The Ultimate Guide To Becoming An Electrician
Table Of Contents
- Electrician 101
- Types of Electricians
- Career Advancements
- Work / Life Balance
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Electrician Salary
- Trade School Vs. Apprenticeships
- Top 3 Electrical Apprenticeships
- How To Apply To An Apprenticeship Program
- Alternatives To Apprenticeships
What does an electrician do?
Electricians are one of the many construction trade crafts, working alongside plumbers, carpenters, and HVAC technicians in installing and maintaining buildings. Electricians build and maintain electrical systems for residential, commercial, and industrial installations. The electrical trade itself is extremely vast and even people with 20+ years in the trade haven’t seen it all. Some common examples of tasks you may find yourself doing as an electrician include;
- Wiring and installing outlets
- Installing lighting fixtures
- Establishing temporary power for construction job sites
- Upgrading a residential electrical panel
- Working on start-stop relays in an industrial factory
- Installing parking lot light poles
- Digging a trench and installing underground PVC conduit for a school
- Laying down and wiring solar panels on a neighbors roof
Brief history of electrical classifications
When electric power first started hitting the market back in 1880’s, electricians did it all. They ran the power lines and installed the lamps. They installed the lamps and ran the power lines. They… okay. Maybe there wasn’t a ton of variety back then. But electric powered lamps were cool, and they knew it. But as the electrical trade has grown and technology advanced over the past couple centuries, it has also fractured into separate classifications depending on the voltage you work with.
Low Voltage Technicians
Commonly referred to as low voltage electricians, low voltage technicians work with any system 50 volts and below. Examples are fire alarm, security, nurse call, and data / telecommunications.
Also commonly known in the trade as inside wiremen, electricians typically work with systems between 50 and 480 volts, although sometimes higher. Inside wiremen provide power to everything from outlets, air conditioning units, lighting controls, electric car charging port, and more. Despite the name inside wiremen, they can do work outdoors, especially at the earlier stages of a job site.
Lineman typically work on systems of voltages 13,000 volts (13kv) or higher. They work on supply voltages to cities and buildings, from outside power lines to underground tunnels.
Types of Electricians
Within the classification of “electricians”, there are a number of sub classifications of electricians. Often these sub classifications align with state licensing laws such as residential and commercial electricians. Other times they are simply to differentiate between your knowledge base, like Marine (boat, not military) or industrial electricians.
General / Commercial
Almost every state issues out a Journeyman Electrician license. This license certifies you to perform any electrical work under the National Electrical Codebook. Most electricians who obtain this license will work for a commercial electrical contractor and work at commercial jobs. These jobs can be almost anything; schools, hotels, fast food restaurants, Costco’s, golf courses, you name it.
Many states offer a residential license which certifies electricians to perform electrical work in residential settings only. This may or may not include apartment complexes and condominiums. This license is generally easier to obtain, only requiring three years experience as opposed to the four or five years a general license requires.
Industrial electricians hold their general electricians license, but generally only work industrial settings such as factories, oil fields, or mines. What separates this classification from commercial work is the focus on providing power to machinery and the more technical knowledge to troubleshoot more complicated circuits.
Maintenance electricians work for specific companies rather than electrical contractors. They may work for a college campus, a business with multiple locations, or a local city. They are on site at the ready in case something needs to be troubleshooted and often deal with simpler upgrades that don’t require a contractor. They often are salaried instead of hourly and get paid time off, which is more rare on the construction side of things.
Solar electricians can hold either their general or residential licenses. If the latter, they can only install solar in residential settings. Many general / commercial electricians will install solar on occasion, but some companies perform exclusive solar work.
Once you have obtained your journeyman’s electrical license, the world becomes your oyster. While many electricians stay a journeyman for their entire career, making a very healthy wage and retirement, many others will advance on to other roles.
An electrical foreman is a manager position in construction. Their duties include labor supervision, project planning and layout, ordering tools and material, and coordinating with the superintendent, general contractor, and safety manager.
