April 30, 2024

Electrical Engineer vs Electrician: What are the Key Differences?

Table of Contents

In today's rapidly advancing world, the fields of electrical engineering and electrician work are more vital than ever, especially within the industrial sector. Both roles are crucial for the design, implementation, and maintenance of electrical systems that power our factories, commercial buildings, and even our homes. However, they cater to different aspects of electrical applications and career paths that are distinct yet interdependent.

Choosing between a career as an electrical engineer or as an electrician involves understanding each position's core responsibilities, work environments, and educational requirements. This article aims to shed light on these professions, helping you make an informed decision about which path aligns best with your interests and long-term career goals.

What is an Electrical Engineer?

An Electrical Engineer specializes in designing, developing, and testing electrical equipment and systems. They apply principles of electricity, electronics, and electromagnetism to create solutions that are safe, sustainable, and efficient. Electrical engineers often engage in research and development projects ranging from small components like microchips to large-scale systems such as power generation facilities.

In the industrial sector, they play a critical role in:

- Designing electrical systems for machinery and production lines.

- Integrating automation systems which enhance manufacturing efficiency.

- Developing new technologies such as renewable energy systems and smart grids.

Their work typically involves the use of advanced software tools, including Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software, circuit simulation software, and other engineering tools to create detailed schematics and ensure project specifications are met. Collaboration with other engineers and project managers is essential to ensure that the electrical components align with broader engineering goals and regulations.

What is an Electrician?

An Electrician is primarily focused on the installation, maintenance, and repair of electrical systems. They ensure that electrical systems are functioning efficiently and safely across various settings, including homes, commercial buildings, and industrial facilities. Their roles are indispensable in the practical application of electrical theories and systems.

Key responsibilities of electricians in the industrial sector include:

- Installing new electrical systems, including wiring and lighting fixtures.

- Troubleshooting and repairing industrial machinery and electrical faults.

- Performing regular maintenance to prevent system failures and ensure compliance with safety regulations.

Electricians must be proficient in reading blueprints and understanding electrical codes. They use a variety of hand and power tools, such as voltage testers, oscilloscopes, and other diagnostic instruments to find and fix problems within electrical systems. Safety is a paramount concern, requiring them to follow stringent procedures to guard against electrical hazards.

Educational Requirements

Electrical Engineer:

To pursue a career as an electrical engineer in the industrial sector, one must typically achieve a higher level of formal education compared to electricians. The journey begins with earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, electronics engineering, or a related engineering field. The curriculum not only covers theoretical aspects but also includes practical elements such as labs and projects, which are crucial for understanding real-world applications.

- Degree Programs: Most universities offer a four-year undergraduate program in electrical engineering. These programs are designed to provide a foundational understanding of electrical circuits, systems, and the technology that powers them.

- Key Courses: Students will study a variety of subjects including mathematics, physics, computer science, and specific courses on circuits, microprocessors, and telecommunications.

- Advanced Education: Some positions, especially those in research or a specialized engineering field, may require a master’s degree or even a PhD.


Electricians start their careers with a different type of educational path that focuses more on practical skills and on-the-job training. While formal education is not as extensive as that required for electrical engineers, there are still critical learning stages an electrician must go through.

- Apprenticeship Programs: Most electricians enter the field through an apprenticeship program, which typically lasts 4 to 5 years. These programs combine paid hands-on work experience with classroom instruction.

- Technical Schools: Some choose to attend a technical school before entering an apprenticeship. These schools offer courses on electrical theory, code requirements, and safety practices.

- Certifications and Licenses: Electricians must adhere to national and local electrical codes and, in most locations, pass a certification or licensing exam. This ensures they understand safety standards and are proficient in their work.

Both educational paths are rigorous in their own right, tailored to prepare individuals for the specific challenges they will face in their roles. Considering which career to pursue largely depends on one's interest in either a more theoretical, broad-reaching approach offered in electrical engineering or the hands-on, direct problem-solving environment of an electrician.

