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Getting the Right Training for a Career in Electronics

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To pursue a career in electronics, you will probably need to complete a special training or educational program. Although some limited possibilities may exist for self-taught workers, most employers expect applicants to have acquired specialized knowledge through a structured training program.

Methods of achieving this knowledge vary. For some jobs at the technician's level, on-the-job training is a possibility. But for the majority of jobs in electronics, the best approach begins with completing an electronics program offered by a school or college. Following such a path involves planning ahead, selecting the right program and institution, and then completing each course required to earn a diploma, certificate, degree, or other credential.

Making Educational Plans


To succeed with any educational effort, it is best to plan ahead in as much detail as possible. Students who make their decisions about education at the last moment often encounter all kinds of difficulties. In fact, educators agree that those who enroll late are much more likely to fail or drop out than are most other students. In advance planning, consider such facts as the following:

  • types of schools offering electronics programs

  • location of schools in relation to your home (for example, is a given school within reasonable commuting distance, or will it is necessary to live in a dormitory or apartment?)

  • level of educational offerings provided (for example, bachelor's degree, associate degree, or certificate)

  • length of time required for program completion

  • cost

  • availability of financial aid, if needed

  • application deadlines

  • prerequisites (courses or skills needed before you can be admitted to a given school, its electronics program, or individual courses)

  • your own abilities to complete the required work
To plan ahead, you will need to gather information, ask questions, and make decisions. It is important to realize that efforts you make to complete a particular training or educational program can pay off for years to come, so be sure to approach this matter with the seriousness it deserves.

Reviewing Educational Options

How do you select the right school or college to obtain an appropriate educational background in electronics? A good first step is taking some time to review basic information in general about the school, and specifically about its electronics program (or programs, if more than one is offered).

Don't make the mistake of assuming that all schools or programs are the same, for they may have huge differences. Just because a school is close at hand, for instance, doesn't necessarily mean it is the best choice for you. Or the fact that a representative tries to get you to enroll may not be sufficient reason to choose the program being touted (after all that is the job of men and women who recruit for colleges and schools). The truth is schools vary in price, quality, level of instruction, effectiveness in placing graduates in good jobs, and many other factors.

In selecting a school, first make sure it is the right kind of institution for your goals. For example, if you want to work in the repair area, a trade school or vocational school may provide sufficient training. But what if you plan to pursue electronic engineering technology? In most such cases, only a postsecondary institution such as a community or technical college will suffice. For engineering, you will need to attend a four-year school.

Your choices in types of schools may include the following:
  1. Vocational schools at the secondary (high school) level

  2. Trade or technical schools

  3. Two-year colleges

  4. Four-year colleges and universities
Vocational Schools

If you have not yet finished high school, you may be able to take classes in electronics at your high school or at a nearby school that has been designated as a provider of vocational training for your area. Vocational courses in electronics usually do not offer as much detail at this level as at the postsecondary level, but they can get you started.

If you have already completed school, or if you dropped out without finishing, you may be able to enroll in an adult education program run by a local public school district or vocational school. Such programs often are offered at night to accommodate adults who have other jobs but would like to attain the skills to make a career change. Usually, no special background is needed to qualify for such courses, and they may be offered at low cost or even free of charge.

Trade Schools

Trade schools may be called proprietary schools, technical schools, institutes, or even business, career, or technical colleges, although they are not really colleges in the true sense of the word. Their main purpose is to offer short-term occupational training. Some schools may specialize in just one area. For example, some specialize entirely in electronics training. Others offer a variety of programs in different career fields.

A distinctive feature of trade schools is that they concentrate on the major subject to a greater degree than colleges, and sometimes exclusively. Students who study electronics at a trade school may not be required to take nontechnical courses such as English composition, literature, history, or psychology. This may be seen as an advantage by some students, especially those who have not enjoyed going to school in the past. Not only can other courses be avoided, but the lack of them can speed up the process of completing a training program. In many cases, such a program can be completed in months rather than years.

Of course, life is full of tradeoffs, and this is one area where such differences can be substantial. Be sure to keep in mind the following facts as you consider trade schools versus other types of training opportunities:

1. Courses are not usually transferable. This means that if you decide later to go to college, the classes you completed in trade school will not count for college credits. You will have to start completely over.

2. Trade schools may be expensive. Most of these schools operate as businesses. Unlike other schools that may be subsidized by the government or run on a nonprofit basis, they must make a profit to survive. Thus, fees may be very high compared to public two-year colleges.

An offsetting factor is that financial aid awards may be correspondingly higher, canceling out much of the difference in terms of what you actually pay out of your own pocket. But if part of your financial aid is based on loans, you will be paying back a substantial amount of money over a long period of time. You can be liable for such a loan even if you drop out of school and change your mind about a career in electronics.

