There’s been an interesting discussion in the tech world lately about the relative unpopularity of electrical engineering compared to computer science, after these articles were published in the Register.
Essentially, the proportion of electrical engineering graduates has sharply declined in recent years, while the proportion of computer science graduates has increased. Even this decline in graduates doesn’t tell the whole story, since many electrical engineering graduates are choosing to work in software.
This is generally a problem as computers become bigger and more complex - the article notes that companies like Samsung, Intel, NVIDIA, and Qualcomm are making big investments in fabs that will need to be staffed by thousands of electrical engineers. Where are all the electrical engineers?
I’m inclined to agree with many of the points that Goodwins makes. He notes that there is less exposure to electronics now than when he was growing up, so kids don’t catch the “tinkering bug” like they once did. After all, Radio Shack is no more, and a transistor radio is more approachable than an iPhone.
Software jobs are by and large more lucrative and possible to be done remotely, which makes them attractive to young engineers. In my own EE degree class, I estimate half of us became software engineers or data scientists - the rest pursued math, circuit design, radio frequency engineering, etc.1
While all these factors are important, diversity and inclusion are overlooked factors in the difference between EE and CS enrollment. I believe that as electrical engineers, embracing D&I will help our profession grow.
In past years, there has been a remarkable growth of organizations designed to funnel women and other underrepresented minorities into computer science. Organizations like Girls Who Code, Rewriting the Code, ColorStack, Black Girls Code, and Code2040 have created opportunities for people who might not otherwise see themselves in the technology industry. These organizations play a different role than legacy diversity in engineering organizations like the Society of Women Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, or the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, due to how they are structured.
Take Girls Who Code as an example. Their flagship program is a summer intensive, where girls in high school spend the summer learning how to code. The program is free (sponsored and hosted by a technology organization like Google, Cisco, or MetLife, who can also recruit from the program’s alumni), and each group of about 20 girls are taught web development for six weeks. The program aims to both teach skills and create community. The girls come away with a portfolio website, an understanding of common tech tools like GitHub and the command line, and the “sisterhood” of past, present, and future GWC students and teachers.
This is incredibly effective at introducing girls to computer science and encouraging them to pursue it in college. My own sister participated in a Girls Who Code program the summer before her junior year. She has just finished her first year of an electrical engineering degree and is teaching at the program this summer. She plans to pursue software engineering and partially credits GWC with her choice2. And she’s far from alone - Girls Who Code has reached half a million girls and nonbinary youth in its history3, and shows no signs of stopping now.
To my knowledge, a comparable program does not exist for electrical engineering. Many schools don’t teach engineering the way they do coding, and if you’re part of a minority group, being in a room with others like you could help you gain confidence. While SWE, for instance, does do outreach events at local schools or conferences, it does not have a sustained teaching program the way Girls Who Code does. Since the missions of SWE, NSBE, and SHPE are focused on serving all engineers of a certain minority group, it’s difficult for them to teach technical skills that will be applicable to many of their members. (The specific skills needed for civil engineering differ from those in robotics - and yet practitioners of these fields and many others all attend the same conference.)
Creating intentional communities that meet the needs of minority electrical engineers would be a great way to increase and sustain participation in electrical engineering. Compared with computer science, traditional engineering fields have far fewer women. According to Zippia, 22% of software engineers are female, while only 10% of electrical engineers are, among the lowest in engineering professions. To be sure, both of these numbers are low - but 10% is tiny!
It can be hard to feel like you belong when you don’t see others like you. In my (admittedly short) career, I’ve worked closely with only one woman engineer, and when I was looking for a full time job, I was not interviewed by any women in a technical interview. Obviously, it hasn’t stopped me, but I hope that someday we reach gender parity.
Anecdotally, attitudes in traditional engineering companies are more conservative than in tech. Since younger workers are seeing diversity and inclusion as more and more of a priority - you wouldn’t want to work where you’re not respected - creating an inclusive culture is essential. We know that discrimination drives talented women engineers to leave the field every year, at every stage4, which is unacceptable when we have such a shortage.
Finally, but no less importantly, computer science seems to have a better public relations program. Tech billionaires, love them or hate them, talk often about the need to learn how to code, and associate coding with innovation and genius. Electrical engineering, while equally (or, I would argue, more) necessary, is less flashy.
Because big tech has money, they fund computer science departments at universities and programs like Girls Who Code to produce the next generation of their workers. For instance, my alma mater secured funding to start a new computer science major and build out a whole new program, with all the additional students and professors and funding that requires. The electrical engineering department was already catering towards students interested in software - those electives were overenrolled, while hardware electives were underenrolled and did not run. It doesn’t seem like the same kind of corporate funding exists to expand EE programs.
To alleviate the shortage of electrical engineers, we should recruit and retain engineers from diverse backgrounds. We could set up Girls Who Code-style programs to reach out to underrepresented youth and provide them with both skills and community. We could intentionally support engineers at every stage in their career journey. We could seek out funding to increase the number of EE seats at leading colleges and increase salaries to be on par with software roles.
I generally don’t like to make the business case for diversity, because I believe diversity should be a value of any organization, full stop - anti-discrimination is the law5. That said, investing in diversity and inclusion can help alleviate the shortage of electrical engineers, in addition to it being the right thing to do. Besides salary and mathiness, let’s not overlook the need for inclusive environments as a driver of the electrical engineering shortage.
Many thanks to Jacob Kuppermann for proofreading this piece.
I’m part of the hardware half - I will be doing circuit & product design at my new job very soon! ↩
For what it’s worth, she says I deserve partial credit as well! ↩
This is called the leaky pipeline - and we need to start plugging all the holes. For more on why women leave engineering, see SWE’s research on the topic: https://alltogether.swe.org/2019/11/swe-research-update-women-in-engineering-by-the-numbers-nov-2019/ ↩
Susan Rigetti, the Uber whistleblower, introduced me to this concept. Essentially, creating a welcoming environment is not a “nice-to-have” - it’s required by the EEOC. You should not feel bad for exercising your right to a safe workplace <3 ↩