Foreman often advance into a field superintendent role, whose duties becoming supervising multiple construction projects, scheduling and projecting manpower requirements, and acting as a liaison between the office and the field.
Many electricians will later become estimators for their company, where they analyze blueprints through various methods to come up with cost proposals and bid on various projects.
Those with aspirations to start their own business will do so and start their own electrical contracting firm. Working for yourself has its benefits, and the salary potential is essentially unlimited!
Work / Life balance
The work life balance of an electrician is among my favorite things about being an electrician. Probably tied with the ability to make 6 figures and multiple pensions without a college degree, but I digress.
Electricians generally work 40 hour weeks, although overtime is often offered. The majority of companies do not require it as there’s usually enough people willing to do it. Most work days will start at 6am and end at 2:30pm, give or take an hour. Some start at 7am to align with local noise ordinance. Either way you will be off work around 3pm each working day, and this definitely has it’s advantages. For one, no traffic. Which means not only getting off work early, but getting home early. I have plenty of time to pursue my hobbies, grab dinner, go outside, or whatever I want after work and before the sun even sets.
So what’s the downside? Early mornings. If you’re not a morning person… well. This career will make you one. You have to be able to get up early every work day, which unfortunately means early to bed as well. I have had to end far too many hangouts at the bar with my friends because it was nearing 8pm. It can be a sad thing to say out loud.
There’s another double edged sword to being a tradesman; vacations. I can take all the time off I want and have never been denied my requests. I plan vacations when I want and how often I want, not when my employer wants. On the flip side… Paid time off in construction is rare. You will have to cover the loss of income yourself unless you are with a rare company or union local that offers it.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I need any prior experience to become an electrician?
No! Apprenticeships are designed to teach you everything you need to know. Many electricians start out “green”, or with zero prior experience in the construction trades.
Am I too young / old to become an electrician?
Most electricians start out in the trade in their late 20’s or 30’s as a second career. However, it’s very common to see new apprentices of all ages, from fresh out of high school to even in their 50’s! No matter your age, you’ll fit right in.
Do I receive college credits for an apprenticeship program?
Most apprenticeship programs are affiliated with local community college and grant college credits or even associates degrees upon graduating!
What are the prerequisites to enrolling in an apprenticeship?
- A high school diploma or GED
- Completed Algebra I or higher
- Valid driver’s license
- Reliable Transportation
How long does it take to become a licensed electrician?
Most apprenticeship programs, and most states require 4-5 years of on the job training before you can qualify for your state license.
Are layoffs common in construction?
The construction industry is very cyclical in nature as jobs start and end. As jobs come to a close, layoffs are often around the corner. The flip side is that jobs are always starting up and with there being a shortage of electricians, finding work is no difficult task.
Don’t see your question answered? Check out our full FAQ page!
Journeyman Electrician’s Pay
The pay of a journeyman (licensed) electrician varies wildly depending on your location. If you are on the west coast, you can find $50-$80+/hour, while if you are in the south it may be closer to $25/hour. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, electricians make an average of $27.36 an hour. As addressed in the FAQ, I believe this number to be low as it undoubtedly includes both apprentice and journeyman wages, bringing the average down. I have collected over 260 union locals pay scales and if you average out their base pay it comes out to $38.33 an hour.
Apprentice Electrician’s Pay
Apprentice wages start out roughly at 40-45% of a journeyman’s wage. Using the above metric, that puts the average starting pay of an apprentice at $15.32 an hour. However apprentices generally get guaranteed set pay raises every 6 months, so this number quickly goes up.
Trade School Vs. Apprenticeship programs
People often mix up the terms trade school and apprenticeships. To be fair, there is a often lot of overlap and they both in essence do the same thing; prepare you for a technical or skilled job in a specific profession. In the electrical trade there are some stark distinctions between the two, with one having clear advantages.
