How To Become An Electrician
Welcome to the Electrician Careers Guide! We have all the info you need to start a successful and high-paying career as an electrician. We've got:
- A step-by-step guide on how to become an electrician;
- A complete list of schools and apprenticeships in your state; and
- Info on what it's actually like to be an electrician—salary, hours, work environments, and so on.
There's a lot of information on this page, so hang tight. By the time you reach the end, you'll have all the guidance necessary to embark on a profitable and enjoyable career.
Begin An Electrician Career In Three Steps
We promised a step-by-step guide on becoming an electrician, so let’s get to that first. Here’s the process you’ll follow to become a licensed electrician, boiled down to three steps. You will need to:
1. Learn about the different types of electrician careers (we discuss each type in a section below), and get a feel for the type of electrical work you'd like to do;
2. Find an electrical apprenticeship, either through a technical school, union, or employer, OR enroll in an electrician program at a trade school or community college, find a job after graduation, and then begin accruing the necessary work experience to...
3. Take your state or municipality’s licensing test and become a journeyman electrician.
Easy as one-two-three, right?
Let's take a look at what electricians actually do, figure out what kind of electrician you want to be, find out how much you can expect to make (some good news: it's a lot), and then go into more detail about each of the three steps.
We'll start at the beginning: electricians are vitally important to our way of life, and without them, our country would come to a grinding halt.
Every part of our lives has electrical components involved: our homes, office buildings, telecommunications networks, broadband systems, even our transportation grids all rely on electrical power. Electricians truly are America's backbone, and without them, we'd be in a bad way.
So what do electricians do, exactly? In broad terms, they:
- Read blueprints and diagrams to install, maintain, and sometimes repair wiring, transformers, circuit breakers , and other systems;
- Use testing devices to find and fix circuitry problems in homes, business centers, and industrial environments; and
- Learn the National Electric Code and follow state and local building regulations.
Electricians may be self-employed, or work on teams with engineers, architects, and other tradespeople. They may work indoors in homes or businesses, or outdoors at construction sites or factories. Because they often work in different locations as new work comes in, there is often a commute involved.
That's pretty basic information and you probably knew all that, but we had to start somewhere! Let's look at some terms that you'll actually need to know if you’re going to learn how to become an electrician.
Many of the terms we'll talk about on this page are not “common knowledge” terms, so let’s take a minute to define each of them.
What Is An Electrician Apprentice?
An electrician apprentice is someone who is learning how to be an electrician by performing basic tasks under the constant supervision of a licensed electrician. He or she will start small and complete very simple jobs, and eventually be given more responsibility and more complicated work. For many people, an apprenticeship is the first step towards becoming a fully-licensed electrician (aka, a "journeyman electrician").
Apprenticeships are an "earn as you learn"-type of situation, where you get paid for the work you do, and most (but not all) of the training you'll need is completed at various job sites. There is a certain amount of classroom training involved in an apprenticeship, but the great majority of apprentice's training is done on the job ("OTJ").
Apprentice programs are mostly organized and run by unions, but there are also state and national programs that organize apprenticeships, as well private companies and electrician training schools. Some people are able to find apprenticeships without much effort; others need to go to school and get some experience before attaining one (and we'll talk more about that later).
Apprenticeships take a while to complete—usually four or five years—but they cover absolutely everything you'll need to know to be an electrician.
What Is A Journeyman Electrician?
Once an apprentice has met all the requirements in an apprenticeship program—or gone to a trade school or community college and worked a state-specific number of hours—he or she is allowed to take a test and become licensed as a journeyman electrician. That license is a big accomplishment, and allows the worker to build a solid career.
A journey worker has been fully trained and is capable of all types of electrical design, installation, and maintenance. They may work on residential buildings, commercial or business offices, and in industrial or factory settings. They are allowed to work on their own, and can also begin training apprentices in apprentice programs. Every state has unique requirements about what it takes to become a journeyman electrician, and we discuss those requirements in each of our state posts.
Note: some people say "journeyman electrician", others say "electrician journeyman", and some others say "journey electrician." It all means that same thing.
For many electricians, a career as a journeyman electrician is the final goal. Others, however, decide to continue their education, learn more skills, and demand higher pay as master electricians.
What Is A Master Electrician?
