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A positive connection: electronics and careers.

A positive Connection: Electronics and Careers

When Thomas Edison was born, we knew that bolts of electricity sundered trees, set houses afire, and killed people. Practical applications for electricity were few. Now, it sets our TV screens dancing, turns radios into rock concerts, runs industrial equipment, and flashes through computer circuits to answer questions at the speed of light.

Most of us are content to pay little attention to this force and the equipment it runs. But others are as fascinated as Edison was with what can be done by electricity and electrons. For them, electronics is more than a subject. Electronics is a carrer that already employs almost 2 million workers. These occupations differ not only with regard to the skills of the workers but also in the kind of satisfaction they offer, the amount of training they require, and the salaries they pay. One factor held in common by most of these occupations is the promise of future growth.

Electronics Everywhere

Electronic devices are so numerous that we easily overlook most of those we encounter, just as city dwellers no longer hear the traffic. How many electronic devices do you encounter in a typical day? A dozen? A hundred? If you wake up by radio and make a phone call to check the weather, you will be in touch with thousands before you leave your house.

The radio and the telephone themselves are not merely electronic devices in their own right, they were made at least in part by electronically controlled robots or machine tools; and, when they are used, a host of other electronic devices come into play. Behind the radio broadcast stand cabinets full of transmitting equipment, not to mention the electronics that went into creating the compact disk the DJ played. Chances are that even some of the music was made with electronic instruments and synthesizers. Similarly, telephones make connections because of electric switching apparatus, signal enhancers, and many other devices. Weather forecasters, too, rely on all sorts of sophisticated electronic equipment, such as orbiting satellites and supercomputers that make possible the collection and analysis of accurate information. Clearly, there are more electronic devices in heaven and earth than most people dream of. According to the National Electronic Sales and Service Dealers Association, "the industry produces about 30,000 types of electronic goods."

Make What Doesn't Exist, Fix What Does

Designing, manufacturing, selling, installing, and fixing all this electronic equipment require workers with a wide range of skills. You can get some sense of the kinds of careers available in electronics by thinking of how a product came to be in your home.

Products must be designed even if they rely largely on existing technology. Design and development are usually the work of a team of engineers, technologists, and technicians. The size of the team depends, of course, on the nature of the project. The development of high-quality speakers may require only two or three engineers. Designing an entertainment center that combines a television, CD player, VCR, and two cassette tape decks would require a larger team. Each team member would have a specialty.

Once a device has been developed, tested, and perfected, it can be manufactured and sold. Although relatively few manufacturing or sales sjobs require an aptitude for electronics, some do. For example, sales teams for makers of large computer systems or other sophisticated technology usually include engineers who can explain technical details to clients. (For more information on marketing, see "To Market, To Market: Job Opportunities in Marketing," in the spring 1989 Occupational Outlook Quarterly.)

Following the sale, the product may have to be installed, a do-it-yourself job for a microwave oven but a more complicated matter for a satellite dish. This work is done by technicians or technologists. Repair and maintenance are also the duties of technicians.

Occupations in Electronics

No single job title groups together all the workers who deal with electronics. Obviously, electronics engineers do, and so do electronics technicians. But so do many automobile mechanics and industrial machinery repairers and most elevator maintenance mechanics. Of course, the amount of time a worker spends on electrical problems varies within each occupation. For example, electronics is central to communications equipment, and almost all rpeairers of this equipment must understand printed circuit boards and schematics; but cars are more likely to have mechanical problems than electrical ones, so many automobile mechanics specialize in repairs that have nothing to do with electronics.

Knowledge of electronics is needed in more than 30 of the occupations described in the Occupational Outlook Handbook (see box). The following occupations are the largest of those in which workers spend a substantial amount of their time dealing with electronics.

Although electrical and electronics engineer and electrical and electronics technician are the largest of these occupations, the repairers taken together number 394,000.

In addition to these occupations, many others require some knowledge of electronics. For example, although only electrical and electronics engineers are listed above, all engineers must know the principles of electronics, just as physicists and many other scientists must. Similarly, only some repair occupations are listed; a great many other repairers and mechanics, including auto mechanics, must also know some electronics. And, naturally, electricians, who number over half a million, must also be familiar with electricity.

