Career as an Electrician | When you think of electrical workers, do you picture a construction site populated by powerfully built workers in overalls, hard hats, and tool belts? Many people engaged in these fields do indeed work on construction sites. But the stereotypical hard-hat portrait is changing rapidly in some aspects, gradually in others.
For instance, more and more electricians are employed to perform maintenance work for factories, office buildings, and hospitals.
Moreover, while there are certain physical requirements for this work, they don’t require the worker to be male, as women are entering the electrical careers in growing numbers. Here’s another interesting fact: electrical contractors are often retained for projects that don’t involve electrical power such as fiber optics. They also do jobs that can’t be described as conventional construction installation of a closed-circuit TV security system, for instance.
Nonetheless, the basic job descriptions that you are probably familiar with are still typical. Electricians install, modify, repair, refurbish, maintain, and otherwise handle wiring, switches, devices, and fixtures for communications, security, climate-control, heating, lighting, and power systems. And electrical contractors are still basically business owners who coordinate and oversee large projects.
The nature of this work hasn’t changed as much as it has expanded. Electricians and electrical contractors still do much of what they did 10, even 50 years ago. But they also perform tasks that are way beyond the job descriptions of even a decade ago tasks that used to be performed by a different type of professional, or tasks that didn’t previously exist because the technology didn’t exist.
The careers of electrician and electrical contractor are fields in transition. This is an exciting time to be in this line of work. New applications for the skills of electrical workers are being discovered all the time, and demand for electrical services is soaring. The United States relies more than ever on dependable and well maintained supplies of electricity. So if you’re interested in pursuing a career in one of the better paying skilled trades and one with a solid future you’ve come to the right place!
Career as an Electrician
|Career as an Electrician|
Preparing For This Electrician Career
The best way to train to become an electrician is through an industry-approved apprenticeship program. Apprenticeship programs have set minimum requirements for acceptance. Admission boards will evaluate your physical and mental aptitude for the work, academic background, and your activities outside of school.
Now is a good time to make sure you are comfortable with heights, enjoy working with your hands, and don’t mind being outdoors in nasty weather. That is, if standing on a kitchen ladder makes you dizzy, or if your idea of unnecessary exposure to the elements is parking your car in an unheated garage, you’re probably not a good candidate for work that might have you tied to a roof for long periods of time.
Good grades are important for aspiring electricians seeking admission to an apprenticeship program. A high school diploma is a minimum; you won’t be accepted into a union without one. Because electricians must perform basic calculations, read blueprints and diagrams, and understand the principles of the physical world, your high-school coursework should be strong in math (especially algebra) and science (especially physics).
Courses in engineering, electronics, mechanical drawing, and shop also provide a good background. If these classes are not offered as electives at your high school, you might consider taking them at a local vocational or technical institution. Special training is also offered in the Armed Forces.
Electricians also have to be able to read technical material, such as manufacturers’ manuals and architects’ specifications. They work with people of different backgrounds, so classes in literature, the social sciences, and foreign languages can be helpful in these respects. A well-rounded education is always a good idea.
It may not be readily apparent why you should study things that are unfamiliar to you, that don’t necessarily come easily to you, and that are not so interesting to you. But, believe it or not, developing good study habits will help, because you will have to continue learning throughout your career. Most electricians take continuing-education courses to stay current with technological advances.
If you hope eventually to own your own business or become an electrical contractor, a well-rounded education will help you in everything from handling personnel issues to solving problems. Involvement in sports shows that you are a team player, which is an essential trait for electrical workers.
Take your after-school job seriously. If it’s in the construction industry or something else related to electrical work, all the better; but it doesn’t have to be. The apprenticeship board will be delighted to see work records that show you are dependable, hard working, and personable.
These recommendations are designed mainly to help you gain admission to an apprenticeship program and reflect the kinds of attributes and activities the board will be looking for. But they should also be things you enjoy doing and would be naturally drawn to, if you’re a good candidate for this work.
History of This Electrician Career
Thousands of years ago,The ancient Greeks noticed that amber (a hard, fossilized pine resin) acquired the ability to attract bits of lightweight matter, such as straw and feathers, when it was rubbed with cloth. Little did they know they were conducting experiments with static electricity!
Other ancient peoples observed that other substances also possessed powers of attraction, most notably a black rock known as lodestone or magnetite, which attracted heavy objects. In the mid-1500s, Girolamo Cardano, an Italian mathematician, was the first to recognize that the manner in which the two substances attract materials must be different.
William Gilbert, an English physician, expanded upon Cardano’s findings in 1600. Gilbert was the first to distinguish between electric and magnetic phenomena, and he applied the word electric (from the Greek word for amber, elektron) to substances that attract light material when rubbed with cloth. He noticed that substances such as glass, sulfur, and wax behaved like amber in this manner.
Today, we know that what Gilbert called electrics are good insulators, which allows them to hold an electric charge; and that lodestone is a natural magnet.
The first people to harness electricity’s potential were scientists and inventors, not electricians or contractors. The evolution of those careers were dependent upon the formation of the electric power and light industry, which didn’t take place until the late 19th century.
In 1837, Samuel Morse, who had been intrigued by electricity ever since he was a student at Yale in the 1820s, proposed an electric telegraph system to the US Congress, which was seeking to connect the financial market of New York City with the cotton market of New Orleans. His proposal was rejected. But six years later, Morse finally received a $30,000 grant to build a test line between Washington, DC and Baltimore.
