Although electricians and electrical engineers both focus on the movement and properties of electrical current, the two professions have a number of differences. In simplest terms, the relationship is similar to that of an architect and a builder. One designs, and the other executes the design. Each must have a specialized field of knowledge, but they perform their work duties in different environments and are paid differently for that work.
Electricians typically complete an apprenticeship, which can last up to four years. During apprenticeship, the future electrician will combine classroom instruction with paid training while working on a job under the supervision of a licensed electrician. Apprentices need only a high school diploma or equivalent, although some candidates choose to complete a vocational or community college program before entering an apprenticeship. Electrical engineers, on the other hand, usually need to obtain a bachelor’s degree, since an employer will rarely consider a candidate without it.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 79 percent of all electricians are either self-employed or work in construction. The greatest number of electrical engineers work for engineering or architectural firms, manufacturers of medical, navigational, control or measuring instruments, power companies, and manufacturers of semiconductors or electronics.
Electricians are responsible for the installation and maintenance of electrical systems, including the wiring, circuit breakers and equipment. They work with hand tools, such as screwdrivers, knives and wire strippers, as well as hand-operated power tools, such as drills, saws and electric screwdrivers. Electricians also use ohmmeters and voltmeters to check the current flowing through a connection. Electrical engineers design electronic equipment and systems. Many of the tools an electrician uses and the blueprints he needs to install the wiring originate with an electrical engineer.
The work site for an electrician may be indoors or outside, and the job location can change frequently. The work can be physically demanding, and the electrician may be subjected to heavy lifting, prolonged periods of standing, frequent bending and confined work spaces. Electrical engineers normally work in a lab, office or manufacturing plant. The job is not physically strenuous, and engineers typically work in a clean, comfortable environment.
As of May 2010, the BLS reported that the mean salary for electricians was $51,810 annually, which equates to $24.91 per hour. Apprentices typically earn a starting salary that is 30 percent to 50 percent of the wage earned by a fully trained electrician. Apprentices receive pay raises as they progress with their training. Electrical engineers earned a mean salary of $87,770 annually or $42.20 per hour.