Skill Sets and Tools Used

Electrical Engineer:

Electrical engineers in the industrial sector are primed to tackle complex problems with innovative solutions. Their skill sets must encompass a broad range of technical abilities alongside soft skills that enable effective communication and project management.

Technical Skills:

- Circuit design and analysis: Proficiency in creating and interpreting electronic schematics.

- Simulation software: Experience with tools like MATLAB, Simulink, or PSpice to model and predict circuit behavior.

- Programming: Knowledge of programming languages such as Python or C++ can be crucial for developing firmware embedded in various devices.


Soft Skills:

- Strong analytical abilities: To effectively solve problems and optimize systems.

- Project management: Capability to manage timelines, resources, and team dynamics.

- Communication: Essential for articulating complex concepts to non-engineers and for effective collaboration.

Common Tools and Equipment:

Electrical engineers often use advanced computer systems and software for design and simulation. They may also handle oscilloscopes, multimeters, and spectrum analyzers for diagnostic and troubleshooting purposes.


On the toolbelt of an electrician, practical skills are the cornerstone. These professionals must adeptly navigate the immediate physical tasks of installation, maintenance, and repair with a deep understanding of safety standards.

Practical Skills:

- Installation: Expertise in installing electrical systems such as wiring, security systems, and lighting.

- Troubleshooting: Ability to quickly identify and resolve malfunctions within various electrical apparatus.

- Regulatory knowledge: Up-to-date understanding of local and national electrical codes and regulations.

Safety Skills:

- Risk assessment: Evaluating potential hazards before beginning work to ensure personal and workplace safety.

- Emergency practices: Knowledge of first aid and emergency response for electrical accidents.

Tools of the Trade:

Standard tools include voltage testers, wire strippers, pliers, and screwdrivers. For larger industrial tasks, electricians might use conduit benders, knockout punches, and more specialized diagnostic tools like thermal imagers and clamp meters.

Both careers require dedication to continuous learning and adaptation as technology evolves and new tools emerge. Whether it's staying current with the latest electrical codes for electricians or mastering a new CAD software for electrical engineers, ongoing education is a pillar of success in both fields.

Work Environment and Daily Tasks

Electrical Engineer:

Electrical Engineers typically operate within office settings, research facilities, or development labs, though they may also need to visit manufacturing sites and project locations for assessments and oversight. Their work environment is predominantly intellectually demanding and collaborative, involving interaction with other engineers, project managers, and possibly clients.

Daily Tasks Include:

- Designing Electrical Systems: Developing plans and specifications for electrical systems in industrial projects.

- Simulation and Testing: Using advanced software to simulate electrical systems before they are built and testing the systems post-construction.

- Project Management: Overseeing projects from conception through to completion, ensuring they stay within time and budget constraints.

- Collaboration and Reporting: Regularly communicating with other team members and stakeholders, and preparing reports on project status and outcomes.


Electricians work in a variety of settings including residential, commercial, and industrial sites. Their work environment can vary significantly based on the job at hand, ranging from indoor work in relatively controlled conditions to outdoor settings that may involve harsh weather conditions.

Daily Responsibilities Include:

- Installation: Setting up electrical systems and wiring in new buildings or updating systems in existing structures.

- Maintenance and Repair: Diagnosing issues and repairing faulty electrical components; regular maintenance checks to ensure systems are functioning smoothly.

- Adherence to Safety Standards: Ensuring all work complies with national safety codes and standards. This includes wearing protective gear and following established safety procedures.

- Troubleshooting: Quickly identifying and resolving electrical problems, often requiring creative and practical solutions to ensure minimal downtime in industrial operations.

Both roles require strong technical knowledge and adherence to safety procedures, but the nature of their tasks and work environments are quite distinct. Electrical Engineers are more involved in the conceptual and planning phases, while Electricians handle the practical and execution phases of electrical systems.

Career Path and Progression

Electrical Engineer

Electrical engineers have a well-defined career progression path in the industrial sector. The journey often starts with an entry-level position as a Junior Electrical Engineer and can evolve into roles such as Senior Electrical Engineer, Project Manager, or even Chief Engineer. Each step up the ladder involves greater responsibilities, including overseeing larger projects, managing teams, and making key strategic decisions.

