Electrician Career Information
E lectricians are a vital part of the skilled trades industry. When you think about all of the things in today's world that rely on electricity, it isn't hard to understand how important their job is. Without electricians, homes wouldn't have heat and light, hospitals wouldn't have the use of vital, lifesaving equipment, and the countless gadgets and electronics that have come to be a necessary part of day-to-day life for most people (both personally and professionally) couldn't even exist. And this is just a small sampling of what electricity—and therefore electricians—make possible.
If these facts have inspired you to learn how to become an electrician, keep reading to gain insight on everything from educational options to certification requirements to average salaries.
What Does an Electrician Do?
One of the first questions you are probably wondering is, "What does an electrician do?" The short answer is that, as skilled technical professionals, they are responsible for enabling electricity within everything from houses and commercial buildings to ships and airplanes.
The long answer isn't quite that simple. Electricians can specialize in a variety of areas, which means they can hold many different job descriptions. That being said, the standard responsibilities of a general electrician usually involve:
- Planning the layout, design, and installation of electrical systems with consideration to safety and code compliance
- Designing and installing new electrical components (wiring, fuses, etc.)
- Repairing and maintaining existing electrical infrastructures
- Inspecting existing electrical systems, components, and equipment to safeguard against hazards and ensure code compliance
- Safely handling high-voltage wiring
- Connecting wires to various components within electrical systems (transformers, circuit breakers, etc.)
- Working with power and hand tools to repair or replace equipment, wiring, and fixtures
- Assembling, installing, and testing electrical equipment, fixtures, and appliances
- Using ohmmeters, oscilloscopes, and voltmeters to test electrical systems
What are the Educational Requirements for an Electrician?
A formal education (through a post-secondary program and/or an apprenticeship) is required to become an electrician. However, there are a few different educational options available. One option is to start with a post-secondary education and follow it up with an apprenticeship.
What Will I Learn in an Electrician Program?
The majority of electrician programs tend to be offered at colleges and trade schools. Depending on the school you choose, there may be a few different education levels to choose from, including certificates, diplomas, and degrees. Certificate and diploma programs tend to be short-term and career-focused, meaning that the curriculum is comprised solely of theoretical knowledge and hands-on skills related directly to the electrician profession. Degree programs can offer the same type of training but may also include general education courses. Therefore, degree programs tend to take longer to complete. Most certificate and diploma programs can be completed in under a year, but degree programs can take two years or more.
Regardless of your school and program choice, electrician training generally includes:
- Electrical and electronic theories
- Residential, commercial, and industrial electrical concepts
- Local, national, and state regulations
- Building codes
- Safety practices
- Low- and high-voltage electronic systems
- Design, repair, calibration, and modification of electrical components, equipment, and machinery
- Inspection and troubleshooting of electrical systems
- Power distribution
- Commercial wiring
- Increasing electrical capacity
Another extensive and extremely important area of your training will be related to the National Electrical Code, which is a set of guidelines created and managed by the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA). Not only is the National Electrical Code an essential section of licensing examinations, but it will also be an integral part of your working life because all electrical work (whether it's upgrades to existing systems or new installations) is required by law to be inspected and approved by city, municipality, or state electrical inspectors. One of the main things these inspectors need to determine is if the electrical work adheres to the National Electrical Code.
Here are some other important facts about the National Electrical Code:
- It is periodically updated by the NFPA, and new editions are released regularly.
- It includes guidelines on electrical work for virtually all settings, including (but not limited to) houses, buildings, structures, mobile homes, recreational vehicles, floating buildings, yards, parking lots, industrial substations, office buildings, warehouses, garages, machine shops, and more.
What is an Electrician Apprenticeship?
While some people decide to skip a formal education and go straight into an apprenticeship, it can be helpful to complete a post-secondary program first since, in some cases, it may fulfill the classroom requirements of an apprentice ship—allowing you to focus on the hands-on components and begin at a more advanced level.
