Electrician Apprentice Vs. Electrician School: Which Is The Right Choice For You?
We talked a little bit about these two options on our homepage, but we should expand the discussion a little bit. How is an apprenticeship different from electrician school? What are the similarities? Do you need both? Can you just go to school and become a journeyman electrician? In this post, we’ll revisit the electrician apprentice vs. electrician school debate, and go over these questions and more.
First let’s define some terms and go over some things you need to know to start a career as an electrician.
What Is An Electrician Apprenticeship?
An apprenticeship is a long-term training program run by a professional organization. It is designed to teach you everything you need to know to be a professional electrician, and it includes a certain number of hours of on-the-job training (sometimes referred to as "OJT"), as well as a certain number of hours of classroom instruction. The details are different in different regions of the United States, but it takes about four to five-and-a-half year to complete. An important note: you "earn while you learn," meaning that you'll be paid for the work you do during your apprenticeship, and many of the classes you take during the apprenticeship will be paid for by the group running your apprenticeship.
So who will be running your apprenticeship? This is a bit of a simplification, but there are a few different types of apprenticeships:
- There are union apprenticeships, which are usually run by a group called the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (or "IBEW" for short);
- There are non-union apprenticeships, that are usually run by two groups: one called the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and the other called Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC); and
- There are local apprenticeships that you can find through a database kept by the federal government.
To find more information about each of these programs, visit the page on our site that discusses the options you have in your state.
Routes to Employment
Now that you know what an apprenticeship is, let's discuss your options.
There are two ways you can start a career as a professional electrician: 1) you can contact one of the groups above and apply to be accepted as an apprentice, or you 2) go to an electrician school, get a job as an electrician assistant, and apply for an apprenticeship.
What's the commonality between these two paths? You guessed it: either way, if you want to become a fully-licensed electrician, you're going to get an apprenticeship. So why would you go to an electrician school if you can simply start off an apprentice?
Getting An Apprenticeship Can Be Difficult
Here's the rub: getting an electrician apprenticeship can be really hard. There are a number of different reasons why it can be a challenge to get an apprenticeship:
- There is a LOT of competition for only a few openings. Because the apprentice program is an almost guaranteed path to high-paying employment—if you finish the program, you'll be in EXCELLENT shape—many people want to join. Apprentice programs turn away some good candidates, because there are other candidates that are more qualified.
- You may not be accepted. If you think about, an apprenticeship is a pretty great deal: you get ALL the training you need, over the course of four years, and you have most of your classes paid for. Sounds like a great deal, right? Here's the thing: it IS a great deal, and it's a huge investment on the part of the apprenticeship organizer. They want to make sure that you're not going to drop out after a year or two. They want to know that you are committed, and that you're not going to jump ship when the going gets tough.
- The entrance tests are difficult. Apprenticeships usually have an interview (which can be a little intimidating) and an entrance exam. The entrance exam can be pretty difficult, as it includes a lot of math questions (particularly algebra). Some of the questions you'll be able to figure out on your own. But some of the other questions will require specific knowledge of algebra, and if you don't know how to solve the equations—well, there's no faking it! You either get the answer or you don't. Many people are surprised to find that the entrance exams are the real deal.
For some people, going to an electrician school gives them the preparation and the "cred" they need to get accepted into an apprenticeship program.
So What Should I Do?
Here's the best way to figure out what your plan of action should be:
1. Learn About Your Apprenticeship Options. Find out which of the above groups offer apprenticeships in your area, and contact each of them to see what you need to do to get an apprenticeship. We have a detailed list of all the internships available in each state, so go to the search bar, enter your state's name, and take a look. If you can find and get accepted by an apprentice program, you're good to go.
2. Figure Out If School Is A Good Idea. If you are a "weak" candidate—say, you don't have the math/algebra skills needed to pass the entrance exam, or you lack any real-world experience—going to school, getting some training, and then finding work as an electrician assistant can be a great way to get your foot in the door. You'll learn about the trade and become employable—and when you're on the job, you'll likely meet other electricians who can help you get an apprenticeship. You'll also seem more serious about the trade, as you've gone to school and already had some experience in the field.
3. Gather all your options and make a choice. Once you've learned about apprenticeships in your area, researched schools in your area, and done an evaluation of whether you are currently a "strong" candidate or not, you'll have an idea of what you need to do to get your career started.
If there is a community college in your area that has an electrician's program, that is often a low-cost/high-benefit option.
Gathering All The Info
So, the question really isn't "should I get an electrician apprenticeship or go to electrician school?" If you want to become a licensed electrician, you're going to need to get an apprenticeship at some point, and if you can coast into an apprenticeship without going to school, that is definitely what you should do. The question you need to ask yourself is, "Can I get an apprenticeship without going to electrician school?" If the answer is "No" or "Not any time soon," then it may be time you considered school!