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I am a second year electrical engineering student. From where I
live, the most well paid engineering jobs are those in the
government, where most of the engineering work is done by the
vendors, while the government engineers manage these vendors and do
I made the decision to reject being a government engineer as I want
to develop some industrial skills that I can be proud of, but there
is this constant pressure that the government engineers are
outearning the private sector engineers(at least from where I live,
not sure about other states/countries).
Where does the money lie for private sector electrical engineers?
Assuming that I don't like to lose out in my earnings to my peers in
the government, what kind of skills should I pick up now in school?
There seems to be so many tracks to choose from, e.g. signal
processing/energy systems/integrated circuits/embedded
-- John Lee, March 14, 2011
The Wall Street Journal, on April 30, 2011 ran an article "California Prison Academy: Better Than a Harvard Degree" (search for this in Google if you can't get past the WSJ pay wall). The average Harvard graduate earns $125,000 after 20 years; a California prison guard can earn $200,000 with some overtime and then retire at age 55. So the dream of a private sector worker outearning his government counterpart is not realistic, at least here in the U.S. (some folks, such as early Google employees, got lucky, but that isn't a career plan).
Electrical engineering is genuinely challenging and hard to fake. So you should be okay in almost any niche. Power systems might be a good choice because so much work is planned in this area by countries around the world. You wouldn't be limited to employment in any one area. Contrast that to digital design where there is a lot of concentration of employment by a small number of companies in a small number of places.
You can also simply follow what interests you. I don't think the salary differential is huge among different corners of EE. After taxes (at least here in the U.S.), the differences will be even more minor.
-- Philip Greenspun, May 7, 2011