Around this time, most educated people not to mention the US government were aware of the phenomenon of electricity. But many perceived it as an interesting but perilous experiment. When Samuel Morse tapped-out the first telegraph message, “What hath God wrought?,” it might seem to confirm the perception of electricity as threatening, but it was really the opposite that actually occurred.
People began to appreciate the promise of electricity, rather than fear its unknown dangers. The first telegraph wires were hung between Washington and Baltimore in 1844, and the first telegraph station was built in Chicago in 1848. Within 20 years, transatlantic cable was being laid.
Linemen were needed to install the wires, and, as intrepid, thrill-seeking young workers lined up to take the jobs, the new career of electrician was born. In the 1870s, lamps illuminated by means of an electric arc were installed in railroad stations, industrial plants, and public plazas in large cities all over the United States.
By 1879, when Thomas Alva Edison perfected the incandescent lamp, the general public was quickly convinced of the value of electric power, and Edison’s invention swiftly fueled demand for the provision of electric services. The inventor opened the Pearl Street Generating Station, a steam electric power plant, in New York City in 1882, and the plant was soon providing direct current to illuminate over one thousand incandescent lamps. By the end of the century, the United States would boast more than 3,600 electric utilities.
As public demand for electricity grew, so did the need for trained electricians. The skilled trade of wireman joined that of lineman. Electricians often toiled 12 hours a day, seven days a week, under hazardous conditions with no safety controls. Many workers earned as little as 10 to 15 cents an hour.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union would have its roots in the 1890 World’s Fair in St. Louis, which employed hundreds of linemen and wireman from all over the country to erect the exhibits showing off the “glorious display of electrical wonders.” With so many electricians congregating in one place, the talk naturally turned to working conditions and unionization. The first convention of what would become the IBEW was held in 1891.
The use of electric utilities surged, and by the 1930s, they served about two thirds of all US households. However, only 10% of farms enjoyed the benefits of electric power, so President Franklin D. Roosevelt founded the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) to introduce electricity to unserved rural areas. By the 1990s, virtually every American farm was served by electrical power and 50% had REA-funded systems. The REA was recently replaced by the Rural Utilities Service.
Development of Electrical Contracting
During the 1900s, the United States experienced intermittent building booms. During the first decade of the last century, there was a national housing shortage due to population growth and a shortage of construction workers, who were busy building industrial facilities.
From that period through the mid-1960s, with the exception of the World War periods and the Great Depression, construction took place at a brisk clip. This phenomenon brought about a new construction specialty, that of electrical contractor.
The main differences between electrical contracting in the 1950s and electrical contracting today are largely matters of technology, although procedures and safety practices have also evolved. For instance, in the 1950s, only a few power tools were used to install electrical systems.
Today, a wide variety of power tools are used, including hand-held, battery-powered tools that need no power cord. Tools have also been introduced that offer tremendous savings in time and labor, as well as those that eliminate the possibility of hazards such as electrocution.
In the 1950s, contractors dug trenches by hand for underground installation of cable or conduit (pipe or tubing that protects electrical wires). Today, a computerized directional tool can bore underneath utility lines to install electrical systems without necessitating a trench at all.
Digital instruments have replaced analog, and measuring and alignment equipment such as spirit levels, tape measures, and plumb bobs are becoming outmoded with the advent of lightweight laser tools. Even simple identification labels have undergone dramatic facelifts to accommodate increasingly complex electrical networks.
Great strides have been made to protect worker safety. Fifty years ago, safety procedures and concerns were comparatively perfunctory. Today, meticulous safety records are maintained concerning injury, illness, occupational hazards, and maintenance and training (to ensure safe equipment and operation). More and more contractors are establishing formal programs to educate their field forces.
Fifty years ago, the work of an electrical contractor was fairly straightforward and consisted largely of reading specifications and setting up power systems. The electrical segment of a construction job represented a small portion of the total cost and the fee was easy to estimate.
The contractor would simply calculate the approximate cost of the job and double that to account for overhead and profit. Multiple competitive bids were almost unheard of. Today, contractors may compete with a long list of bidders for any given job.
The job description for an electrical contractor has broadened and now includes the installation of electric power, lighting, telecommunication equipment, electronic controls, security systems, highway signs, and the erection of power or communication lines over long distances.
The amount of wiring that must be installed in buildings has skyrocketed because of the increased use of telecommunication equipment, closed-circuit television, and security and alarm systems. The amount of electrical power required has swelled with the number and complexity of environmental systems in operation, including heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting, and sound control. Mechanical and electrical systems now represent 25% to 35% of total construction expenditure.
Where Electrician Will Work?
Traditionally, job opportunities in any given area fluctuate from one year to another as local economic conditions shift. Currently, jobs for electricians are most plentiful in the booming regions of the West, Northwest and Midwest.
However, as technology becomes more complex and electricians necessarily broaden their skills base, regional differences in employment opportunities are diminishing, and jobs can increasingly be found in all parts of the United States. For similar reasons, electrical contracting is less seasonal a business than it once was; there’s plenty of work to be done that doesn’t require the cooperation of the elements.
About one-half to two-thirds of electricians work in the construction industry. Approximately 10% of all electricians are self-employed, work as independent contractors, or run their own businesses. Maintenance electricians may work for large factories or office buildings, in just about any industry that relies on electricity. (Can you think of one that doesn’t?) Hospitals are among the key employers of maintenance electricians.
Overall, electrical contractors derive more than one-quarter of their income from industrial clients (factories and warehouses), and this proportion is growing, largely at the expense of residential clients (single-family homes, apartments, hotels, motels – about 10%) and commercial clients (office buildings, banks, shopping centers, restaurants about 20%). Institutional clients (hospitals, schools, prisons, churches) represent about 15% of the total picture.