Many other workers, who are employed in occupations not described in the Handbook, also need electronic know-how. The Guide for Occupational Exploration specifies more than a hundred job titles under electrical-electronic systems installation and repair and electrical-electronic equipment repair. Besides those already mentioned, the Guide lists airplane electrician, automated equipment engineer-technician, avionics technician, cable splicer, electric-motor repairer, electronic-sales-and-service technician, furnace installer, instrument repairer, powerhouse electrician, relay technician, sound technician, and substation electrician.

Working With Electronics

People who work in electronics are generally sorted into four groups: Repairers, technicians, technologists, and engineers. Their jobs are most easily described in these terms. Within a group, however, tasks vary greatly from job to job. For example, experienced repairers in larg shop may spend most of their time running tests to learn what is wrong with a piece of equipment, leaving the actual repair to be made by other workers. Or an experienced technician in an electronics laboratory may contribute to the design of a piece of laboratory equipment, rather than simply build it. Furthermore, job titles--especially those with the word technician or technologist in them--are used differently by different employers. For these reasons, descriptions of the work done in an occupation should always be thought of as being very general.

Repairers and technicians. These workers operate and maintain electronic equipment. Job titles are numerous because they often refer to the kind of equipment the repairer or technician works with or the industry they work in. But the tasks of these workers often have much in common despite the difference in job title. For example, broadcast technicians work with microphones, sound and video tape recorders, and television cameras; so do home entertainment equipment repairers. Of course, broadcast technicians also work with transmitters and operate control panels. Similarly, computer technicians diagnose equipment failures and replace machine parts just as other office equipment repairers do.

Engineering technicians and technologists. These workers build or set up equipment, prepare experiments, devise and run tests, calculate or record results, and make prototypes of new equipment. They often assist engineers and scientists. About half of the electrical and electronic technicians work in manufacturing.

Engineers. Electrical and electronics engineers design electronic equipment. They also test it, develop maintenance schedules, solve operating problems, and supervise its manufacture. Specialties include power generating and distributing equipment, integrated circuits, computers, manufacturing, communications, industrial robots, aviation electronics, and so forth.

Other Skills and Aptitudes

Because some knowledge of electronics is important in so many occupations, people interested in it should look at their other skills and aptitudes when investigating occupations. You need not ask which occupation a person who likes electronics should consider, but which of the occupations dealing with electronics has other characteristics that attract you. Some of the questions you might ask yourself follow, along with how some occupations relate to them.

Do you enjoy finding out how equipment works" Confucius never said, "Those who take gadgets apart as children put them together as adults," but he might have. Ask the young men or women in an electronics class to say when they started taking radios apart, and they are likely to tell you they do not remember a time when they didn't. But they often have a vivid memory of the first time they put one back together and it worked. Repairers and technicians especially enjoy getting things to run.

Do you like to work with your hands? Repairers and technicians must be able to use tools and machinery. The parts they work with are often very small, so they must be good with their hands. Most repairers and technicians must also have normal color vision because wires or parts are often color coded. Engineers work with their hands less frequently than do repairers and technicians.

Do you build models or electronic devices from kits? Most electronics workers need to be able to read schematics and follow shop manuals; these skills are related to following the instructions for complex kits.

Do you enjoy mathematics? Solving problems is at the heart of these occupations. The more you like to solve mathematical problems, the more likely you are to enjoy this work and the training it requires. Repairers and technicians must be able to use arithmetic, shop geometry, and algebra. Engineers should take the most advanced mathematics offered by their high school, including calculus, to prepare for studying much more math in college.

Do you mind being confined or would you rather work outdoors? Electrical and electronics engineers tend to spend most of their time at their desk or work station. Many repairers work in shops and stay at the same work station most of the day. For example, most electronic home entertainment equipment repairers and many home appliance and power tool repairers work in shops run by retail trade establishments, but others travel from job to job during the day. Commercial and industrial electronic equipment repairers are less confined. They move around the factory to service the equipment. Computer technicians and office machine and cash register servicers are likely to travel around during the day, going to different offices to service equipment. Line installer and cable splicer is one of the few electronics occupations in which people often work outdoors.

