The Difference Between a Degree in Electrical Technology vs. Electrical Engineering

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Newcomers to the field of electrical work are often confused about the difference in degrees and career paths associated with electrical engineering and electrical technology (sometimes called electrical systems technology).

Let’s start by establishing that the two are not the same.

First, it’s important to clarify what sort of job you are looking for in the industry and which type of degree will help you get there.

  • Electrical technology programs are aimed at preparing students for jobs as electricians focused on the day-to-day wiring, repair and maintenance of electrical systems found in buildings …
    • Prepares students with manual skills for front-line jobs as residential/industrial/commercial/construction electricians, that install, repair, maintain and upgrade electrical systems in homes, buildings and commercial and industrial settings
    • Can substitute, in part, for experience requirements for journeyman electrician licensing in many jurisdictions

If you’re looking to become an electrician as part of the construction trades and work on-site to install, repair and maintain electrical systems in new construction and existing buildings, electrical technology is the training you’re after.

  • Electrical engineering programs prepare graduates for positions that involve the design and development of electrical systems …
    • Prepares students for employment in engineering jobs developing, testing, and supervising the manufacture or installation of electrical systems
    • Can substitute for some portion of on-the-job experience when becoming a master electrician in some jurisdictions

Electronics engineering is a subfield within electrical engineering that deals exclusively with low voltage electronics systems that incorporate integrated circuits, semiconductor devices, transistors, and diodes and is related to computer engineering. The term electrical engineering is often used to refer to high voltage system engineering, often incorporating power generation and distribution systems in civil and industrial scale projects. Electrical engineering degree programs generally cover electronics engineering or offer it as a focus or concentration within the program.

And What About Electrical Engineering Technology?

To confuse things further, electrical engineering technology (EET), is the name given to the applied electrical engineering domain that deals with the hands-on manufacturing, maintenance and repair of electrical systems and circuitry, and involves working with everything from industrial electronic motors to consumer electronic products.

Though it shares plenty of similarities with electrical technology vocational training, EET programs are designed more to prepare graduates for careers as engineering technologists who often work in electronic component and computer product design and development, testing and quality control.

Electrical technology programs, on the other hand, prepare graduates to join the construction trades as electricians whose work involves the electrical wiring of buildings and homes. This involves learning the National Electric Code, OSHA construction safety standards, and how to run wire and raceways– topics that aren’t part of electrical engineering technology (EET) programs.

Academic Differences and Similarities Between Electrical Engineering and Electrical Technology Programs

The fundamental difference comes down to manual and technical skills applicable to wiring buildings (electrical technology) versus theory and the design aspects of electrical systems (electrical engineering).

Electrical Technology Programs Teach Hands on Skills Related to Wiring Buildings …

Electrical technology programs are more hands-on. The focus is to teach the application of electrical principles to solve real-world problems when it comes to electrical systems used for heat, light and power within buildings. This involves some classroom-based instruction, but it’s mostly about hands-on learning in a shop or lab environment.

Topics covered include:

  • Wiring, Raceways and Conduit for Residential/Commercial/Industrial Construction Wiring Projects
  • OSHA Safety Standards
  • National Electrical Code (NEC)
  • Transformers
  • Power Generation
  • Industrial Controls
  • Motor Controls

Electrical Engineering Programs Teach Electrical Theory and Systems Design …

Electrical engineering degree programs are heavy on math and science courses. Students must be prepared to understand and make calculations based on the underlying physics that govern electrical interactions. A substantial amount of mathematical modeling work is included to teach students the skills required to design and simulate new electrical systems and circuitry.

Electrical engineering degrees would typically include courses on:

  • Electrical circuit design
  • Technical writing
  • Microprocessor design
  • Linear devices
  • Interfaces and instrumentation

EET (Electrical Engineering Technology) is where the rubber meets the road for the electrical engineering field, teaching things like electric and digital circuitry, software logic and design, computer configuration, and even some computer programming.

Differences and Similarities Between Electrical Engineering and Electrical Technology in the Real World

Both programs provide a serious focus on the safety principles behind working with electricity and electrical equipment. These principles cover situations both in terms of personal protection and best practices for installation. The design of electrical systems is just as important as proper installation when it comes to preventing fires or electrical accidents.

Reading and producing blueprints and working with Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and drafting programs are also common subjects. Both electricians and engineers have to be adept at reading blueprints, and many will be expected to keep construction documentation updated—another important safety concern.

Electricians Build Electrical Systems and Infrastructure…

As graduates of electrical technology programs, electricians are the ones responsible for putting all the grand engineering plans into practice. When the time comes to take the blueprints and put together the systems that generate and distribute light, heat and power in the real world, electricians are the ones who do it.

Electricians usually work on-site, traveling to the location of the job. They may be outdoors frequently, and working with specialized tools to pull, crimp, and solder wiring in place. They are responsible for reading blueprints and translating them into the build processes that physically assemble electrical wiring systems.

Electrical Engineers Design it…

Electrical engineering graduates are usually destined for desk jobs. Their role is to design, test, and supervise the construction and installation of electrical systems, components and products. Since most of the modern world is electrified and dependent on those systems, engineers have a hand in making it all work.

Engineers often work off-site, in offices, and spend a lot of time drafting and working on paperwork. Communication skills are important, as they are frequently asked to translate ideas into workable blueprints and schematics.

Electrician Licensing for Electrical Technology and Electrical Engineering Graduates

Electrical technology students are usually destined for a career in the electrical trade, using the degree to meet qualifications to become licensed journeyman electricians.

The educational components of the degree are roughly equivalent to what would be learned in an electrical apprenticeship programs, and a number of states allow graduates with electrical technology degrees to test for a journeyman’s license with far less on-the-job experience than would be required without one.

The standard requirement for earning a journeyman electrician license is 4 years (8,000 hours) of supervised experience as a trainee or apprentice. In a number of states and municipal licensing jurisdictions, candidates for a journeyman electrician license can substitute a full year (2,000 hours) of this experience requirement with a two-year Associate of Applied Science in Electrical Technology.

An electrical engineering degree is not commonly used as a direct path into the electrical trade. Electrical engineering students are eligible to count their school time toward practical experience requirements in many cases, but it would be more common for them to either sit for the state’s engineering license exam, or progress directly to the level of master electrician in those state’s that allow it.

New York, for example, allows holders of electrical engineering degrees to count up to two-and-a-half years of their schooling against the seven-and-a-half years of experience required to obtain a master or special electrician license. In Utah, a B.S. in electrical engineering can substitute for all but one year of the four years of experience at the journeyman level required to become a master electrician.

It’s not unheard of for some people to follow both paths in the course of their career, obtaining an associate’s degree in electrical technology as part of their qualification for a journeyman electrician license, then going back to school and obtaining a bachelor’s in electrical engineering as part of their master electrician qualifications.

Either route can prepare you for a job as an electrician, but an engineering degree will be more costly and time-consuming, and is really only worthwhile if your ambitions extend to eventually becoming a master electrician or engineer.