What Do Electricians Do?
When a new project is in the planning stages, electricians study blueprints and specifications prepared by engineers and architects. These diagrams and documents indicate where circuits, outlets, panel boards, and other items should be located.
Electricians establish work areas, assemble tools and equipment, arrange for materials and supplies to be ordered and transported to the job site, and obtain clearances for such activities as digging. They coordinate with the contractor and other skilled tradespeople in terms of equipment requirements and schedules. A temporary construction trailer may be set up at the site.
At all times, electricians must comply with local, state, and federal building and electric codes, policies, and regulations. This means using, inspecting, and maintaining the proper tools, equipment, and protective wear; adhering to a job site safety program and attending weekly safety meetings; and being prepared to administer first aid or perform an emergency rescue.
Supervisors assign tasks to their staff, review work, provide feedback, and possibly train an apprentice to perform a new task.
- Allen wrench
- Socket set
- Keyhole saw
- Crimping tool
- Hand drill
- Adapter cables
- Block and tackle
- Pipe wrench
- Wire stripper
- Fuse puller
- Torque wrench
- Wood chisel
- Needle nose pliers
- Wire cutter
- Measuring tape
- Plumb bob
- Soldering iron
- Drill press
- Gas-operated auger
- Air hammer
- Coring machine
- Roto stripper
- Water pump
- Fiber optic fusion splicer
- Electric saber saw
- Power cutting and threading machine
- Electric screw gun
- Electric saber saw
- Hydraulic bender
- Voltmeter (measures voltage)
- Ammeter (measures electric current in amperes)
- Oscilloscope (displays electrical waves on fluorescent screen)
- Watt meter (measures wattage)
- Dielectric test set (evaluates how well a material can act as an insulator)
- Dynamometer (measures effective horsepower)
- Optical time-domain reflectometer (displays reflections from a discontinuity or load on a transmission line)
- Safety belt
- Body belt
- Electric lift
- Power borer
Electricians are sometimes divided into two categories, construction and maintenance.
Construction electricians are typically employed during the secondary building phase. They install electrical wiring, systems, controls, and equipment in industrial plants, offices, apartment buildings and private residences, and other structures.
Construction electricians mount and connect switchboards, meters, and the metal or plastic boxes that house electrical outlets and switches; they wire communications, security, and climate-control systems; and they put in coaxial or fiber optic cable for telecommunications equipment and computers.
There are two primary types of construction electricians – outside linemen and indoor wiremen.
The fundamental job of the outside lineman is to build transmission lines that will supply power to local service areas from distant generating plants. One key responsibility of the outside lineman is the setting and construction of the actual structures (such as poles, towers, or crossarms) and devices that will hold the electrical wiring.
If an old or damaged structure is in the way, the first thing the lineman must do is remove and dispose of it. Then the lineman must dig a hole using such equipment as a power borer or an augur or hand tools like a shovel. Then, the structure (a pole, for example) is hauled to the site and moved to the hole into which it will be placed.
If necessary, the lineman constructs a guy wire (cable used to secure the pole) and fastens it with a power screwdriver. When it is determined that the pole is at the appropriate depth and is properly aligned, the lineman backfills the hole with dirt.
In erecting a tower, a lineman may fix its placement by pouring cement into the foundation; when attaching a new crossarm, the lineman marks the spots to be drilled, drills the holes, positions the crossarm correctly, and may secure it with a brace. When maintaining and repairing overhead distribution or transmission lines, the lineman must either climb a pole, be transported in a “bucket” truck, operate a platform, or position a hook ladder to reach and work on the lines.
The construction of a substation is also within the lineman’s job description. A substation is a small building or enclosed yard that houses equipment whose purpose is to adjust and monitor voltage, frequency, and other electrical-service functions. The substation translates the high-voltage power that it receives from transmission lines to reduced-voltage power that can be handled by sub transmission lines, which then deliver the power to the homes, schools, factories, office buildings, and the other users of electrical service. Linemen are in charge of assembling and erecting these facilities.
Among other duties, linemen string new wire and inspect and maintain old wire; inspect insulators for defects and install new ones to replace old or damaged ones; and install, repair, and maintain underground electrical distribution systems.
Occasionally, linemen are called upon to trim trees that are interfering with construction or overhead lines. The lineman surveys the tree to determine what should be pruned and either climbs the tree harnessed to a safety belt or is elevated in a bucket truck. The exposed parts of the tree may have to be treated with insecticides or paint to protect them.
The lineman is also responsible for the appropriate disposal of the boughs and foliage that were removed. If you want to think of it chronologically, the wireman continues the work of the lineman. That is, when the lineman has terminated work on the line at the substation, the wireman’s begins work.
The wireman installs the conduit that holds the power feeders, which travel from the substation to the switchgear inside the building that is receiving the electrical service. A wireman measures the amount of conduit needed, prepares it for use, and feeds it to a specific location inside the building, where the conduit will be hidden inside the walls.
Sometimes, this worker must bore holes in metal or concrete to run conduit and may apply paint or other identification to the cables indicating their voltage and other features. The wireman determines where the junction boxes should be positioned and installs them, making sure each box is plumb (in precise vertical alignment) and level (in precise horizontal alignment).
The wireman runs wire from the junction box to lighting fixtures, makes electrical connections to the fixtures, and places lamps in the fixtures. This worker may have to cut openings in the ceiling or attach lighting fixtures to the ceiling, as well as locate switches and cover them with plates and covers. To repair lighting fixtures that are malfunctioning, a wireman determines the component that is not working properly.
