In an ever-evolving, complex industry such as electrical engineering, specialties and necessary skill sets are bound to change. EE and computer science professors are changing the way they teach as equipment becomes less expensive, fields merge, and new needs are created.
"There seem to be more, larger interdisciplinary research programs," Tsu-Jae King Liu, EE division chair and associate chair of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department at UC Berkeley, told us. "Courses tend to have research influence, so students see what they're learning is practical. We now have collaborations between technologists and computer architectures."
More applications require advancements in hardware and software engineering. Biomed and information systems are rapidly becoming more important. Liu said more software companies are hiring people with hardware experience, because software optimization requires engineering to co-opt algorithms and code within the hardware's architecture. "There is always interest to develop new types of computing devices that are more energy efficient, that can be used in a more wide range of environments, and that directly interface with humans."
Stanford University professor Mark Horowitz doesn't believe there will be "seismic changes" in curriculum based on emerging fields, but told us that EE, like other industries, will evolve over time.
"Parts that weren't the most popular start growing in importance, but things that were [popular] start to fade," said Horowitz, founder of the licensing company Rambus Inc. "We have developed amazing technology in the scaling of silicon, and what we're seeing is a blossoming of that technology in different areas."
99.99% of jobs see no change
Though inexpensive equipment has democratized learning and opened the doors for new applications, the embedded systems development expert Jack Ganssle said that 99.99% of the jobs in his field haven't changed.
"There are some new ones like 'IoT Visionary,' 'IoT Ambassador,' and the like but… I have no doubt those titles won't last more than a couple of years," he said. "To be successful, a pro will have to have a deep understanding of the hardware and software. The app-like crowd excels in abstraction, in getting stuff done with just a facile knowledge of their systems."
Major companies are split on the skill sets necessary for newly hired electrical engineers, Ganssle said. "One wants specific skills and searches resumes for acronyms. Others, like Google, want smart people who can innovate, and they care less about experience and titles."
Horowitz said the ability to "take things apart both figuratively and literally, use constraints, and work in a team" will be very important in securing an engineering job. Students will also need to know programming and problem decomposition and have mathematical skills to leverage computing tools.
Officials from the semiconductor manufacturing company Intersil told us in an email that future electrical engineers should be well rounded. Recent graduates should be hungry to learn and have a variety of skills, and not just high marks in engineering courses.
"In recent graduates, we are looking for those that… have variety of skills that include people and communications skills," the officials wrote. "In experienced people, we are looking for the ability to innovate. We look for leaders that are excited by the challenge of finding new ways to solve problems. They are willing to take calculated risks and have a track record of executing well."
Still, Liu said enrollment in electrical engineering programs has declined over the past several years. Students have failed to understand the wide range of job opportunities in computing and information science. Enrollment may increase at schools with an integrated EE and computer science department -- like Cal Berkeley, MIT, and the University of Michigan.
"If students don't know what EE is about, they won't be as likely to pick it as a field of study. Educators need to make it clear to students what electrical engineering really entails, because it's a lot more than just building and connecting wires, powering society," Liu said. "It's just a matter or students realizing/seeing jobs grow in that area."
In Berkeley's EECS department, classes that bridge to computer science (such as networking and communications) have the highest enrollments. Horowitz said Stanford's machine learning course and other "optimization type classes" are popular.
Intersil said: "At the top schools this [innovation] evolution is well underway, with students exposed to the latest tools, methods and models to prepare them for the workforce. What they need most, however, is practical experience that can really only be gained by working with a strong mentor on real-world projects."
Jeff Will, chairman and associate professor of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Valparaiso University in Indiana, said jobs are constantly being created as new technologies emerge and old ones continue to be used. Students will need to know basics but also be on the cutting edge.
"Job titles stay the same, but what you're expected to know to fill that role is changing,” Will said. "Keeping up isn't easy. What we keep instilling in our graduates is the idea of lifelong learning. It's no longer the case that you take what you learned in four years and apply it for the rest of your life."
EE Times polled educators on the top EE titles and careers of the future. Click through to learn where the industry is headed.