- Continuing Education: To stay competitive and move up in their careers, electrical engineers often pursue further education. This might include earning a Master’s degree or doctorate in a specialized engineering field, or obtaining certifications like the Project Management Professional (PMP) or Certified Automation Professional (CAP).

- Leadership Roles: With experience, electrical engineers can also transition into managerial positions where they oversee the work of other engineers and technical staff, contributing significantly to their organization’s strategic objectives and innovation initiatives.


The career progression for electricians in the industrial sector typically starts with an apprenticeship. After completing their apprenticeship and becoming certified journeymen, electricians can further advance to a Master Electrician status. Each progression brings increased responsibility, autonomy, and opportunities in the field.

- Specializations: Electricians might choose to specialize in areas such as industrial equipment maintenance, electrical safety inspections, or high-voltage installations. These specializations can open doors to new opportunities and potentially higher earnings.

- Business Opportunities: Experienced electricians may also opt to start their own business, providing services directly to clients or subcontracting for larger projects. This entrepreneurial path requires not only technical skills but also business acumen, including understanding of business management, customer service, and regulatory compliance.

Both pathways offer diverse opportunities but require continuous learning and adaptability to technological advances and changing industry standards. Whether climbing the corporate ladder or pursuing entrepreneurial ventures, both electrical engineers and electricians have robust paths for growth and career advancement.

Job Outlook and Salary Expectations

Job Outlook

The demand for both electrical engineers and electricians is influenced by developments in technology, infrastructure projects, and the overall economic climate. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for electrical engineers is projected to grow at a rate of 7% from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations. The need for electricians is expected to grow by 9% over the same period, driven by the increased construction of new buildings and the maintenance of existing electrical infrastructure.

Salary Expectations

- Electrical Engineers:

 - The median annual wage for electrical engineers was approximately $100,830 in 2021.

 - Top earners in this field often work in research and development or more specialized industrial sectors.

 - Salaries can significantly vary based on specialization within the field, geographic location, and level of experience.

- Electricians:

 - The median annual wage for electricians was around $56,900 in 2021.

 - Experienced master electricians or those who own their businesses can earn substantially more.

 - Compensation packages for electricians can also include overtime pay, which may significantly affect earnings, particularly during large construction projects or emergency work.

Considerations for Potential Growth

Both fields offer potential for wage increases and career advancement as professionals gain experience, specialize further, or take on managerial roles. For electrical engineers, moving into project management or advanced engineering specialties can result in higher pay and greater responsibility. For electricians, advancing from journeyman to master status, or even running their own business, are common paths to increasing their income and professional standing.

This section is important for individuals making career choices because it provides a realistic perspective on financial expectations and professional growth possibilities within each career path.

Pros and Cons of Each Profession

In this section, we'll explore the various advantages and challenges associated with careers as an electrical engineer and as an electrician in the industrial sector. Understanding these can help you make an informed decision based on your personal preferences and career objectives.

Electrical Engineer


- Innovative Impact: Electrical engineers often engage in cutting-edge projects involving emerging technologies. This can lead to a fulfilling sense of contributing to advancements that shape modern living.

- Diverse Opportunities: Given their broad skill set, electrical engineers can work across various industries including robotics, telecommunications, and power generation, providing diverse career pathways.

- High Earning Potential: Generally, electrical engineers have a higher earning potential due to the complexity of their work and the critical thinking skills required.


- Stringent Educational Requirements: Becoming an electrical engineer typically requires a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, often followed by further specialization which can be demanding.

- High Responsibility: The nature of an engineer's work can sometimes be high-stress, especially when dealing with critical systems whose failure could pose serious risks.



- Immediate Job Entry: Electricians can enter the job market at an earlier stage through apprenticeships, without the lengthy and costly process of obtaining a college degree.