Then the possible reasons for failure are reviewed, tests are done, and the faulty piece is replaced or repaired. A wireman might be called upon to coordinate with a local power company in order to establish a temporary power system during construction; provide power and controls to motors, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and other equipment; or install fire alarm systems, security systems, and lightning protection systems.
Wireman with special skills may also install and repair telephone and data systems, or design a new one while the old system remains operational. First, the wireman consults with the customer and possibly the manufacturer of the computer control system.
Then this specialist may construct the telephone and data control panel, and/or distribution frame; position cable trays to hold the wires; install jacks, patch panels, telephone, data system hubs and devices, and telephone and data switchplates. He/she may have to splice fiber optic cable and pull it, coaxial, and/or twisted pair cable to individual workstations throughout the building.
The telephone control computer must also be programmed to handle the phone service as required. Then special test equipment is used to check the completed system and the necessary adjustments are made.
Either linemen or wiremen may install outdoor lighting and traffic or train signals. This involves laying out trenches for the conduit and arranging to have the trenches excavated, graded and leveled. The conduit is placed in the trenches on raceway supports, and a hole is dug for the lighting base. After the lighting base is placed in the hole, it may be secured with concrete or steel, and the pole to which the lighting fixture is attached is anchored with bolts.
The lineman might assemble such parts as hardware for the traffic light. When installing traffic or train signals, the lineman puts sensors in the road and establishes control cabinets so the signal can be programmed. When the job is finished, power is turned on and the apparatus is tested.
Installer/technicians work alongside wiremen, installing the network of low-voltage cabling that is used for video, voice, and data outlets at workstations. They also maintain and modify these systems.
Maintenance electricians are mainly troubleshooters. Those who work in office buildings and small factories inspect equipment and anticipate and remedy problems before breakdowns occur. This may include the installation of new equipment or the replacement of such parts as fuses, switches, circuit breakers, electrical and electronic components, or wire. When equipment failure does occur, they promptly make repairs.
Those who are employed by large industrial plants may fix motors, electronic controllers, transformers, and generators on machine tools and industrial robots. Maintenance electricians may recommend that management cease operation of equipment that may be hazardous, or may advise their employers to make a costly replacement for the sake of efficiency or safety.
When working with very sophisticated devices and equipment, maintenance electricians may collaborate with engineers, engineering technicians, or industrial machinery repairers. Those with residential clients may perform such tasks as rewiring or replacing an old fuse box with a new circuit breaker to provide sufficient capacity for additional appliances or home electronics. Some electricians work in both construction and maintenance; others specialize in one area.
Capable electricians can be promoted to such positions as foreman, supervisor, project manager, and superintendent. Some become inspectors, teachers, or construction consultants.
Electrical Contractors With experience, funding, proven management skills, and, if necessary, formal instruction, experienced electricians may become electrical contractors. This may require a license, depending upon where they are practicing.
Traditionally, construction work has been turned over to a general contractor who typically hired subcontractors to supply materials and labor for different segments of the work, such as electrical or plumbing, as well as a superintendent to oversee the construction. This is still true in 90% of cases when the project involves constructing a building from the ground up.
However, electrical contractors are increasingly being called upon to be the general contractor, especially when the job is one of modernization, renovation, or major upgrade, since such projects typically consist of 50% or more of electrical work. In this role, the contractor has a direct relationship with the building owner.
Before being given a particular project, a contractor may have to bid on it. During the bidding process, contractors are invited to submit a proposal in which they agree to complete the building according to the architect’s drawings and specifications for a particular price, either a fixed sum or a percentage of the total cost of construction. It is customary to award the job to the contractor who offers to do it for the lowest fee.
About 40% of the work that electrical contractors do (in terms of dollar volume) is conferred in this manner. About 45% of the work by dollar volume comes from previous customers who approach the contractor without requiring a bid (although they may negotiate the fee). The rest of the sales volume in the electrical-contracting industry is derived from new customers who do not initiate a competitive bidding process, usually because the contractor has been recommended by another customer.
The electrical contractor (in the capacity of electrical specialist rather than general contractor) guarantees such services as the construction, renovation, rehabilitation, upgrading, updating, or maintenance of some kind of wiring system. In addition to employing qualified electricians, technicians, and installers, the contractor purchases equipment and materials and supervises workers to make sure the timetable is being met and all codes and regulations are complied with.
Contractors usually perform their work under the supervision of an architect or engineer (or someone chosen by one of these professionals to act as their agent), who, in turn, acts in the interest of the owner or client by making sure that the project is carried out according to the plans and specifications. Although the contractor’s immediate accountability ends when inspectors have approved the building and the owner establishes occupancy, the contractor, architect, and engineer can still be held liable for any deficiencies in construction or design for several years thereafter.
Not only are electrical contractors serving as general contractors more and more, but they are also taking on the roles of the architect and engineer, particularly in terms of design and the preparation of specifications. This trend is known as “design-and-build,” and it basically means that the contractor does some of the design during the construction process. It’s only logical, for instance, that a contracting firm that conducts regular maintenance for an industrial facility should be involved in the plans to expand or remodel the plant.
An electrical contracting company may employ as many as one thousand people, although the majority have under 50 employees. As a result, most advertising and marketing efforts are relatively limited and local, the cheapest and most effective being word-of-mouth. Other small firms rely on solicited referrals from previous clients, cold-calling to prospective clients, advertising in directories, or networking with building owners, architects, engineers, and builders.
