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Wired to Join the Ranks of Engineers, Retired Electrician Is Hitting the Books


In 1995, electrician Tom Watson told his employers in Glendora that he was gay. At 41, he hadn't expected the disclosure to change his life. But it did.

Somehow, word spread. Co-workers at construction jobs began to harass him, Watson said. He stoically weathered the jibes. He'd been a union electrician since 1973 and didn't want to leave his firm or occupation. There was no other work he was trained to do.

But last year, Watson conceded that his situation had become intolerable. And possibly dangerous.

"I was threatened by a couple of 300-pound goons on the job," Watson said. "I decided, at that point, that working in construction was no longer an option."

After 21 years with his company, Watson retired from his $55,000-a-year job, bought a $105,000 home in the Riverside County town of Perris, and relocated there from Los Angeles with his partner of 20 years, Jose Reveles, 49.

"We miss L.A., and we're dying to get back there," Watson said. Currently, both are living on Watson's retirement income, which amounts to about 50% of his former salary.

But what can Watson do now? To continue collecting his retirement income, he must refrain from engaging in electrician-related work. For help with his dilemma, Watson consulted Jill Hayden, a career counselor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

After reviewing Watson's resume and biographical notes, Hayden assured Watson that he had plenty of opportunities.

"You've got a nice blend of people skills and technical skills," Hayden said. "And you show a willingness to take risks, to try new things in order to solve problems."

In his previous work, Watson had demonstrated managing, organizing, coordinating and scheduling skills, Hayden said. With additional education, he could consider careers in electrical engineering, computer engineering, system administration and industrial engineering.

But Hayden and Watson agreed that his "dream career"--veterinary science--was untenable at this time; it would require Watson to take a multitude of science prerequisites and relocate to Davis to attend UC Davis, the only grad school in California that offers a veterinary program.

After much discussion, the two agreed that Watson might greatly enjoy--and profit from--pursuing an electrical engineering degree. Watson already is enrolled at Riverside Community College, taking classes in intermediate algebra, plane geometry and English composition. He hopes to eventually transfer to UC Riverside to fulfill this goal.

Hayden suggested that Watson devote himself "full force" to his studies, and not interrupt them to find interim engineering assistant work, or try to moonlight at jobs while tackling course work.

Here is additional information for Watson and other aspiring electrical engineers about this rapidly evolving field:

Electrical engineering is the single largest engineering sector. Its impact on modern life is profound.

"Every time you turn on a TV, open a refrigerator, make a phone call, play a computer game, navigate the Internet or gaze at the images of Venus and Jupiter sent by space probes, you witness electrical engineering at work," said Raman Unnikrishnan, head of the electrical engineering department at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Electrical engineers design, develop, test and supervise the manufacture of electrical, electronic and microelectronic equipment. They may specialize in areas such as telecommunications, signal processing, power systems, integrated circuitry or microprocessor applications.

Because there has been a critical shortage of electrical engineers in the last several years, starting salaries for new grads tend to be high, between $50,000 to $60,000 annually, industry experts say. This means that, should Watson complete a bachelor's of science degree in electrical engineering, he's likely to earn as much his first year in the profession as he did his final year as an electrician.

Corporations such as Intel, Motorola, Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard, Lucent, Lockheed Martin and IBM routinely send representatives to college campuses in search of talented electrical engineering students, Unnikrishnan said. Many such firms offer lucrative signing bonuses, relocation awards and stock options.

Some employ summer interns in their open electrical engineering positions, and, in a few cases, even offer interns signing bonuses for their summer work, said Joe Chow, acting chairman of electrical, computing and systems engineering science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

"Companies are just desperate because the market is growing so rapidly," said John Orr, head of the electrical and computer engineering department at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass.

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