A master electrician has years of experience as a journeyman electrician, and a deep understanding of the tasks and jobs required of an electrician. He or she has great job security, is sought after for high-paying jobs, and may be allowed to work as an electrical contractor.
Many states offer a master electrician license, and the requirements differ depending on where the electrician wants to be licensed. In most states, a master electrician must complete the four-year apprenticeship program (or get an electrical engineering degree), complete a certain number of years of work experience, and pass an exam to prove his or her knowledge.
What is an Electrical Contractor?
An electrical contractor is an electrician who is hired to design, install, and maintain electrician systems for all types of buildings (residential, commercial, industrial, etc). He or she may work alone or hire others and start a contractor company. The pay for electrical contractors is among highest of all electricians, because the training requirements and licensing tests require years of preparation.
It's worth noting that some electrical contractors have their own training programs, and can take on apprentices.
What Is A Helper?
The term "helper" means different things in various parts of the United States and Canada. Sometimes it refers to someone who has no experience or training, and is given very simple jobs, such as retrieving or holding tools, digging around buried wires, or cleaning up a job site at the end of the day; other times, it refers to someone who's actually had a little bit of training and can assist the electricians as they install wiring and create electrical systems.
Either way, helpers can be an integral part of a crew, and a job as an untrained helper can be a quick way to learn about the career and make some professional contacts. Some states (like Texas), have plenty of positions for electrician helpers.
Types of Electricians
Now that we've defined some terms, let's take a look at the different types of electricians. There are:
- Residential Wiremen. These electricians install the wiring in private homes and multi-family units. That means installing electrical systems and wiring in new houses being built, as well as maintaining the wiring in houses that have been around for a while. Residential wiremen need a thorough understanding of state and local electrical codes to make sure that a dwelling has all the energy it needs, and is compliant with local power regulations. Many electricians start their careers as residential wiremen, and then branch out into commercial and industrial jobs.
- Inside Wiremen. Where a residential wireman works on an individual's home, an inside wireman works on commercial buildings or industrial structures. Inside wiremen establish temporary power during the construction phase, plan power distribution within a project, install new wiring, and bring power to motors, HVAC (heating, venting, and air conditioning), and other systems. They also install lighting, fire alarms, and security systems, and maintain a structure's power system after it is built.
- Telecommunication Technicians. These workers install all of the low-voltage wiring inside a building, including computer cables, phone lines, and various types of multi-media circuitry. They also install security systems and access control systems. Another very, very important job! Telecommunication technicians often work alongside inside wiremen.
Outside Linemen. These are the tough guys who install and maintain the distribution lines that bring electricity from a power plant to the buildings and homes all over the area. They work on electrical power systems that are underground, above-ground, and on utility poles. The work is often done outdoors and in challenging conditions—you'll often see outside linemen climbing poles or in bucket trucks—and the pay is usually very high.
Here's a video that interviews an outside lineman on a job site:
(One note---in the video, the worker says "After four years, you get a journeymans' license"---that varies from state to state, and we'll discuss that below.)
Getting back to the different types of electricians---there is another way to understand the differences between the various kinds of electricians, and that's by seeing where they work: in either an industrial, commercial, or residential settings. Industrial electricians work in places that use extremely high voltage, such as manufacturing centers, factories, power plants, and other areas that are off-limits to the general public. Commercial electricians work in buildings that are open to the public, such as hospitals, offices, restaurants, and retail stores. Residential electricians work on peoples' homes and apartments and in new home construction.
How Much Do Electricians Make?
Are you ready for the good news? Electricians make an incredible salary:
As of May 2014, the average income for electricians in the United States $53,204 per year.
Not bad for a career that doesn't technically require a bachelor's degree from a four-year college!
Electrician Incomes By State
We've consulted with the Bureau of Labor Statistics—the federal agency to collects data regarding income and employment—and put together a state-by-state graph of the average electrician salary in each state, versus the average annual income of all other jobs in that state:
Believe it or not, in 47 out of the 50 states, the electrician salary was more than the average salary of all other professions! That's pretty fantastic.
Here are some other points of interest:
- There are ten states where the average income of electricians is more than $60,000 per year: Alaska, Illinois, New York, Oregon, New Jersey, Washington, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Montana, with electricians in Alaska earning $78,800 per year!