I Am a Journeyman Electrician and Business Owner “I got into this line of work when a friend asked if I would like to help him with a contract he had wiring a department store in my community. I agreed, liked the work, and purchased a local shop the following year and was in business! That was 12 years ago.
My business provides a broad range of services including residential wiring, commercial wiring, farm wiring and light industrial. We install electrical systems, telephone and TV wiring, computer networks, and we offer maintenance services.
My responsibilities are varied. I talk to potential customers, take work orders, order materials, schedule work orders, instruct apprentices, troubleshoot customer problems, estimate job costs, invoice customers, oversee office staff, install electrical systems, clean bathrooms…
In short, I do anything that needs to be done for my business. I enjoy meeting customers and helping them with their problems. I don’t like handling complaints or bill collecting. People who want to pursue this line of work should finish high school, first of all, to make sure you have a good background in math and physics.
Stay away from alcohol, drugs, and tobacco; no one wants abusers working for them. And finally, remember that a firm’s employees are the front line that the customers see. Personal appearance and habits make the first impression.”
I Am the Lead Electrician Employed by a Hospital “I perform electrical installations, assist in project management, work on life safety systems (fire alarms, sprinklers), and follow-up on code compliances. I chose electrical work because I wanted a career that was flexible, and I do like the versatility. I can work as a self-employed contractor or as an employee, however I like. I went to a local community college and took a program that conferred a diploma.
I like almost everything about my job except working outside in the winter.
I recommend that high school students who want to be electricians get a good education, especially in math and science, and particularly physics. Don’t depend on hands-on work all your life; learn to use your brain.”
I Work as a Project Manager and Estimator for an Electrical Contractor “My employer has offices in Illinois and Indiana, with projects throughout the country. We do commercial, industrial, institutional, residential, traffic, communications, and design-and-build projects – $40+ million worth of contracts a year. We have major clients such as State Farm, Mitsubishi, and MCI.
I have 18 years’ experience in the electrical field. I first worked as an electrician’s helper for a couple of years, then I became a navigation systems technician for the Air Force, and I worked for 11 years as an apprentice to the general manager of an electrical contracting firm.
I have also taught master electrician/electrical contractor licensing classes, served on an Apprenticeship Training Committee, and was appointed by the mayor to serve on the Electrical Control Board. I am certified as a master electrician and have electrical contractor licenses in several Midwestern and Southern states.
In my current job, I provide estimates for new projects, order materials, go to job meetings, and prepare billings. It’s very satisfying to see a project built and completed from the ground up, although it’s very frustrating to have a project go over budget.
I knew what I wanted to do for a long time. I studied this field in vocational school, shop classes, and technical schools. That’s what kids who are interested in the career should do take vocational school and high school programs that are available and apply for the apprenticeship program when you graduate.”
I Am the General Manager for an Electrical Contractor “The firm I work for does commercial and industrial wiring. We also do controls, high voltage, and telecommunications. I personally make sales calls, perform project management, do estimating, and work on labor relations. No two days are ever the same. Plus, this work is technologically challenging, as the industry is changing rapidly.
I used to work in a lab as a formulation chemist during college, but I didn’t like the work. I met an electrician at the lab and started thinking about doing that work instead. I spent three years in college and took a four-year apprenticeship to prepare.
Go down to your local Joint Apprenticeship and Training office. They will be happy to come to your school and talk to the students for career day. There are many variations to our type of work. There’s something for everyone’s specific interests.
I Am President of a Commercial Electrical Contracting Firm in the Washington, DC Area “Our firm is part of a group of companies that include a mechanical contractor and a full-service mechanical, electrical, and plumbing service company.
I oversee the entire office, I have final say on all estimates, and I am responsible for the profit and loss performance of the company.
I was 19 years old with one year of college behind me and wasn’t sure if three more years was the best way to go. A friend of my family was a master electrician and we spoke about my becoming an apprentice and seeing how I would like working in the field on a job site.
So I went to work on the job site, which happened to be the headquarters building for USA Today in Rosslyn, VA when they started up the newspaper. I entered the apprenticeship program for Local 26 IBEW and went on from there.
I really didn’t have any electrical-related background before starting in the field. I learned on the job and in the apprenticeship training classes.
What I liked best about the work when I started in the field was being able to wire something up and actually see it work. Knowing how to do the work brought me a great deal of self-satisfaction and confidence. A perfect example is the USA Today job I worked on.
A journeyman and I wired the big blue USA Today sign on the side of the building which I see every time I come out of Washington, DC across the Key Bridge. Seeing that sign lit up every time still gives me a great feeling each time I see it.
Now, as president of a company I started and having 275 electricians working for me, I enjoy seeing the projects completed that we build and seeing the apprentices who work for me graduate; we have two salutatorians with us from the last two years of the apprenticeship program.
I can’t say there is much I don’t like about the electrical field. The most frustrating part is dealing with general contractors who are unqualified to build and cost us time and effort in doing our jobs.
There are not many occupations where you can improve your life as completely as the electrical trade. You get on-the-job training, paid as you learn, good wages also. You get free classroom training about the trade, as a union electrician, anyway – I don’t know about non-union programs.
You get fantastic benefits once you are working for six months that include a fully funded annuity plan, pension plan, health insurance plan, etc. and scheduled wage increases every six months as long as you are working regular hours.
There are numerous opportunities for overtime if you want to make more money. You will be able to save on projects around your house and not only electrical, as you will pick up other trades skills while on different jobs. In addition, there are side job opportunities to make a little extra cash or just to help out friends and family. I also have met and am friends with some of the best quality people I have ever met because of my affiliation with the electrical trade.
