Electrician Training and Career Info
Electricians 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 makes possible.
As skilled technical professionals, electricians are responsible for enabling electricity within everything from houses and commercial buildings to ships and airplanes. They can specialize in a variety of areas, which means they can take on many different responsibilities. That being said, the standard job description usually involves:
- 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
The Difference Between an Electrician and an Electrical Technician
These terms are often used interchangeably. However, some people in the trade prefer to make distinctions between them. In those cases, the term electrical technician is sometimes reserved for:
- Apprentices in the electrical trade who are under the supervision of journeyperson electricians
- Tradespeople who primarily work with low-voltage electrical systems
So electrical technicians are often entry-level tradespeople who are working toward their journeyperson status as electricians. Once they become fully licensed electricians, some of them eventually work on high-voltage systems.
Becoming an Electrician
The first step is a formal education.
A good option is to attend a vocational school and take a diploma or certificate program in electrical technology. Some schools may offer associate degree programs as well.
Most electricians also need to complete an apprenticeship. In lots of cases, the apprenticeship is started after completing a post-secondary education. Most apprenticeships will apply your educational experience and/or hours toward apprenticeship credits. Alternatively, some apprenticeships are held in partnership with a vocational school, allowing you to complete a formal education and an apprenticeship at the same time.
Once you have finished an apprenticeship, you will be given journeyman status and will be ready to work independently. However, most states will require that you take a licensing exam before working as an electrician.
What Training Covers
The majority of training 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, 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.
While it is possible to head straight into an apprenticeship program, a lot of people choose to take an electrician program from a vocational school first, or even at the same time. This is because a formal education can fulfill the classroom requirements of an apprenticeship, thereby allowing you to focus on the hands-on components and begin the apprenticeship 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 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
Cost of Training
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 range from a few thousand dollars per year to around $20,000 per year, depending on factors including the school, campus and education level you choose.
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.
Becoming a "Certified Electrician"
After you have successfully completed your training, there is one more step you must take before you can legally work as an electrician, and that is becoming certified. 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 training you choose, once you have successfully passed the examination, you will officially become either a journeyman or 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.
Becoming 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. 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 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.
Benefits of the Career
There are many positive aspects to working as an electrician. Some of the top benefits include:
- Performing interesting and fulfilling work (light and warmth are essential to daily living, and you can be the one to help ensure families have both).
- The chance to work with your hands
- The opportunity to meet and work with a variety of people, especially if you choose the new-construction field.
- Working in an extremely stable career field, since electricity is vital to virtually all aspects of today's society.
Jobs and Workplaces
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
According to statistics from 2012, on average, the median electrician pay is $49,840 annually.* That means electricians enjoy one of the highest paying jobs without a degree being required.
However, there are many factors that can influence electrician wages, 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:
- Local government—$28.68
- Utility System Construction—$26.85
- Building equipment contractors—$25.47
- Nonresidential building construction—$25.26
- Employment services—$21.01
When it comes to average annual salaries for electricians across all industries, it breaks down like this:
- The median average annual salary is $49,840.
- The average annual salary for the top 10 percent is $82,930.
In some cases, the average electrical technician salary is about the same as that of an electrician. However, in other cases, electrical technicians may be working as apprentices. And wages are often lower during an electrical apprenticeship. Most employers pay electrician apprentices between 30 and 50 percent of the rate paid to fully trained and licensed electricians.*
Outlook for Employment
When it comes to the job outlook, the prospects for jobs look good, due to a projected employment increase of 20 percent between 2012 and 2022.* 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 new 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.
Like any other occupation, the electrician outlook for employment tends to fluctuate according to state. While these trends do tend to change, statistics from 2014** show the top five states with the highest concentration of electrician jobs:
- North Dakota
- West Virginia
If you want to know, "How do I find colleges near me?", a great first step is to look through the listings above, which can allow you to learn more about available electrician training programs and request information directly from schools. Or you can take a more direct route to finding the right school by entering your zip code below!
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, web site last accessed on May 13, 2014.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2014-15 Edition, web site last accessed on June 5, 2015.
National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), web site last accessed on June 5, 2015.
National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), web site last accessed on May 13, 2014.
National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC), web site last accessed on May 13, 2014.