- Even in the state where electricians earned the least—South Carolina, with an annual electrician income of $41,820—was still above the average income for all professions in South Carolina, which was $39,570; and
- There were 19 states where the average electrician salary is $10,000 or more than the average salary of all other professions, and six states—Alaska, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Oregon, and West Virginia—where the average electrician salary is $15,000 higher than the average salary of all other professions.
Another point of interest: the average salary of an electrician is higher than many positions which require a costly four-year college degree. Nice!
You may be asking, "Do those salary figures include electrician apprentices?" The answer is no—electrician apprentices earn less than electrician journeymen, but their income increases as they progress further into their apprenticeship. We discuss that below, in our "Apprenticeships—Pros and Cons" section.
Job Outlook for Electricians
There are over half-a-million electricians currently working in the United States, and that figure is expected to rise over the next twenty years. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, electricians had 583,500 jobs as of May 2012, and employment among electricians is expected to grow 20% between 2012 and 2022. That is a faster rate of growth than all of the other occupations (the forecast for all other occupations is a 14% rate of growth).
That's the wonderful thing about electricity, as compared to other sources of energy: electricity itself is a renewable, clean source of energy. We may, over the coming decades, use less petroleum and other nonrenewable resources, but we will continue to use same amount—or more—of electricity. In fact, the growing usage of solar power and wind power will require installation and/or conversion—as well as maintenance—by electricians, and that may be one of the reasons why the field is expected to grow.
Requirements To Get Started
Most states have the same general requirements to become an electrician apprentice or enter a trade school:
- You must be 18 years old;
- You must have a high school degree or a high school equivalency degree;
- You must obtain a qualifying score on an aptitude test; and
- You must pass a drug test.
It is important to note that you do not need a college degree to become an electrician. Many people choose to go to an electrician training school, trade school, or community college in order to become journeymen electricians, but a college degree is not required to become an electrician.
Mathematics and Algebra
You don't need to be a mathematical genius to become an electrician and understand electricity, but a solid understanding of mathematics—and algebra, in particular—is required.
If you're out of high school and you need a refresher, algebra is the branch of mathematics that uses letters to stand for numbers. A very basic example would be
x + 3 = 5
and you have to find out the value of x (which, in this case, would be 2).
If you're uncertain about your mathematical capabilities, it may be a great idea to enroll in an electrician program at a technical college. They will re-introduce you to algebraic expressions, and prepare you for the math you'll use OTJ.
Moderately Good Health
As we mentioned above, you don't need to be Einstein, but you need a solid grasp on mathematics and algebra. In a similar way, you don't need to be the strongest person in the world, but you do need to be in somewhat decent shape to become an electrician.
On any given job site, on any given day, you may find yourself climbing / reaching / crouching / kneeling / digging / and so on. And, even without all those actions, you'll be moving around a great deal and using your hands.
That's a good thing, when you consider that desk jobs are really, truly, bad for people.
Note, above, that we say "somewhat decent shape"—there are plenty of electricians who are in their fifties and sixties (both men and women alike) who aren't endurance athletes, and they're enjoying a great career. They do, however, have a full range of motion and are able to handle the physical requirements of the job.
We briefly mentioned licenses above, but it's an important topic, so we'll give you a few more details you need to know.
Once you complete an apprenticeship—or complete a specific number of supervised work hours on the job—you'll need to get your license to become a journeyman electrician. In most cases, licenses are granted by the state, but there are certain states (Illinois is one) that licenses people at the local municipal level.
Each state has different rules about what it takes to become a journeyman, but the general requirements are usually the same. The requirements are usually related to:
- the number of on-the-job training hours you’ll need to complete;
- required coursework you’ll need to take during your training; and
- an exam that deals with electrical theory, the National Electric Code, and local electric codes and building codes.
You may be wondering why we're discussing licenses, when you're at the beginning of your career, and just figuring out how to become an electrician.
There are two main reasons we bring it up. Here's the first:
Because each state has unique licensing requirements, you'll (usually) want to do your apprenticeship or go to school in the state you want to work in. The requirements you meet to become a journeyman in one state may not be enough to meet the requirements to become a journeyman in another state. Some states recognize licenses from others states—that's known as "reciprocity"—but not all states have reciprocity. So, in many cases, it makes sense to receive your training in the area where you want to live and work.