Regardless of what I do in the future, I will always have my electrical field knowledge to fall back on to support myself should the need arise – and I didn’t have to pay off big student loans!
Everyone these days wants more instant gratification, and the electrical trade allows that along with being paid while you learn. We have a definite labor shortage in the Washington area for electricians right now, so I hope some people reading this will get interested in the opportunities available in the electrical field and
settle in this area.”
I Am the General Manager for a Large Electrical Contractor “My employer is a 50-year-old family-owned business. It has evolved into a full-service electrical and communications firm that takes a comprehensive approach to meeting all of our clients’ needs.
We can do everything from installing exterior lighting to helping a client select new computer hardware. In our electrical services, we concentrate on commercial clients, not residential. We do new construction, as well as repairing or replacing old wiring. We have experience working on office projects and warehouses, all the way up to skyscrapers.
Whether it’s a planned installation or emergency repair, our firm can help. We have established a written hazard communication program and it has always been our policy to ensure that the most stringent provision of the statutes of OSHA, our State Department of Labor, and the various industries we serve, are followed by our employees. We have to continually monitor and enforce safety rules and regulations.
We employ as many as 200 electricians at any given time. We enjoy excellent labor relations with the IBEW union in our four-county geographical area of operation. Still, what I dislike most about this job is dealing with unions when there is any kind of unrest or discord.
In addition to dealing with unions, as GM, I secure business, generally promote the company, manage the sales force, oversee all employees, lead the distribution process, and take responsibility for all fiscal matters. I enjoy the high-paced environment and the contact with people.
I entered the electrical contracting field years ago when I discovered how lucrative it could be. I took numerous courses in the field from industry-sponsored and vendor firms. If you want to get into the union apprenticeship program, you will need good academic scores. They test hundreds, but only take a few.
Most of those accepted have a “B” average or better in high school. At my own firm, we hire top-notch professionals who can do the job in record time. Our service electricians average 20 years of field experience and seven years with this particular contractor.”
How to Become an Electricians?
Like other skilled building trades, Electrical work requires certain physical characteristics. You should enjoy being physically active, and you mustn’t mind working outside, doing “grunt” work and getting dirty (especially at first), or traveling. Your health should be good, as well as your color vision (wiring is color-coded to prevent errors and injuries).
At least average physical strength is required, as are agility, mechanical skills, stamina, and manual dexterity. But it would be a mistake to conclude that electricians work only with their hands. Because of the growing sophistication of many forms of electrical work, the academic, intellectual, and personal standards that electricians must meet are higher than ever, and higher than you may expect.
Electricians must have an aptitude for mathematics and sciences, must have a high level of reading comprehension and understand abstract concepts, and must be able to interpret the relationship between one-dimensional blueprints and three-dimensional buildings.
Good judgment is essential. Electricians must be able to make sound decisions at a moment’s notice. The ability to determine when it is safe to proceed, and when it is not, is critical. Interpersonal and communications skills are also important, as electricians and electrical contractors work with a variety of different people: the experienced electricians who will guide you when you are an apprentice, other skilled tradespeople, clients, and eventually, your own employees and the young apprentices you choose to mentor.
You’ll also have to be patient with colleagues who disagree with your analysis of a problem or with customers who can’t tell you what exactly is “broken” about the equipment they’ve called you in to repair.
With the increased complexity and breadth of this work, today’s electrical contractors must be qualified to combine many of the skills of design, civil, and architectural engineers to work on a major electrification project. If you end up operating your own business, you will have additional responsibilities, such as management and marketing.
Attractive Features in Electrician Career
Electrical work is appealing in many respects. Thanks to the hard work of the IBEW union, the pay is good, and the benefits are great including health, life, and disability insurance, retirement plans, and regular salary increases, ensuring security for you and your family during your working years and a comfortable lifestyle thereafter. Retirement may seem, and be, very far away right now, but why not pursue a career that will provide for you after you quit working?
Moreover, job security for employed electricians is fairly solid, and the outlook for this career is very promising. Apprenticeship programs sponsored by the electrical workers’ union and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) both provide compensation while you are learning and guarantee promotions to apprentices who cultivate more advanced skills and enhance their knowledge base.
The variety involved in this work is another attractive feature. Professional electricians and electrical contractors will tell you that every day on the job is different. Technological advances ensure that this work will continue to be stimulating and challenging far into the future.
People in this field report a high level of job satisfaction. There are a number of rewards to electrical work and contracting. Helping people and happy clients are a couple of sources of fulfillment. You often get to see prompt results of your work.
Did you ever replace a light bulb and then experience the satisfaction of pulling the switch and having the room suddenly illuminated? The gratification for professional electricians isn’t exactly “instant,” but this is a field in which you can definitely see how the work you have done makes something significant happen. The sense of accomplishment felt by professionals in the electrical field is considerable.
Electrical contractors enjoy somewhat more delayed gratification, but they do get to participate fully as a project evolves from concept to reality. And those who guide apprentices or become employers enjoy seeing their subordinates succeed and grow.
Unattractive Features in Electrician Career
Electricians often report that the single feature they like least about their work is the fact that it can be physically demanding and even hazardous such as when they are working on rooftops, ladders, and scaffolding; standing or crouching for long periods; working in uncomfortable positions; and exposing themselves to such dangers as cuts, electrical shock, and falling from high places.
It should be noted, on the other hand, that electricians suffer serious injuries due to electricity only half as often as the general population does. Most incidents occur when workers are exhausted, rushed, or have been given incomplete or incorrect information.
