Do you prefer working with your hands to writing essays?
Are you considering trade school as an alternative to more academic studies?
In this series of articles, we’re doing a deep dive into various trades to help you explore a wide range of jobs and find something that feels right for you. Today’s post focuses on what it takes to become an electrician. In this article, we’ll cover education, working conditions, salary, job outlook, and overall job satisfaction.
What Do Electricians Do?
Electricians install and maintain electrical systems. For many electricians, this might include everyday household tasks like installing a new hookup for a dryer or fixing faulty lighting. Other electricians maintain control and communications systems in businesses such as factories.
In the course of their work, electricians will often need to read blueprints and other technical diagrams. They also need to know how to follow various building regulations based on the National Electrical Code. Some seasoned electricians work with engineers and architects in order to design electrical systems for new buildings.
Electricians use a variety of tools and devices – such as voltmeters, ammeters, thermal scanners, and cable testers – to diagnose and repair electrical problems. They inspect electrical components, such as transformers and circuit breakers, to ensure that everything is safe and functioning properly. They might specialize in wiring new buildings or in repairing or replacing old wiring that’s no longer up to code.
Electricians don’t install or maintain the power lines that run along streets, bringing electricity to houses and other buildings. That task belongs to line installers and repairers, who make even more money on average than electricians do. It’s a more hazardous job since they work with high-voltage electricity at great heights. This article focuses on electricians, but you can follow the link above to learn more about line installers and repairers.
A Day in the Life
Because electricians work on site, the job may require a significant amount of driving to and from construction sites, homes, and businesses. They often need to work in cramped spaces. They wear protective clothing and safety glasses to reduce the risk of electrical shocks, burns, and other injuries. Long days are common for electricians, and they often work evenings and/or weekends.
Your daily life at work is heavily dependent upon your chosen specialization. Residential electricians often spend their days installing electrical fittings, inspecting and repairing circuit breakers, and connecting and terminating wires.
Commercial electricians might focus on repairing the wiring for air conditioning and refrigeration systems, inspecting wiring to ensure that it’s safe and up to code, or maintaining electrical systems within large buildings. There are also industrial electricians who work with high-voltage and/or direct-current power systems in power plants and other industrial settings.
How Do I Become an Electrician?
If you want to become an electrician, you can start with technical school or go straight into an apprenticeship. Either option has the potential to teach you the basics of electrical circuitry, tools, and safety practices. You’ll need your high school diploma or GED first, and you’ll probably need a valid driver’s license as well.
To become an electrician, you’ll need to study mathematics, electrical theory, blueprint reading, electrical code requirements, first-aid, and safety practices. Some students and apprentices might also pursue specialized training to learn about soldering, fire alarm systems, communications, or elevators and escalators. Before you can work independently, you’ll need thousands of hours of on-the-job training.
Before becoming a journeyman electrician who’s allowed to work without supervision, electricians have to work a certain number of years or hours and then pass a test* in order to become licensed. These exams will test your knowledge of the National Electrical Code as well as state and local electrical codes, all of which are in place to ensure safe wiring and sound workplace practices.
Some electricians pursue additional certifications that allow them to work with lighting, electrical generating, or solar photovoltaic systems.
Electricians must have full-color vision because they need to be able to identify electrical wires by color. Other important qualities include physical strength and stamina for long work days, adequate troubleshooting and critical thinking skills to diagnose and repair a wide variety of problems, and customer service skills. Attention to detail and good hand-eye coordination are also important.
There’s a fair amount of math involved as well, but not necessarily high-level math. You will need to be able to take measurements, convert between different units of measurement, calculate angles, understand voltage and current, and calculate the amount of power supplied by various sources.
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If you don’t already know an electrician who’s willing to take you on, it may be difficult to land an apprenticeship without going to trade school first. If there are several people applying to the same opening, master electricians are more likely to choose an apprentice who already knows the basics, and trade schools will provide you with that springboard.
There are certificate and diploma programs available that teach a range of skills and concepts that are directly applicable to becoming an electrician. These programs can often be completed in under a year, and they’re a good way of launching yourself into the field.
In your coursework, you’re likely to study the following:
- Electrical theories
- Grounding and wiring
- Tools of the electrical trade
- Power distribution
- Low- and high-voltage systems
- Conduit and wiring protection
- Electrical panels
- Load calculations
- Blueprint reading
- Local, national, and state regulations
- Building codes
- Safety practices
- Inspection and troubleshooting of electrical systems
There are also associate degree programs available for those who are interested in taking general education classes alongside more career-focused courses. The latter is a good choice for people who are looking to keep their options open. If you don’t know whether you would rather become an electrician or go for a full four-year degree and pursue electrical engineering, an associate’s degree might be a good place to start.
Here are some good trade schools for electricians:
- Emily Griffith Technical College in Denver, Colorado
- Pamlico Community College in Grantsboro, North Carolina
- Washburn Institute of Technology in Topeka, Kansas
- Altierus Career College in Tampa, Florida
- Salina Area Technical College in Salina, Kansas
- Central Louisiana Technical Community College in Alexandria, Louisiana
- Kaplan Career Institute in five locations
- TESST College of Technology in Baltimore, Maryland
- Coyne College in Coyne, New York
- Ecotech Institute in Denver, Colorado
- InterCoast in several California locations
Some trade schools, such as Emily Griffith Technical College, offer four-year apprenticeships as part of their program. Others, like Pamlico Community College, offer an associate’s degree. Echotech in Denver focuses on green-tech practices.
