Bright sparks: electronics industry career guide for graduate engineers

The UK electronics industry is the biggest producer of consumer devices in Europe but also offers a huge variety of careers helping develop everything from medical equipment to spacecraft.

Why work in electronics?

The UK has Europe’s leading consumer electronics sector

The UK has Europe’s largest consumer electronics industry, designing and manufacturing billions of pounds worth of devices.

You might associate the industry with foreign firms like Apple and Samsung but the UK boasts Europe’s biggest consumer electronics manufacturing sector and the largest market for high-end products.

The country also has a whopping 40 per cent market share of Europe’s electronics design industry, with 150 independent design houses and the industrial centres of several major international companies including LG, Samsung and Sony are based here. And in ARM, the UK has a homegrown giant that is responsible for designing the chips in the vast marjority of the world’s smartphones.

It’s one of the fastest moving industries in the UK

The hugely popular credit card-sized Raspberry Pi computer is designed and built in the UK.

The pace of change is rapid, which means you’ll see the end result of your hard work faster than in many other sectors – just think about how quickly your last mobile needed replacing. And that presents a brilliant challenge for an engineering brain.

‘In 10 years’ time, you may well be working on materials that are on the drawing board today,’ says Adam Taylor, head of engineering at e2v. ‘After all 10 years ago the concept of printable circuitry was unheard of and graphene was just coming out of the lab.’

There’s a huge variety of jobs

It’s not just about computers, however. An electronics engineer could be designing anything from automotive systems, to flight critical sensing electronics for jets or imaging control circuitry for a satellite.

James Adams, director of hardware engineer at Raspberry Pi – the credit card-sized computer designed in the UK – finds the creativity and problem-solving the most enjoyable part of the job. ‘In electronics, it’s a bit magic,’ he says. ‘You can create really complex things in really tiny spaces.’

What does the UK electronics industry actually do?

The electronics industry adds around £16bn every year to the UK economy, employing 300,000 people in over 12,000 companies. These companies specialise in everything from mobile phones to medical imaging and energy generation – and many projects are world firsts.

It provides the brain power behind most of the world’s smartphones

The chips in iPhones and iPads were designed in the UK by ARM.

Cambridge-based ARM has created chips that now power more than 95 per cent of smartphones worldwide — including the iPhone and almost all Android devices. And it’s not just phones. Today, their chips power almost everything from street light to public transport. Their technology reaches around 75 per cent of people in the world.

It helps space agencies to explore the universe

Electronic sensors for Europe’s comet probe Rosetta were designed and made in the UK.

Electronic engineering doesn’t just involve everyday, consumer, items – some projects are at the very cutting-edge of innovation, even beyond the Earth. For instance, e2v in Chelmsford has working with the European Space Agency to provide imaging sensors for the Rosetta mission.

The spacecraft is currently in orbit around comet 67P around 405 million kilometres from Earth – the first time any probe has been able to do this. This project alone allowed e2v to recruit 80 new electronics engineers.

It helps look after our ageing population

Electronics are helping create a new way of providing healthcare.

You could be developing electronics to work in the next generation of life-saving hospital equipment, such as imagers and scanners. And there’s huge demand in this area. There 3,000 companies in the UK medical devices sector, with a turnover of over £13 billion.

The National Audit Office estimates that the NHS will be replacing 80 per cent of its machinery between 2012 and 2017, creating supply opportunities in the coming years. You can check out our medical engineering guide for more information on this sector.

So what kind of jobs are on offer?

Circuit design is a major area of expertise for UK electronics engineers but there are many other roles available.

There is a wide range of jobs available in the industry, from writing software for consumer electronics, designing the electronic circuits themselves, and managing larger projects. For each product, there are high-tech manufacturing jobs needing experienced test and development engineers.

You need to have a good grasp of mathematics and physics, and many companies believe a degree in electronics is required for any of the higher tech jobs within the industry. In fact, good electronic engineers are frequently named as the most hard-to-find and can expect good salaries as a result.

And where are they?

There are more than 500 semiconductor businesses operating across the UK.

Areas such as London, Cambridge, Reading, Bristol – the M4 corridor – are the traditional centres for electronic design. Some of the biggest players, such as ARM, NVIDIA and CSR are still based in Cambridge. But nowadays, electronics design and manufacturing jobs all over the UK.

For instance every Raspberry Pi made now gets built at the Sony factory in Pencoed in Wales. The original designer of the Raspberry Pi has also opened an electronic design and manufacturing service business in Cheshire.

Many of the electronics groups in the UK have also come from abroad. For instance, of the more than 500 semiconductor businesses are in the UK, eighty per cent are foreign owned and employ more than 8,000 engineering staff each. Joining one of these firms could well offere the possibility of international travel as part of the role.

‘The industry is always crying out for good engineers so you can almost pick where you want to be,’ claims James Adams, director of hardware engineer at Raspberry Pi.

If you want the inside track on engineering jobs in other industries, take a look at our full list of sector guides.

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