Also unpleasant, if not life-threatening, is working outside in hot, wet, and cold weather; toiling under dirty and dusty conditions; and traveling as much as 100 miles to a job site.
In addition, maintenance electricians may have to work nights, weekends, holidays, and on an as-needed, emergency basis. Electrical contractors are usually largely responsible for the success or failure of their firms, and this can be very frustrating and stressful.
Bidding a job, staying within the project’s allotted budget, and dealing successfully with other professionals in the building trades (including other contractors) takes practice. There may be unpleasant administrative tasks such as handling complaints, dealing with insurance and liability issues, firing an employee, and bill paying and collecting.
Educational Requirements For The Electrician
The majority of careerists acquire their skills in the electrical trade by completing a four- or five-year apprenticeship program. It’s a rigorous program, but a worthwhile one. Working with union employers, you will enjoy a salary as well as benefits, including healthcare and a retirement plan.
This is a terrific learn-while-you-earn opportunity, which culminates in your status as a journeyman electrician. Not only will you gain an extensive knowledge of all facets of the electrical trade, but graduating from a formal apprenticeship program indicates that you have demonstrated mastery in this craft, and will greatly improve your chances of landing your job of choice. Indeed, training is so comprehensive that graduates are qualified to do both maintenance and construction work.
Large apprenticeship programs are usually run by the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC). The NJATC, in turn, is co-sponsored by the IBEW and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). So, when you find an apprenticeship program in your area – there are over 300 around the country – it will likely be a project of the committee operating out of a local NJATC office and made up of local IBEW unions and local chapters of the NECA.
Industry-sponsored programs have adopted uniform standards that are used to choose and educate thousands of eligible men and women as many as 30,000 apprentices are in training at any given time. Typically, a program will offer 144 hours or more of classroom instruction every year, along with 8,000 hours of hands-on training on the job over the four- to five-year period.
Programs offer apprenticeships and training leading to qualification as residential wireman, journeyman lineman, journeyman tree trimmer, journeyman inside wireman, and advanced journeyman. While the requirements for admission into an apprenticeship program may be slightly different from one part of the country to another, generally speaking, applicants must be at least 18 years old and have completed a high school education.
Program sponsors are selective and will look well beyond these basic requirements. They are looking for candidates who have demonstrated through their academic course work and their extracurricular activities that they are interested in, qualified for, and have begun preparing for a successful career in electrical work. If you are chosen, you will be asked to sign an agreement with the IBEW-NECA sponsor indicating that you are committed to participating in both the classroom and the on-the-job training provided by the program.
In the classroom, apprentices learn about such basics as cable splicing, blueprint reading, software use, and instrumentation. They study electrical theory, electronics, and mathematics. Safety practices, first aid and CPR, and an understanding of National Electrical Code requirements are part of the curriculum, as well.
Students also receive specialized training in telecommunications wiring, LUCENT product installation, security systems and fire alarms, programmable logic controls, and welding. In some cases, hands-on training in the classroom is appropriate in conjunction with instruction.
On-the-job training takes place under the supervision of a qualified journeyman, and apprentices are expected to arrive at work on time, alert, and pumped full of good attitude. At first, apprentices may perform simple job tasks such as drilling holes and situating anchors. The work becomes increasingly complex and skilled, as the ultimate aim of these programs is to elevate men and women to craftsmanship status.
Later jobs may include measuring, preparing, and installing conduit; connecting and testing wiring and switches; and drafting plans for complete electrical systems. When you complete your apprenticeship, you will receive a diploma signifying your preparedness to start your career as an NJATC-trained electrical worker.
And once you’re a journeyman electrician, you are also ready to teach qualified and deserving apprentices yourself! In addition to NJATC, which was established in 1941, there is another, more recently founded, industry-sponsored option for specialized training and education. The National Advisory Coalition for Telecommunications Education and Learning was formed in 1997 to train network technicians in the telecommunications industry. It is appropriate for both beginners and current telecommunications workers who want the most up-to-date training.
The Coalition has developed a standardized curriculum that results in the Associate of Science Degree in Applied Information Technology, Telecommunications Track. The instructional format is truly state-of-the-art, as the degree is taught entirely over the Internet. The instructor-led curriculum uses a variety of media, including the World Wide Web, e-mail, electronic discussions, videotapes, and textbooks. Although several corporate representatives sit on the NACTEL board, so do members of the Communications Workers of America and the IBEW.
The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning serves as NACTEL’s program administrator and
project manager. If, for whatever reason, you choose not to enroll in NACTEL or a standard apprenticeship program, there are still other ways, formal and informal, that you can learn this trade. Many have learned the trade entirely on the job by working as assistants to experienced electricians.
Ideally, working by the side of a journeyman, you will learn the practical skills such as installing conduit, connecting wires, and testing circuits, as well as safety practices and electrical codes and regulations. You may choose to augment this type of learning with education through a trade school or correspondence courses.
A trade school typically offers to teach the basics of the electrician’s trade in a year or two and may offer such premiums as a professional-quality tool kit upon graduation. Course work is likely to be nearly as broad as that offered by the formal apprenticeship program, but less in-depth, less technical, and less sophisticated. A sample curriculum for a 12-month program might include:
- Working Safely with Electricity
- Electricians Tools
- Conduit and Conductors
- Electrical Equipment
- Wiring Electrical Components
- Wiring Electrical Circuits
- Interior and Exterior Lighting Control
- Electrical Schematic Diagrams
- Electrical Measurements
- National Electric Code
- DC Generators and Motors
- AC Motors, Generators, and Rectifiers
- Controls for Air Conditioning
- Electric Heating
- Storage Batteries
- Underground Power Systems
- Electrical Blueprint Reading
Some beginners are lucky enough to be hired by electrical contracting firms that are willing to provide on-the-job training. Local chapters of the Associated Builders and Contractors and the Independent Electrical Contractors may also be a source of education and training.