An apprenticeship is a program that places you with electrical contractors to work and get experience on the job while completing classroom requirements. In this program you generally work a full 40 hours a week and either attend classes a couple times a week in the evening or full time a couple weeks a year.
There are minimal costs to joining an apprenticeship (usually just the cost of books), and you earn a set wage with guaranteed pay raises every semester. These programs can be competitive to get into and you will have to prepare for an aptitude test and a interview in front of the hiring board. That said, most aspiring electricians can find an apprenticeship and join one in their area the first or second try.
A trade school is a program that teaches you how to become an electrician in a classroom setting. You generally do not work for a contractor, and you pay for these classes. Trade schools will cover all the learning material needed to pass the state license exam (although you can’t take the test until you have 8000 on the job hours), and some will include coursework covering more hands on applications, like conduit bending or wiring up electrical panels.
Cost for tuition in a trade school also varies wildly, with some community college programs being a few hundred dollars a semester, to private programs charging thousands or tens of thousands. Because of the tuition cost of trade schools and the huge opportunity cost of not getting actual work experience and income, it’s strongly recommended to apply to all apprenticeship programs near you.
When to Apply to Trade School
If there are limited apprenticeship opportunities in your area and you have not been able to get in, a trade school is your next best option. You will want to find a program that will allow you to meet the state licensing requirements, which for most states is about 600 classroom hours. The first place you should look is at local community colleges, there should be an “electrical” program. This will be a separate program than electrical engineering, it’s specific for the electrical trade.
If you cannot find an option through a community college, begin looking for private institutions. Some may even offer online classes. Try to stick with the cheapest ones, paying tens of thousands of dollars for a program is widely considered a gigantic scam.
Once in a program, begin looking for work. You will want to start getting experience under your belt. If the program is shorter, 6-12 months, considering finishing it out and reapplying to apprenticeships. You will greatly increase your chances of getting in with the trade and work experience and make yourself a lot more valuable.
The top three electrical apprenticeships
Electrical Training Alliance
Location: 250+ training centers over the US and Canada. All 50 states
Union: International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)
Benefits: Full medical, minimum two pensions, union benefits. Vacation pay varies by location.
Program Length: 5 years
Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC)
Location: 96 training centers over most US states
Benefits: Full medical. Retirement and vacation benefits vary by location.
Program Length: 4 years
Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC)
Location: 52 training centers over most US states
Benefits: Full medical. Retirement and vacation benefits vary by location.
Program Length: 4 years
Quick Comparison Chart
As you can see from the comparison chart above, the Electrical Training Alliance has a lot of supplemental benefits that the other two do not provide. If you are interested in applying to the ETA, I have put together a step by step guide on how to join.
I will always recommend aspiring electricians to try to join the union apprenticeship first. They offer the highest wages and best benefits, but because of this it can also be the most competitive to get in. If you do not get in or if there is no office near you, the other two are still great options. You can always join the IBEW later as a journeyman.
Associated Builders & Contractors OR Independent Electrical Contractors
If you are split between deciding on the ABC or IEC apprenticeship, I would recommend looking into their pay scales, benefits, and locations. Find out where their training center is. You will be going to that location multiple times a week for four years, so you don’t want a long drive. Keep in mind their training center may be in a different location than the chapters main office.
How to apply to an apprenticeship program
If you are a veteran, active duty military or reserves, make sure to check out our veteran’s page for resources!
Step 1: Select the apprenticeship(s) you want to apply to.
The three major ones are the IBEW, ABC, and IEC. Chances are there are at least one in your area, and you should try to stick with one of these are the are all nationally recognized. There are other apprenticeship programs out there that may be available in your city as well, I just don’t list them as they usually only serve a specific state or city. If you decide to apply to them, make sure they offer good benefits and are not trade schools masquerading as an apprenticeship.
For all IBEW applicants, please refer to this step by step guide instead, as it gives more specific instructions tailored to the union apprenticeship.
Step 2: Find out where to submit your application.