3. Reputations vary. Some trade schools have earned excellent reputations among students, companies that employ graduates, and the local communities they serve. But some others are not well regarded, and employers may be less than enthusiastic about hiring their graduates. Because the trade school's ultimate goal is to make a profit, educational quality can sometimes be sacrificed.

This is not to say that you will receive ineffective training at a trade school, but it is best to check out factors related to quality. Some schools advertise that they are registered, certified, or approved by the state or other government agencies, but this often means little more than the payment of a licensing fee and has nothing to do with quality. A better indicator is accreditation by an organization such as the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and College of Technology. This accreditation should be indicated in school publications; if it is not, chances are the school has not earned such a designation.

Two-Year Colleges

Another option for preparing for a career in electronics is to enroll in a two-year college, which may be called a junior, community, or technical college. Many such colleges offer a choice between (1) a basic program that can be completed in a year or less, and (2) an associate degree program that normally takes two years as a full-time student to complete. The former may be much like programs offered by trade schools, with the advantage that they tend to be much less expensive.

Associate degree programs take longer to finish because students must take classes not just in electronics, but also in other subjects. For example, you might study English composition or technical writing, history, physical education, or sociology. Only a few such classes must be completed, but they are a requirement to earn a two-year college degree.

Another consideration is that many courses completed at two-year colleges can be transferred to four-year colleges and universities. This may or not be in your plans at first, but educational goals often change. Earning credits that can be transferred may be to your advantage in the future. It is important to remember that courses completed at trade schools, by comparison, rarely will be accepted for credit by colleges and universities.

If short-term training leading to a job in electronics is your only goal, you may opt for a program offered by a two-year college that leads to a diploma or certificate instead of a degree. In this case, courses may not be designed for transfer, and you may not need to take courses in general studies. Instead, you will study electronics and closely related subjects exclusively. If such a program is available at a nearby community or technical college, you may find it much more affordable than a trade school.

Four-Year Institutions

Four-year colleges and universities usually do not offer programs to train technicians, although some four-year schools have community college components or other offerings in this area. But for a degree in engineering, a college or university is the only option.

Many large universities and a number of smaller four-year colleges offer programs in electronics engineering or a related area. A few offer four-year programs in engineering technology, although these are not as common.

Many colleges specialize in certain areas (such as the liberal arts) and as a result do not offer engineering programs. To find out if a program is available at any given college or university, consult the college catalog or the admissions office. If you are interested in programs beyond the bachelor's degree, check with the graduate school at any university in which you are potentially interested.

Unlike community colleges, most four-year schools do not practice open admissions. You must meet certain admission requirements, and many schools operate on a competitive basis and accept only a limited number of applicants. Before pursuing a four-year college, be sure to find out how the school admits students, what kind of information is required, and when it must be submitted. Typical requirements include ACT or SAT scores--the higher, the better-- and a transcript of your high school courses and grades.

Selecting a School or College

In considering any school or college, take the following steps:

1. Make sure you know at what level programs are offered. As previously mentioned, just because a school calls itself a college does not necessarily mean it really operates on the collegiate level. To make certain, examine the school's catalog and see whether students earn diplomas, certificates, or associate degrees. Look also at information on transfer programs (if any), relationships with other schools (such as membership in a state community college system), and other basic details.

2. Consult the catalog for other information. In reviewing a catalog, take time also to review any sections on electronics programs or courses. Watch for details such as:

  • the kinds of jobs graduates are prepared to perform

  • how many courses must be completed?

  • length of time to complete a program

  • descriptions of electronics courses

  • accreditation (If none is listed, beware. Colleges should be accredited by a regional accrediting group such as the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or the New England Association.)

  • admission requirements

  • credentials of faculty

3. Visit the school. Even if a school you are considering is not a local one, be sure to visit the campus. Enrolling sight unseen can lead to problems. Take a look at electronics labs, classrooms, and other points of interest. Some schools that sound great in their promotional materials are much less attractive in real life, and they may not have the up-to-date equipment a program in electronics should offer. If possible, always take a look for yourself before making a decision about any school.

4. Ask questions. What is the school's placement rate for those who have completed programs in electronics? How is it viewed in the community? How do former students feel about it? Does it have a good reputation? Pose questions such as these to school officials, older friends, local businesspersons, or others who may be in a position to know about the school. Such information can be valuable in making an informed choice.

5. Consider costs. In making your selection, a major factor should be the cost of attending. Unless money is no issue with you and your family, it pays to look closely at this matter.