Do you want to work regular hours? Standard 40-hour weeks are common in these occupations, but many positions require shift work. Communication equipment mechanics and broadcast technicians, for example, may work evenings, nights, or weekends, because this equipment is in use 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Repairers who fix home appliances or entertainment equipment that is difficult to move may have to work weekends or evenings. Relatively few people in these occupations work part time, except for electronic home entertainment equipment repairers.

Do you like to work with people? As part of a team? Most workers in these occupations have frequent contact with the public. Workers who have especially frequent contact include engineers and technicians who act as sales representatives and repairers who deal directly with the public. Technicians who work in factories or laboratories and repairers who work in large shops in which customer representatives fill out repair tickets meet the public much less frequently. Engineers and engineering technicians almost always work in teams.

Do you like to take the initiative or do you prefer to have others identify what's to be done? Virtually all the positions in these occupations require some initiative, just as they all require some problem-solving ability. Workers in positions that require the least training usually follow the directions of others.

Do you enjoy being a leader and persuading others to follow your advice? Leadership skills are needed for all those who enter supervisory positions. The ability to persuade others is important to most engineers. They must be able to show why their proposed solution to a problem is the most effective. Engineers and technicians who work as sales representatives must also be persuasive. High school and community college teachers who specialize in electronics must also be persuasive.

Do you like to see results right away? The projects engineers work on may take years to complete, just as their training does. Repairers are much more likely to have the satisfaction of completing a job rapidly.

Would you rather study a subject in a classroom or learn on the job? Working with electronics almost always requires some classroom learning, and everyone must learn on the job, but the amount of classroom work versus hands-on experience varies a great deal. Depending on the occupation, you may need no more than a high school diploma or you may need 4 challenging years at a college of engineering. The training required for these occupations is further discussed below.

Pick Your Training, Pick Your Career

To a large extent, the careers available to people interested in electronics depend on the amount of training they wish to take. Training can last a year or less and be taken primarily on the job, or it can take 4 years or more after high school. For example, you can begin working as a construction electrician with no training at all, gradually mastering electrical theory. Or you can become an engineer, which requires a college degree. Production workers in electronics manufacturing plants and sales workers in retail stores require the least specialized training.

Training differs not only in its length but also in its emphasis. Generally speaking, training for jobs in which a worker is given very specific tasks to perform emphasizes the performance of those tasks. For example, a worker who is going to conduct the same test over and over again will be shown how to conduct that test and little else. A worker who not only conducts tests but also determines which tests to perform must be familiar not only with the tests themselves but also with the electronic theory that makes them reliable. Knowledge of theory is even more important to a worker who designs equipment; consequently, the training of engineers emphasizes theory and mathematics rather than hands-on experience.

Training is widely available for electronics and engineering. It takes place in high schools, technical schools, colleges, the Armed Forces, and on the job.

High school. While in high school, students interested in electronics should try to decide whether they want to pursue careers as engineers or technicians. Such a decision is helpful because engineering schools prefer applicants who have excelled in rigorous academic subjects. Technical courses, on the other hand, can give you a good idea of whether you would like to do technical or repair work--as well as being enjoyable in themselves to those who like electronics.

If you are planning on an engineering career, you need to take the courses required for admission to college. Required courses usually include 4 years of English, 2 of social studies, 2 of a foreign language, 2 or 3 of mathematics, and 2 or 3 of science. Prospective engineers should take more mathematics and science, including advanced placement (AP) courses. Even if you do not take the AP test or do well enough on it to gain college credit for the course, having taken the courses will make your freshman year in college somewhat easier.

If you are planning on becoming a repairer or a technician, you should still take math and science courses in high school, especially physics. High schools also offer technical or vocational courses that could prove useful. Courses may be offered in electronics, computer repair, electronic home entertainment equipment, home appliances, and power tools.