Unfortunately, none of the major apprenticeships have a central website where you can apply. You will have to search for a local chapter near you, and find out how their application process works. If they do not have a form on their website, call in. Some apprenticeships only take applications during a specific month or time frame, and it’s important to identify when that is.
Step 3: Gather your paperwork.
Once you have found the proper channel to apply, find out the prerequisites and start gathering paperwork. Most apprenticeships will require;
- A GED or high school diploma
- Official transcripts showing a completed Algebra I class or higher.
- A clean drivers license and reliable transportation
- Form of ID to prove your citizenship, either a birth certificate or passport.
If you do not have the required math prerequisites, call the apprenticeship center. Many will offer or direct you to an online class you can take to fulfill this requirement. For applicants of the IBEW, you can take the Online Tech Math course as a substitute for Algebra I.
I would also start the process of obtaining official transcripts as soon as possible if you do not already have them, as the process for some schools can take a few weeks
Step 4: Touch up your resume!
It’s time to make your resume ready to submit if the apprenticeship asks for one.
Step 5: Once you have all your paperwork put together, submit your application!
Double check that all your paperwork is correct and not missing anything they require. You don’t want to accidently leave something out and miss this round of hiring!
Step 6: Prepare for and take the aptitude test.
Each apprenticeship program requires you to take an aptitude test. Passing is mandatory to get in, and your test score combined with your interview score will determine your placement for enrollment in the apprenticeship.
Test: NJATC Aptitude Test
Test Details: 69 questions; 33 Algebra I, 36 reading comprehension. 96 Minutes total to complete, split into two sections.
Test: TABE Test
Test Details: 195 Questions divided into four sections; Reading, Language, Math Computation, and Applied math.
Test: In-House Basic Math Test
Test Details: Tests vary by location. Ask the training center for details.
Step 7: Schedule your oral interview!
After your aptitude test, it’s time to schedule and prepare for your interview. You will want to make sure you enter this well prepared, so be read up on apprenticeship interview tips!
Step 8: Sit back, relax, and await your answer!
Now that you’ve submitted all your paperwork, done your aptitude test, and interviewed, the only thing that’s left is to wait until you hear back from the apprenticeship office! In the meantime, prepare yourself for entering the trade by gathering the required tools and familiarizing yourself with the material you will begin to see on the job site.
Alternatives to Apprenticeships
Unless you’re in Washington state, you don’t have to do an apprenticeship program to get your state license. Most states have alternative pathways to getting their state licenses, if they even have one. I would highly recommend doing one however, as there are many benefits to going through the program. It’s the highest standard in the industry and graduating from one will give you opportunities across the country. You will get set pay raises, best benefits, and top notch schooling and certifications.
Sometimes however, this may not be the best option for you. Perhaps you live in a small town where no apprenticeship program is offered, or you have applied and not gotten into any. Whatever your reason is, there are alternative pathways to becoming an electrician.
The first thing you will want to do is look at your state licensing requirements and look for any schooling requirements. Many states will require a certain amount of schooling hours before you qualify to take the exam test. Assuming you have this requirement, you will want to find the best trade school option near you.
Once you are on track to get the schooling requirement out of the way, begin looking for work. Depending on where you live this could be either incredibly easy to find, or incredibly difficult. Generally speaking, contractors are desperate for new help and are always hiring. I prefer the aggressive measure of googling electrical contractor’s near me and cold calling asking if they are hiring. Often I will stop by in person too. Before I was union and had to look for work on my own, this was my go to method, and generally I wouldn’t have to call one or two contractors before being hired that day.
If cold calling does not work, start looking online at craigslist or any of the dozen hiring websites on the market right now. Ask your friends and family if they know any electricians. Do anything you can to get your foot in the door. It’s important to go into your first day on the job with the correct tools however, so be sure you’re prepared and don’t show up empty handed.
Once you find work and complete your required hours and schooling for the state exam, it will be time to take your state exam. Be sure to study as much as you can to prepare for it.
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