Most parts of the United States have licensing laws that require electricians to pass an exam that measures their knowledge of electrical theory and national and local codes. When the time comes, you will find that there are plenty of publishers and educational institutions that will provide books, videos, and seminars to help you prepare.
You can also expect to take continuing-education courses periodically, offered by your employer or union, so you can keep current in changes in materials, methods, technology, and the National Electrical Code.
The Outlook For This Electrician Career
The US electrical contracting industry as well as the number of electricians who work in it – has grown by around 10% annually for the past decade or so. Electrical contracting is now a $70 billion business compared to under $40 billion in the early 1990s, and has been growing faster than other types of construction contracting.
Several key factors have combined to make this a high-voltage career. First, ongoing advances in technology are creating new specialties. Electricians will be needed to install automated manufacturing systems and industrial robots in factories; to wire buildings to accommodate computers; and to set up digital controls, “smart” phones, and complex voice/ data/video, security, and fire alarm systems.
There is also the “design-and-build” trend, which has contractors involved in the design process of electrical systems. Those who practice design-and-build find that construction takes place more rapidly, and there is a better relationship between the contractor and the owner of the building. The broader the services a contractor can offer, the more valuable the contracting firm is to clients and the more employees the firm needs to perform all the promised functions.
The trend toward downsizing also has actually charged up the electrical contracting business. With smaller on-site maintenance staffs, companies contract out more work to electricians who can perform upkeep and troubleshooting tasks on an as-needed basis. And with the rapid rate at which everything high-tech seems to become obsolete, maintenance electricians will be needed to refurbish and replace outmoded systems.
Other factors expected to contribute to the demand for electricians include a growing population (necessitating both new and renovated structures for living and working) and a smaller pool of young people entering apprenticeships in electrical work.
In the event of a recession, opportunities for electrical workers employed in manufacturing and construction industries, which are sensitive to economic fluctuation, may be curtailed somewhat. Opportunities may also vary by region and season, although the growing applications of electrical workers’ skills have tended to smooth over such peaks and valleys.
There is no reason that women can’t make great electricians and contractors – if you can get past the industry’s “lineman” and “journeyman” terminology. Some very successful female electricians and contractors believe that women bring their own special talents to the job, including excellent organizational, planning, public relations, problem-solving, and social skills. More and more women are entering the field, and women will find an increasingly inviting workplace environment.
Overall, demand for electricians is outpacing the supply of skilled workers, which is very good news for people who will be entering this profession in the next several years. Even though the pace of growth will slow down, the job outlook is expected to remain good for the foreseeable future.
How Much Do Electricians Earn?
Apprentices in jobs sponsored by unions usually receive 30% to 50% of the rate earned by experienced electricians. As they gain experience and skill, apprentices receive regular pay increases throughout the program. Pay structures are fairly rigid. Non-union employers can pay whatever they want – and may pay as little as they can get away with.
After five years’ apprenticeship, journeyman electricians command between around $30 and $50 per hour. Not all electricians are employed full time, however. So annual salaries for experienced electricians generally range from around $30,000 to about $75,000. Union members usually earn more than non-union electricians.
In addition to a salary, full-time electricians, especially those represented by a union, typically receive benefits such as health and disability insurance and paid vacations and sick days. Time off can be taken at the discretion of the employee, but it’s considered bad form to take a vacation before a job is finished.
The earnings of electrical contractors who run their own businesses are unpredictable. These professionals enjoy unlimited earning potential but also face the financial risks of all business owners. Some electrical contracting firms are built into national or international conglomerates, while others remain small and local. It is not unreasonable to expect to net at least $200,000 a year (that is, earnings after expenses) if you own a medium-sized electrical contracting business in a medium-sized city.
Getting Started The Career as an Electrician
The best way to get started on your career as an electrician or electrical contractor is to make sure you like this work, make sure you’re good at it, and take steps that will show the admissions board that you are preparing yourself for a successful future in this stimulating and fulfilling field.
To find out what the specific requirements are for the apprenticeship program in your area, contact your local chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association or National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee.
If you do not participate in a formal, industry-sponsored apprenticeship program, you can still learn what you need to know through a number of venues, including trade schools, correspondence schools, the US military, and informal on-the-job training. It might take longer, and you may not be paid while you learn, but eventually you will be qualified to enter this attractive field.
If you go the on-the-job-training route, see how the training measures up with that offered in an apprenticeship. Is any classroom training included? Will you be rotated to different supervisors, allowing you to gain experience in a variety of settings? How do wages and benefits compare with those earned by union-sponsored apprentices?
When you are interviewed for your first job, assure your prospective employer that you do not mind getting dirty and working hard; describe your hobbies and personal interests that indicate your interest in and aptitude for this work; and be prepared to answer hypothetical questions (“If one person on your crew isn’t pulling his weight, what would you do?”) and to take an aptitude test to measure your math skills and manual dexterity.
Sparked by numerous factors in their favor, the electrical professions are extremely attractive. Pay is good, the work is challenging and rewarding, and opportunities abound. If you like to work with your hands, help people, and see tangible results of your efforts, this field is a great choice. Good luck!
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