- Hands-On Work: For those who prefer physical activity and hands-on work, electricians engage more directly with the systems they maintain or install, offering daily variety and tangible outcomes.

- Essential Skill: Electricians possess skills that are always in demand for essential services, providing job security even in unstable economic times.


- Physically Demanding: The job can be physically taxing as it often involves manual labor, working in difficult positions, or environments like extreme heights or confined spaces.

- Risk of Injury: There is a higher risk of injury given the nature of the work, such as electric shocks, cuts, and falls, especially if proper safety measures are not strictly followed.

- Limited Advancement Without Further Education: Although there are pathways to advancement, reaching higher levels such as electrical contractor or master electrician often requires additional certifications and education.

By weighing these pros and cons, potential candidates can better gauge which career aligns more closely with their personal strengths and professional aspirations. Both careers offer rewarding paths but cater to different preferences and lifestyles.


In exploring the roles of electrical engineers and electricians within the industrial sector, we have dissected various aspects of both professions, from educational needs and skill sets to work environments and career progression opportunities. Each career path offers its unique challenges and rewards, tailored to different interests and skill sets.

Choosing between a career as an electrical engineer or an electrician ultimately depends on your personal career goals, educational background, and the kind of work environment you thrive in. Electrical engineers, often requiring more formal education, engage in the design and development of electrical systems and are typically involved in supervisory or project management roles. This career is suited for those who enjoy an analytical approach to problem-solving and wish to be at the forefront of technological innovation.

On the other hand, electricians face hands-on challenges and direct problem-solving situations on a daily basis. This role is ideal for individuals who prefer engaging directly with physical systems, enjoy the process of installation, maintenance, and repair, and appreciate immediate, tangible outcomes from their work.

Both careers are vital to the industrial and economic infrastructure, with robust job growth and prospects in numerous sectors. Whether you choose the path of an electrical engineer or an electrician, both offer fulfilling opportunities to contribute significantly to building and maintaining the essential systems that power our world. As you make your decision, consider your long-term career aspirations, the kind of daily tasks you see yourself enjoying, and the educational path you are prepared to take.


What are the main differences in licensing requirements for electricians and electrical engineers?

- Electricians typically require a state-specific license to work independently. Licensing involves an examination that tests on the National Electrical Code and electrical theory, as well as practical competencies. Continuous education to maintain and renew the license is often required.

- Electrical Engineers, however, generally do not need a license for entry-level positions. To advance in certain fields or to offer public services independently, an electrical engineer may obtain a Professional Engineer (PE) license, which involves passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, gaining sufficient work experience, and passing the PE exam.

Can electrical engineers work as electricians and vice versa?

- While technically an electrical engineer could perform the work of an electrician, they typically do not because of different training, qualifications, and focus areas. Electrical engineers focus more on design, development, and improving systems that use electricity. Conversely, electricians are trained and licensed to implement, troubleshoot, and repair electrical systems, following the practical and safety standards necessary for building and machinery maintenance which engineers might conceptualize but not execute.

What are some specializations within the field of electrical engineering and electrician trades?

- Electrical Engineering Specializations:

 - Power engineering

 - Control engineering

 - Telecommunications

 - Instrumentation engineering

 - Electronics

- Electrician Specializations:

 - Residential electrician

 - Commercial electrician

 - Industrial electrician

 - Low voltage electrician, such as data, telecom, and alarm systems

 - Electrical inspector

What type of continuing education might be important for electricians and electrical engineers?

- For Electricians:

 - Advanced safety standards and codes

 - Renewable energy technologies

 - Smart-home technology integrations

 - Electric vehicle charging installations

- For Electrical Engineers:

 - Latest software tools for circuit design and simulation

 - Advancements in robotics and AI applications

 - Renewable energy system design

 - Ongoing developments in semiconductor technology

Is the demand for electricians and electrical engineers growing?

The demand for both professions is steadily growing due to the expansion of infrastructure, increased focus on green technologies, and the continual integration of advanced electrical systems in various industries. However, specific growth can vary significantly depending on the geographic region, industry trends, and technological advancements.

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