An apprenticeship basically involves working under the supervision of a licensed master electrician for three to five years. Most apprentices are considered to be employees in training and are, therefore, compensated for their work—though usually at a much lower salary than a licensed electrician.
Apprenticeships can be run by state organizations or sponsored by joint training committees, which usually include local union chapters. One of the most common apprenticeship programs is administered through the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC), which is comprised of a partnership between the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the National Electrical Contractors Association.
Regardless of the apprenticeship program you choose, it will generally consist of a combination of on-the-job experience and theoretical classroom training totaling a minimum of 144 classroom instruction hours and 2,000 hands-on hours per year. However, if you have previously completed a post-secondary electrician program, some or all of the classroom requirements may be waived.
In addition, apprenticeships can feature various specializations or areas of focus. For example, the NJATC offers four different electrician apprenticeships:
- Outside Linemen—focuses on outdoor work involving distribution and transmission lines used to move power from plants to factories as well as into buildings
- Inside Wiremen—focuses on installing power, lighting, controls, and more within commercial and industrial settings
- VDV Installer Technicians—focuses on installing circuits and equipment for phones, security systems, computer networks, and other low-voltage systems
- Residential Wiremen—focuses on installing electrical systems within residential settings, including single- and multi-family houses and dwellings
What is the Electrician Training Cost?
Another important question to ask when you are considering becoming an electrician is "What is the electrician training cost?"
If you choose to pursue a post-secondary education, the cost of electrician programs varies depending on the type of institution and level of education you choose. The total for tuition, fees, and equipment can be anywhere from a few thousand per year for an online certificate program to more than $20,000 per year for an on-campus degree program.
While you do typically receive a salary during your time as an apprentice, there is also a fee attached to apprenticeship programs. These fees also vary but tend to be between $400 and $1,000 per year.
What Does "Certified Electrician" Mean?
After you have successfully completed an apprenticeship, there is one more step you must take before you can legally work as an electrician, and that is becoming certified. You may be wondering, "What does 'certified electrician' mean?" The answer is that, in order to be a fully licensed electrician, you must first take a certification examination. The requirements and prerequisites for these exams can vary by state, and even by municipality, so it's best to check with a local organization—such as the state licensing department or state fire marshal division—to determine the exact requirements and fees for your area.
In most cases, a license will only allow you to work within the specific municipality or state in which you took the examination. However, some interstate reciprocity agreements do exist.
Depending on the type of apprenticeship training you choose, once you have successfully passed the examination, you will officially become either a journeyman electrician or a residential electrician. As a journeyman, you are legally allowed to perform all types of electrical work (although certain states do restrict journeymen from designing electrical systems). Residential electricians are only licensed to work on residential projects, and, in some states, may be restricted to working on residential buildings that are four stories or less in height.
How Long Does It Take to Be a Licensed Electrician?
Now that you have a better idea of the necessary requirements to become a licensed electrician, you are probably wondering, "How long does it take to be a licensed electrician?" While there is no concrete answer, it is safe to say that it will take approximately five to seven years depending on what type of post-secondary education and/or apprenticeship you choose and the specific educational and licensing requirements within your area.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Master Electrician?
After becoming a licensed journeyman electrician, if you choose to advance your current status and pursue the master electrician designation, you will more than likely need to meet additional requirements before you are eligible to take a master electrician examination within your state or municipality. There is no single answer to the question "How long does it take to become a master electrician?" since, once again, the requirements tend to differ by state. Most states do require that you have a minimum of seven years of experience as a licensed electrician before you can take the certification exam and upgrade to master status. However, some states will accept a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering (or a related field) in lieu of the seven years of experience.
Once you have successfully passed the master electrician examination, you will be legally allowed to perform more advanced work, including the planning and design of electrical systems. You can also take on supervisory or management roles or become a private electrical contractor by starting up your own business.
What Personal Qualities Help to Ensure Success as an Electrician?
