will need to be repaired immediately. These hours can make it difficult to maintain a work-life balance.

5) Building codes

Electricians need to abide by building safety codes, which can change quite often. If the codes aren’t adhered to and something does go wrong that results in damage or injury, the electrician can be held personally responsible. This can make the job relatively high pressure.

6) Ongoing education

As with electrical engineering, to rise through the pay scale, ongoing education is often needed for electricians. In some situations, this education will need to be completed during personal time and will not be paid.

7) Maintaining equipment

Many electricians will need to buy and maintain their own tools. This can create an extra financial cost, and an extra time cost.

The Bottom Line

The career paths of electricians and electrical engineers have many benefits. They are very different job roles that require a very different skillset. They also require different educational and training path.

To become an engineer one primarily needs academic training and work more in a design and implementation role, whereas an electrician requires extensive hands on training, and will work more in an installation, maintenance, and repair role.

Electrical engineers are typically paid better than electricians, however, earning potential can very significantly.