You can skip trade school if you find an electrician who’s willing to take you on as an apprentice without it, but you will require a high school diploma or GED. Some states may require you to register as an electrical apprentice or trainee when you begin work as an apprentice. You may need to work for four or five years as a paid apprentice before you’re eligible to become a journeyman electrician.
If you don’t already know an electrician who’s willing to take you on as an apprentice, you may be able to find a union apprenticeship through the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) or the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). There are also non-union apprenticeships available through Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC) and Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc (ABC). Trade schools often help with apprenticeships as well.
Once you’ve apprenticed for the requisite amount of time, you’ll be eligible to apply for your state electrician license. Before you can take the exam, you’ll need to provide proof that you have completed the required number of classroom education and on-the-job training hours.
Exams vary but generally include these topics:
- Electrical system installation
- Grounding, bonding, and surge protection
- Reading electrical plans and blueprints
- Feeder circuits
- Wiring materials and methods
- Raceways and boxes
- Branch conductors and circuits
- Equipment and devices for general and specialized use
- Motors and generators
- Communication systems
- Photovoltaics and solar power
- Low-voltage electrical systems
- Local safety standards
- National Electrical Code
You also have the option of working towards becoming a master electrician. If you want to run your own team, you’ll need to become a master electrician. Local laws dictate how many years of experience as an electrician are required – usually four to eight – before you can become a master electrician. You may also need to provide letters of reference.
In some states, such as California and Arizona, you’ll need a contractor’s license to work independently. The requisite exams to become a contractor may include these topics:
- Making bids and estimates
- Business licensing, structure, and practices
- Managing and planning projects
- OSHA and safety regulations
- Managing startup companies
- Lien and tax laws
- Contract requirements and execution
- Bonding and insurance
- Public works projects
- Dispute resolution
Independent electrical contractors can work independently and hire other electricians. In some places, only contractors are permitted to accept jobs over a certain dollar amount. Contractors are often required to pay for insurance for themselves and their employees.
So, how long does it take to become an electrician?
Trade school can take anywhere from eight months to two years. Apprenticeships often last four to six years, depending upon where you live and work. Each state has its own regulations on the number of hours or years of work experience required before an electrician can work without supervision. Four years is the most common amount of time required, and this may or may not include classroom hours. Some states allow a certain amount of classroom time to be substituted for on-the-job experience, while others do not.
On average, it takes about five years to become an electrician.
To become a master electrician or independent electrical contractor may take over a decade. In some states, however, it’s possible to achieve this in as little as four years.
In Arizona, for example, four years of trade experience within the last ten years and a written exam will qualify you to acquire an electrical contractor license. In California, a master electrician license requires eight thousand hours (four years of full-time work) of experience working for an electrical contractor installing, constructing, or maintaining electrical systems.
In Connecticut, the process takes at least six years. Four years are required to become a journeyman electrician, and an additional two years are required as a journeyman before an electrician can qualify for their contractor license.
In Hawaii, at least ten thousand hours (five years) of experience are required to become a journeyman, and an additional four years at the journeyman level are required before it’s possible to become a master electrician with the authority to supervise others. At minimum, that’s a total of nine years to become a master electrician.
There are currently over seven hundred thousand electricians in the United States, and the job outlook is good. Employment is expected to increase by seven percent over the next decade, which is higher than the anticipated national average of five percent.
How Much Do Electricians Make?
In May 2021, the median annual wage for all workers was 45,760 dollars per year. The median pay for electricians that year was significantly higher, over sixty thousand dollars per year or $28.87 per hour.
Hourly wages in some places are much higher, upwards of one hundred dollars per hour in expensive areas like coastal California. Yearly averages in Oregon, New York, and Illinois are all higher than eighty thousand dollars. The highest ten percent of electricians make over one hundred thousand dollars per year.
Who Hires Electricians?
Only about seven percent of electricians are self-employed. Two-thirds of working electricians are employed by electrical contractors and other wiring installation contractors. A small percentage are employed by large buildings such as factories, and an even smaller percentage are employed by the United States government.
Overview: How to Become an Electrician
Electrical work is a steady career with higher-than-average earnings and plenty of room for career growth. Here are some of the pros and cons of becoming an electrician.
- Above average salary
- Good job security
- Self-employment potential
- Long hours
- Potential hazards
The overall job satisfaction for electricians is about average. It takes a considerable amount of time to become established and can be a mentally and physically demanding job at times. Some eventually become bored, but constantly changing work environments help to keep things interesting. Once you’re a fully fledged electrician, you have the potential to decide your own schedule and work as few or as many hours as you’d like.
If you’re interested in this line of work, consider contacting local electricians to ask about the possibility of shadowing them to learn more about their work. If you’re interested in learning more about other trades, stay tuned for upcoming articles on training to become a millwright, civil engineering technician, or heavy equipment mechanic.
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