Vocational courses usually begin with basic theory and safety, and then move on to simple hands-on work. As the equipment worked on becomes more complicated, additional theory may be needed. In one typical course, the simplest task is the analysis of a direct current (D.C.) circuit. Students then move on to alternating current (A.C.) circuits, capacitive circuits, superheterodyne receivers, semiconductors, and many other electronic components, taking time out for units on test equipment, servicing procedures, and many other subjects.

Should you be uncertain as to the career you want to pursue, try to keep your options open. This might require extra work on your part. You might need to take certain classes during the summer or before the start of the regular school day. The conflict arises because high school electronics courses may require large blocks of time, making it very hard to fit in all the academic subjects you need for admission into an engineering school. Before deciding that you have to learn everything in high school, however, consider the following: You are not making a once-in-a-lifetime decision. You can later change the direction of your studies, even if you end up spending an extra year or two in school. Time spent on academic subjects or in a technical class is unlikely to be completely wasted no matter what your eventual career.

Technical schools and community colleges. These schools train people for many of the occupations mentioned in this article, including commercial and industrial equipment repairer, computer service technician, and home appliance and power tool repairer. Individual schools differ a great deal in the nature and quality of their programs. Generally speaking, however, a school identifying itself as a technical institute usually emphasizes hands-on projects, whereas a junior college or community college is likely to put somewhat more stress on theory and general education.

Required courses in a technical institute might include electronics theory and technology, preventive maintenance, and troubleshooting techniques. Courses usually focus on specific equipment, such as data processing equipment, television sets, camcorders, and so forth. Many of these courses are employment oriented. That is, a student who completes the course expects to find a job fixing, maintaining, or operating the equipment studied. No school should guarantee a job, and one that does should be avoided. When evaluating a school, you can contact potential employers to learn their opinion of it and its graduates.

In addition to technical training, community colleges and some technical institutions also offer academic courses that can prepare a student to transfer into a 4-year college of engineering. If you plan to transfer, you must be careful in selecting both the school and the courses you take. You do not want to have to repeat similar courses later, nor do you want to end up spending 6 years in school instead of 4 because none of your earlier work will count toward your 4-year degree.

Academic programs at a community college or technical institute are like those taken in the first 2 years at a 4-year college or university. They would include courses in English, the humanities, social sciences, science, calculus, and, possibly, an introduction to engineering. They would not include courses in the maintenance or repair of equipment.

Colleges and universities. A bachelor's degree from a college of engineering is required for most beginning positions for engineers. Engineering is the only occupation discussed in this article that requires such a degree. The degree usually takes 4 years to earn but may take 5, especially if the student participates in a cooperative education program. (See "Cooperative Education: Working Towards Your Future," in the fall 1988 Occupational Outlook Quarterly.) One or more years in graduate school may be required for some positions, including teaching. More than 250 colleges offer a bachelor's degree in engineering, and nearly 100 offer one in engineering technology.

During their first year, engineering students take some of the same courses as other freshmen and sophomores, such as English, social science, and humanities. They also take an introduction to engineering, calculus, and chemistry or physics. In their other years, engineering students take the mathematics, science, and engineering courses needed for their particular field of study.

Engineering students choose their specialty at the end of their freshman or sophomore year. Besides electrical engineering (the largest field), there are dozens of other specialties. These include mechanical, civil, chemical, and industrial engineering. Some fields overlap very closely, others very little.

Programs in engineering technology are intended to prepare students for practical design and production work rather than for jobs that require more theoretical scientific and mathematical knowledge. Some employers regard these graduates as having skills between those of a technician and an engineer, but others see them as the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in engineering.

The Armed Forces and other employers. Training in electronics and many other technical fields is provided by the Armed Forces. Employers view this training favorably. Often, it combines classroom work similar to that provided by a technical institute with 2 years or more of work experience. The decision to enter the Armed Forces should not be based simply on the availability of training, however. (See "Job Training for Enlisted Personnel in the Military," in the fall 1983 Occupational Outlook Quarterly.)