Here's the second reason:
While most states have licenses for journeyman electricians, some have different types of journeyman licenses—as well as other electrician licenses (Florida is one such state that has many different types of licenses; another state with a bunch of different license types is North Carolina). You don't need to figure all of this out now, but it's something to keep in mind as you move through your career.
If you would like to learn more about the electrician licensing boards and licensing requirements for each state, you can check the National Electrical Contractors Association site, or talk to your apprenticeship leader or college advisor.
What Are My Options?
In many states, if you want to become a licensed journeyman electrician, you'll need to get an apprenticeship.
Basically, you've got two options: you can try to find an apprenticeship on your own, or go to a technical college and gain the skills you need to get a job, make connections, and land an apprenticeship. Here's how to do both.
To get an apprenticeship, you can:
- Go to the website of the electrical training ALLIANCE (previously called NJATC or "National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee") and find a training center near you. The electrical training ALLIANCE is a training program sponsored by two of the largest labor unions: the International Brother of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), and they train thousands of apprentices every year.
- Check out non-union apprenticeships sponsored by the IEC (Independent Electrical Contractors) or the ABC (Associated Builders and Contractors).
- See if there are local employers who offer apprenticeships, by visiting the United States Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration website. You will be able to find local employers who may be willing to take on apprentices.
To enter a technical school, you can:
- Look in your area for trade schools and colleges! This option is a lot easier. We've compiled a list of all the technical schools in each state, so take a look and see if one is a good match for you.
Each options has its advantages and its disadvantages, so let's take a lot at the pros and cons of an apprenticeship vs. a technical college.
Find An Electrician Apprenticeship
Many electricians choose to go directly into an apprenticeship. Let's take a look at why that may be a good idea, and some of the reasons why it may be a bad idea.
Advantages Of Starting An Apprenticeship:
- Apprenticeships are an "earn as you learn" program. It's a great thing to earn wages as you get your training. Apprentices don't earn as much as journeymen—they are usually paid a percentage of a journeyman's wages—but that percentage increases as their training continues.
- Fewer student loans. You'll finish the apprenticeship with a lot less college debt than if you had attended a technical school or college.
- It's a popular choice. There are many, many people who become electricians through apprentice programs offered by the organizations above. You'll be in good company!
Disadvantages Of Finding An Apprenticeship:
- You might be waiting for a long, long time. Many people have talked about how getting an apprenticeship can be a waiting game, including one guy who waited for three years. Others have said that apprenticeships are very difficult to get if you don't know someone in the union or apprenticeship organization. So if you're in a rush to get started as an electrician, you might find that you're waiting around for a while.
- The aptitude test to get into an apprenticeship can be pretty daunting. There are some people who will make fine electricians, but they first need to brush up on their algebra skills. For those people, going to technical school and taking the time to learn the mathematics involved can be an excellent idea.
- Some people simply aren't ready to jump into an apprenticeship. Some people lack the experience or education needed to land an apprenticeship, and that's when a technical college can be a great way to start a career. Plus, a person who is enrolled in a technical college may be seen as a much better bet for an employer sponsoring an apprenticeship program.
Enroll In An Electrician School
There are electrician schools all over the country. Here are some reasons why school may be a great option, and some reasons why it may not be.
Disadvantages Of Going To An Electrician School:
- Having college debt can be an incredible burden. While the schooling to become an electrician can cost much less than a four-year degree, it's still no fun having to make student loan payments (and make them for many, many years). Many students need to borrow money to attend classes, and you'll need to be VERY careful not to over-borrow.
- Not all technical colleges are created equal. There are a lot great training colleges out there, but there are some duds, too. You'll have to visit the school, talk to students, and do a little research to find out if the school is worth it. We've written an in-depth post that will help you determine whether a school is worth your time, so give it a read—it is an important post. There's nothing worse than going to school, only to find out that the money and time you've spent studying isn't worth anything.
Advantages Of Going To An Electrician School:
- Your chances of getting into a technical college are very good. If you have a high school diploma, the likelihood of your getting into a technical school is very high, but your chances of getting directly into an apprenticeship program might not be as high. The competition to get into apprenticeships at ALLIANCE and IEC and ABC and other programs is stiff; the competition to get into a technical college or a community school may be much less challenging.