Aside from any educational or legal requirements, there are some personal qualities and abilities that can help ensure success as an electrician. Some of those attributes are:
- Good manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination
- Physical fitness
- An excellent sense of balance
- Color vision (necessary for safety reasons because electricians need to identify wires by color)
- Attention to detail
What are the Pros and Cons of an Electrician Career?
Like every career, there are both pros and cons to becoming an electrician. Here are some of the top things you should consider when weighing the decision to pursue a future in the electrical field.
- The work can be interesting and fulfilling (light and warmth are essential to daily living, and you can be the one to help ensure families have both).
- You can enjoy an active, hands-on career.
- You can have the opportunity to meet and work with a variety of people, especially if you choose the new-construction field.
- Since electricity is vital to virtually all aspects of today's society, it is an extremely stable career field.
- The work can be physically demanding.
- There is some danger. Extreme caution needs to be taken when working with electricity since mistakes can potentially lead to fire or electrocution.
- You may have to deal with extreme heights (for example, working on the outside of a high-rise building).
What are Some of the Jobs for Electricians?
When it comes to jobs for electricians, various options can exist depending on your area of interest, level of education, and certification. Some of the options, industries, and settings in which electricians can find employment include:
- Self-employment (as an electrical contractor)
- Construction companies
- Industrial factories
- Building contractors
- Local government organizations
- Electric power companies
- Manufacturing companies
When it comes to the job outlook for electricians, the prospects for electrician jobs have been described as "good" due to a projected employment increase of 12 percent between 2008 and 2018.* With the population growing, new houses, restaurants, schools, and other residential and commercial buildings will continue to increase in number, expanding the need for professional electricians who can handle the wiring and other electrical work required for these structures. Plus, older buildings will continue to require updates and improvements, including electrical-related work.
In addition, one of the more exciting areas of expected growth is related to new technologies. Factories are beginning to use robots and automated manufacturing systems, which need to be installed and maintained by electricians. The green energy trend is also favorable for electricians since their skills are necessary for the installation of many energy-saving technologies, including motion-sensing lights and solar panels.
It is also important to note that statistics show that around 32 percent of electricians are union members.* The most common union that electricians tend to join is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. However, other popular unions include:
- The United Steelworkers of America
- The International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine, and Furniture Workers
- The International Union, United Automobile, Aircraft and Agricultural Implement Workers of America
- The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers
What Do Electricians Get Paid?
You may also be wondering, "What do electricians get paid?" According to statistics from May 2008, on average, the median electrician wage is $22.32 per hour.* However, there are many factors that can influence an electrician salary, including the specific area of the industry in which they work. Here is the average electrician's salary (represented in hourly wages) for the industries that employ the most electricians:
- Electric power generation, transmission, and distribution—$28.15
- Local government—$25.66
- Nonresidential building construction—$22.21
- Building equipment contractors—$21.72
- Employment services—$18.32
When it comes to average annual salaries for electricians across all industries, it breaks down like this:
- The median average annual salary is $48,250.
- The average annual salary for the bottom 10 percent is $29,400.
- The average annual salary for the top 10 percent is $80,890.
It is also important to note that your wages will be lower during the apprenticeship portion of your career. Most employers pay electrician apprentices between 30 and 50 percent of the rate paid to fully trained and licensed electricians.* However, most apprentices do experience periodic raises during their training.
Where Will the High Demand Prospects Be For Electricians in 2012?
Like any other occupation, the demand for electrician jobs tends to fluctuate according to state. While these trends do tend to change, statistics from May 2010 can probably answer the question "Where will the high demand prospects be for electricians in 2012?"* Based on these recent statistics, here are the top five states with the highest concentration of electrician jobs:
- West Virginia
- North Dakota
If you are interested in pursuing a future as an electrician, now that you have a comprehensive understanding of the electrical field, a great first step is to start researching electrician schools and programs in your area. This online resource of electrician schools, organized by state, can allow you to learn more about available electrician programs and request information directly from schools.