Costs for tuition, fees, and other expenses vary widely from one school to another. In general, the least expensive schools are those considered public institutions because they are funded through tax revenues. For example, public school systems--including not only elementary and secondary education, but also many vocational schools and adult education programs--may be offered free to anyone who can benefit.

Public Two-Year Colleges

The least expensive of the schools that assess tuition tend to be public two-year colleges. Most community, junior, and technical colleges attempt to keep costs as low as possible so that almost anyone can attend. Many two-year colleges charge less than $1,500 for a full academic year. This is very inexpensive when compared with the tuition charged by the typical college or university. In addition, almost all community colleges offer financial aid programs for those who can demonstrate financial need.

Private Schools

It usually costs much more to attend privately owned trade schools and private two-year colleges. Their costs may be much higher than public institutions since they do not receive operating funds from state or local governments. Instead, private schools must rely more on income from tuition and fees charged to students. At trade schools or private colleges, even a short-term program in electronics may cost thousands of dollars to complete. From a dollars-and-cents viewpoint, a public school may make the best choice unless an electronics program is not available in a public school in your area or you believe a private school's quality and reputation are worth the extra investment.

Private schools do enjoy the advantage that their students may receive larger amounts of student aid than those at public institutions. Federal student aid programs calculate awards in part on the cost of attending a given school, meaning that higher aid packages may offset some of the high costs of private schools. Some of these awards may come in the form of loans, however, and they must be paid back over a period of years. So be sure to analyze all related cost factors before enrolling at any school, even if financial aid is available.

Types of Expenses

Expenses that must be paid can include some or all of the following:

  • tuition (which may be assessed as a lump sum, a certain amount for each class or each credit hour, or in some other way)

  • fees (may be a synonym for tuition or may apply to other costs)

  • application fees (often required before enrollment and usually nonrefundable, even if you decide not to attend)

  • book costs (not usually charged along with tuition, but they represent an extra cost students must pay, usually to the school's bookstore; may be several hundred dollars for a single term)

  • lab fees (often charged to help cover the cost of equipment and supplies)

  • activity fees (may be charged even for students who do not participate in recreational or cultural activities)

  • health fees (special fees that may be charged to support student health services for all students)

  • room and board (may be charged directly by the school or may consist of costs to live off-campus)

  • commuting expenses (for students who live at home and commute; can include gasoline, car upkeep, parking fees, bus or train fare, or other expenses)

  • other fees (may include costs for taking special tests, technology fees, having transcripts sent to employers or other schools, dropping or adding classes, or other purposes)

By far, the greatest expense is for tuition and basic fees, but it is important not to overlook other costs as well in making educational plans.

Obtaining Financial Aid

Studying electronics can be expensive, but students who need financial help usually can obtain it. If money is a problem, you could consider applying for financial aid. This can come in the form of a grant, scholarship, loan, work-study award, or other financial assistance.

For most students interested in electronics courses, the best source of aid is the U.S. government. Every year, millions of students receive money from the government through a variety of financial aid programs. Other programs for loans, grants, or scholarships are sponsored at the state level.

To obtain student aid through most government programs, it is necessary to show financial need. The needier you are, the more funding you can expect. At the same time, persons who need help but are not as disadvantaged can qualify for special loans offered at low interest rates.

Other sources of aid include schools and colleges themselves. Many offer a variety of financial aid awards including scholarships, loans, and grants. Also, thousands of private organizations sponsor special aid programs ranging from scholarships to grants.

Students in electronics and other fields will find that a great deal of financial aid is available. The key is to be aggressive in pursuing such assistance. For those willing to fill out forms, meet deadlines, and provide the needed information, chances of receiving financial aid are excellent.

Applying for Aid

The first step in obtaining student aid from the government is to provide information about your family's income, assets, debts, and other financial matters. This is done by completing a detailed application form called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You may submit a FAFSA:

  • through the Internet by using FAFSA on the Web

  • by using FAFSA Express software, a free software program

  • by having your school submit your application electronically

  • by mailing a paper FAFSA

You can get a paper FAFSA from your high school or postsecondary school or from the Federal Student Aid Information Center.

You can also obtain these and related forms from high school guidance counselors and from financial aid offices in colleges and trade schools. If you are unsure which form is best for your situation, check with a counselor or financial aid officer.

At first the forms might seem too demanding or even an invasion of privacy, but go ahead and fill one out. If successful, your efforts can lead to a grant, loan, or other assistance worth thousands of dollars.

In this process, make certain you meet application deadlines. The best time to apply is around January 1 of the calendar year in which you plan to begin your autumn postsecondary studies. In other words, this is eight or nine months before you begin school. Since some federal programs award money on a first-come, first-served basis, the earlier an application is submitted, the better. At any rate, make certain you apply before May 1 for fall enrollment.