Other employers also play an important part in providing training. In several of these occupations, many of the workers entering the occupation already have related job experience. This indicates that they learn some skills with one employer and then go to work on a different kind of equipment for another employer. Computer service technician, office machine repairer, and home appliance and power tool repairer are mong the occupations entered by experienced workers.

On-the-job training. All occupations require some on-the-job training, the only difference being whether it is informal or formal. Vending machine servicers, for example, mostly learn informally; they go along with experienced workers as helpers. But, because workers in electronic fields must be able to read schematics, follow safe practices, and understand shop manuals, some formal training is needed for almost all the positions in electronic fields. Large companies--such as appliance and power tool manufacturers and department store chains--have formal training programs that include home study courses and shop classes where trainees work with demonstration appliances and other training equipment. New office machine repairers who work for a franchised dealer usually attend a school sponsored by the manufacturer of the equipment they will be servicing. Training programs at these schools usually last several days to several months. A computer service technician may spend as long as 2 years in on-the-job training.

In some on-the-job-training programs, the trianee first learns one type of equipment--such as a hard disk drive in a computer--masters it, and then moves on. Trainees who work for companies that repair major appliances may learn by accompanying experienced repairers during visits to customers' homes.

Apprenticeship is a particular kind of formal training. An apprentice enters into an agreement with an employer and a union who agree to provide certain training in a particular sequence. Apprentices' wages are based on the length of time they have been in the program, which can last for 4 years. Most elevator installers, some commercial and industrial electronic equipment repairers, and some electronic home entertainment repairers are trained in apprenticeship programs.

In these occupations, training does not end once a worker is familiar with the equipment being used. Electronics is a constantly changing field. New equipment is introduced daily. As a result, workers in these occupations--whether they are fixing televisions or designing computers--often attend seminars or other classes to keep up with current developments.


Workers who are knowledgeable about electronics often have higher salaries than do other workers who have about the same amount of education or training. Naturally, the salaries vary widely by occupation. They also vary from one part of the country to another. But, generally speaking, the salary of an electronics technisian will be equal to or higher than the salaries of other technicians in an area, and the salary of an engineer will be higher than the salaries of other college graduates. The following tabulation shows the weekly earnings in 1988 of workers in some of these occupations, according to the Current Population Survey. The median is the point at which half the workers earn more and half earn less.


These are growing occupations. Engineering and all of the technician occupations are projected to grow at least as fast as the average for all occupations between now and the year 2000. In addition to the workers needed to fill these job openings resulting from growth, many more workers will be needed to replace those who leave these occupations. The accompanying table, "The Job Outlook for Occupations in Electronics," gives details on the rates of growth. New outlook information will appear in the spring 1990 issue of the Occupational Outlook Quarterly.

Changes Coming

Birds awake to a new world every day. Sometimes it seems as though the world of electronics is also created anew each day. New products appear continually and old ones, such as LP records, disappear. Experts foresee no slowdown in the pace of change, making it impossible to anticipate exactly what will happen. However, the direction of some changes seems fairly clear.

When rock-and-roll was young, few families had more than one TV. Now, TV's seem to perch in every room, and many a family also owns a VCR, a microwave oven, and more than one stereo system. Many of these devices are relatively inexpensive. One change that appears certain is that, even as electronic goods become more reliable, their price will continue to decline compared to other prices.

A consequence of declining prices is that many items will no longer be worth the cost of repair. By the time they break, a more advanced model will cost little more than repairing the old one. However, some electronic devices, such as computers, elaborate home entertainment systems, and camcorders, and centrally controlled heating, air-conditioning, and electronic systems will require regular maintenance by skilled technicians and will be worth repairing.

Items in need of servicing will be varied in kind and manufactured by many different companies. As a result, small, independent repair shops will be unable to service many of them. Consequently, more repair work will be done by chains that can employ a sufficient number of technicians and repairers to ensure that someone in the shop will know how to fix almost any device a customer brings in.

Another likely change is that electronics manufacturers will cut back on the number of production workers they employ. Foreign competition and the use of industrial robots will contribute to the decline. However, other occupations related to production will grow, including technician and industrial equipment repairer.
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Author:Baxter, Neale
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 1989
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