- You can apply at any time. You may have a narrow window of opportunity to apply for an apprenticeship. Here's an example from the Bloomington-Normal Joint Apprenticeship Training website: "To become an apprentice, you must apply. Applications are taken on January 26-30 and February 2-6 2015 from 8:30-11:30am and 1:00-3:30pm at our office and are filled out on-site." Technical colleges, however, offer multiple times a year when you can start, and you can apply whenever you want.
- There may be affordable options in your area. If you're having difficulty lining up an apprenticeship, community colleges can be an excellent option to get started. They provide a solid education, they accept students who didn't do too well in high school, and most importantly, they're affordable and won't cripple you with student loan debt. DEFINITELY an option you should look into.
Here's the bottom line: if you can get an apprenticeship, you should go for it. It's the less costly option, and the training you receive will be top-notch.
If you can't get an apprenticeship—either because you lack the math skills, or your high school grades were only so-so, or you want to get started sooner rather than later—then going to an electrician school or community college can be a great way to get your foot in the door.
If you're going to look at schools, DO YOUR RESEARCH and make sure your school has a good reputation, does not charge too much for classes, and will help you further your career. As we said, there are some lousy schools out there, and you do not want an expensive diploma that isn't worth the paper it's printed on.
How Should I Get Started?
Many people are interested in a career as an electrician, but they're unsure of the first step to take.
If that describes your situation, start by learning about your options. Check out the apprenticeships in your area, learn about the educational institutions in your area, and keep a list of all the opportunities available to you.
There are a couple of different ways to get your start as an electrician, and there's no "right track" or "wrong track." Some people start their careers by contacting apprenticeship programs, and others go back to school and get the training they need. Whatever works!
Why Should I Become An Electrician?
Maybe we're biased, but we think a career as an electrician is a pretty great deal! If you’re thinking about how to become an electrician but you need more convincing, here are some other reasons why people really enjoy a career as an electrician:
1. The pay is excellent. For a career that doesn't require a traditional four-year bachelor's degree from a university, the pay for electricians is VERY high. As we mentioned above, the average salary for electricians is $53,204. The average income for people with a high school degree and a full-time job is $31,539 and that's a difference of more than $20,000. Not too shabby.
2. Even if you go the technical college route, the student loans can be reasonable. Many electrician training programs available at tech schools and community colleges are not nearly as pricey as four-year degrees from universities, and many electricians have very little student loan debt. Keep in mind, there are electrician programs offered at for-profit colleges that are extremely pricey, and we'd urge to seriously consider all your options before enrolling in a program that is extremely expensive. Remember that there are plenty of affordable, cost-effective training programs for you to enroll in.
3. You will have to opportunity to be part of a union. Unions are a powerful ally, and they make sure that electricians receive good wages and benefits from their employers. Unions often get the biggest and most lucrative jobs in the construction world, and being a part of a union can mean job security and better pay. You don't need to be a union member if you're an electrician, but for many electricians, it's a great option.
4. You'll have an electrician's license. A professional license lets employers know that you have all the skills to get a job done. In the business world, people hire workers without really having a clear idea if they're able to do the jobs they're being hired for. It's not uncommon for a business owner to hire a sales rep or a marketing manager or an accountant, only to find out that they don't have the skills they promised they did. When you have a license, it's a message to your future employers that you've been properly trained and are a reliable worker.
5. You'll have job security. There are some jobs that won't be around in a few years—think, "postal worker"—but there are some jobs that aren't going anywhere, and "electrician" is one of them. When you consider that electricity is a renewable resource and many industries are moving towards greener energy resources, a job as an electrician is looking pretty darn good.
6. You'll be active, but not too active. There are certain jobs in the construction services field that are pretty grueling (ie, "construction worker"), but work as an electrician is a perfect mix of "active" and "not back-breaking," and it sure beats a desk job. Plus, you'll spend a lot of your time solving problems, which can be very satisfying.
7. You'll be able to start your own business. Many electricians, after accruing enough experience and know-how, decide to open their businesses. With a skill that is in-demand and a pool of licensed workers to hire, some electricians are able to increase their salaries well into the six figures. Something to keep in mind, if you decide to become an electrician!
There's a lot here, and it's a lot to digest all at once. Visit the site as many times as you need to in order to figure out your next moves.
Remember, electricians are fundamentally important to the success of our country. If you believe that a career as an electrician is the right call for you, figure out your options, decide your path, and don't let anything stop you. You can do it.