Types of Financial Aid Available

The government sponsors several types of aid programs. Following is a brief overview of major awards available. Keep in mind that many students receive a package of aid consisting of several different types of awards.

Pell Grants

Pell Grants are designed for students who have genuine financial need. Many people consider them the most desirable type of award available. After all, a grant does not have to be repaid-ever!

The amount any one student receives will vary according to individual finances, costs at the school being attended,

Blue Ridge Community College Library and related factors: Recent students have received anywhere from a few hundred dollars to well over $2,000 yearly, and the upper limit is being raised to an even higher amount. This award is based on need, not grades or other academic factors.

The major appeal of this type of grant is that if you really need one, you are almost certain to receive it if you apply properly. This means that financial limitations should not keep you from pursuing a career in electronics.

Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG): Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG) are much like Pell Grants, but not as many awards are available each year. They, too, need not be repaid. Since overall funds are limited, it is very important to apply early if you hope to land one of these grants.

Loan Options

Government-sponsored loan programs provide another set of options. Some are offered by the government itself, while others come from private lending agencies with government backing. They must be repaid after your education is completed, but most offer a long time to repay as well as lower interest rates than ordinary commercial loans.

One of the most popular loan programs is the Perkins Loan program. This provides loans with relatively low interest rates and plenty of time to repay the loan.

Another widely used program is the Stafford Loan program, which offers similar benefits. The Stafford is different, however, in that such loans are obtained directly from a bank, credit union, or other financial institution. Interest rates are lower than conventional loans thanks to government backing of the loans.

Other loans that place less emphasis on financial need also are available. Many families have incomes that are too high for need-based programs, but a loan still would be helpful in meeting educational expenses. For such situations, PLUS loans or SLS loans (Supplemental Loans for Students) offer an attractive alternative. PLUS loans are made directly to parents of students, while SLS are taken out by students. Both types of loans are made through banks or other private lenders, and the major requirement is a good credit rating.

Work-Study

Some students earn money to apply to school expenses through the College Work-Study Program, where students hold part-time jobs at their college or a cooperating agency. Typical jobs include working in a dean's office, staffing the switchboard, serving as a lab assistant, or helping out in the college's library, bookstore, or grounds crew.

Participants in this program earn at least the federal minimum wage. They also gain job experience, which can be helpful in showing prospective employers that they have been successful workers, as well as the chance to receive letters of recommendation from college staff members who have served as work-study supervisors.

Additional Aid Possibilities

Other sources of student aid may be available in addition to those offered by the government. For example, consider possibilities such as these:

  • scholarships and grants offered by individual schools

  • grants or scholarships offered by professional associations related to electronics

  • scholarships sponsored by organizations to which you or a parent belongs, such as churches or civic clubs

  •  tuition programs sponsored by companies for their employees (a great possibility if you can gain employment before completing an educational program or wish to move up from one level to another)

Alternative Training Programs

In addition to electronics programs offered by schools and colleges, other training options also exist. These include apprenticeships, informal on-the-job training, and special training programs offered by employers.

Apprenticeship Programs

One effective way to learn a craft or trade is to serve as an apprentice. This involves working under the guidance of experienced workers in the field being studied.

Apprenticeships represent one of the oldest forms of training in existence. They became common during the Middle Ages, when workers learned the basics of a trade or craft by serving as apprentices to persons with skills gained from years of experience. Although less common today, now that we benefit from the availability of so many schools, apprenticeships still offer a valid alternative method of training.

Modern apprenticeship programs may be offered by companies, labor unions, or a combination of the two. For electronics technicians, it usually takes three or four years to complete an apprenticeship. An advantage over most other training programs is that participants are paid while they participate. The rate of pay is lower than for fully qualified workers, but it usually is raised as skills are acquired.

Serving as an apprentice is a time-honored tradition. It offers a detailed, methodical method of learning from experienced workers while gaining and maintaining employment. If you are interested in such an opportunity, check with employers in your area to see if apprenticeships are offered and how you might become involved.

On-the-job Training and Company Training Programs

Another approach for learning about electronics is to participate in a company-sponsored training program. Some of these opportunities consist of very informal on-the-job training. Others may include structured classes, which may cover material similar to that taught in schools but usually condensed over a shorter time period. The main advantages of company programs are that no cost is involved (employees may even be paid to attend) and training can be finished rapidly.

Information about company training programs can be obtained from the personnel office of firms that employ electronics technicians and related workers. Announcements of such opportunities also may appear in newspapers or other publications.
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