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How to become an electrician

Do you want a solid career with excellent pay in a fast-growing profession? How about a career where you can get started with a high school diploma, and instead of going into debt for your higher education, you earn while you learn the trade on the job?

These are just a few of the very good reasons to become an electrician. Electricians are in high demand, with faster-than-average (+8 percent) annual job growth, work available in a wide variety of industries, great jobs in every part of the country and a clear path to starting your own business.

In this article, we’ll show you how to become an electrician by following a series of well-established steps from trainee to apprentice to journeyman electrician and finally to master electrician.

Electricians are in High Demand

Electricians are needed wherever there is electrical power: in residential and commercial construction, manufacturing, solar power, heating and air conditioning, lighting, communications and virtually every other modern industry.

The pay is good. The median income for electricians in 2020 was $56,900 per year, or $27.36 per hour. Depending on your preference, you can work independently, as part of a team, for a small company or in a large corporation. You can remain a senior employee or start your own business as an electrical contractor.

Five Steps to a Great Career as an Electrician

Step 1: High school diploma (or GED).

Step 2: Pre-apprenticeship classes in a trade school or community college.

Step 3: Get hired under a union or non-union apprenticeship program.

Step 4: Fulfill the on-the-job training and classroom requirements.

Step 5: Pass an exam and receive your journeyman electrician license!

You are paid to train during an apprenticeship program, which typically requires 8,000 hours over your first four or five years. Then after you pass an exam to become a journeyman electrician, your earnings will be among the best in the construction trades.

As You Learn More, You Earn More

Once you become a licensed electrician, all of your continued study and work experience can still apply toward advancing your career and growing your paycheck. After you pass an exam to become a master electrician, you’ll have the qualifications that builders must have to certify their work.

With a master electrician license, you can pass an exam to get an electrical contractor license and start your own business. Sound good? Let’s get started on the steps to becoming an electrician.

Self-Assessment for a Future Electrician

Before we outline the steps for how to become an electrician, consider whether you have the physical and mental characteristics required to work as an electrician:

Strength – Electricians may need to lift and carry distribution panels, motors, compressors, light fixtures or other heavy components as a regular part of their work responsibilities.

Endurance – Construction and repair work often involves eight or more hours of climbing ladders, accessing attic or crawl spaces, cutting into walls, pulling wire and crimping fixtures with hand tools.

Patience – Electrical maintenance and repair often involves inspection, testing and diagnosis to find the source of a problem and to determine the safe and effective repair solution.

Color Vision – Electrical wiring is typically color-coded. To work as an electrician, you must be able to distinguish colors without red-green or blue-yellow color blindness.

Mathematical Comprehension – Calculating electrical current and load will require the electrician to be comfortable with practical mathematics, including some basic algebra and geometry.

Study Skills – Career progression from apprentice to journeyman to master electrician will require study so that the trainee can pass an exam in work practice, electrical codes and management.

Customer Service Skills – Electricians work with clients, colleagues, supervisors and inspectors. A friendly and professional attitude improves work performance and results.

Attention to Safety – Working with electrical systems carries risks, including electrocution, falling from ladders or injuries from power tools. You must take care to look out for yourself and others.

What level of education is required to become an electrician?

A high school diploma or equivalent is required to get started. Many trainees then move on to a trade school, learning the basics of how circuits operate and how to work safely with electricity.

If you’re still in high school or working on a GED diploma, make sure that you include mathematics in your schedule. As an electrician, you will need to understand and use decimal numbers, percentages and fractions. You may also need to use basic geometry to find physical proportions. And spend plenty of time on reading, as your classroom and study skills will be important to your apprenticeship.

In a trade school pre-apprenticeship class, you’ll learn the fundamentals, including electrical units of measurement (volts, watts and amperes), the physics of electricity, how electric power is generated and transmitted and how electrical equipment is used (generators, transformers, motors and switches).

Upon completion of the trade school course, trainees may receive a certificate affirming that they are ready to start work and to receive further training as an apprentice. Some of the credits earned in technical school may also apply toward fulfilling the trainee’s apprenticeship requirements.

Serve Your Country While You Train

Some future electricians receive their first training in the armed services, which need a wide range of electrical specialists, from general installation and repair electricians to nuclear power plant technicians. Military training is top-notch, so service as a military electrician specialist can make you very attractive to a civilian hiring manager. Depending on your state, military service can also be substituted for apprenticeship work experience when you seek to become licensed in a civilian job.

While the rules for licensing vary in different states, the path to an electrician license will always require candidates to pass an exam showing that they have learned the tools and techniques of the trade.

What is an apprenticeship?

Most electricians spend four or five years working as an apprentice. Rather than going into debt for a college degree, an apprentice electrician earns good pay while receiving the 8,000 hours of on-the-job training that are typically required to become a licensed journeyman electrician. The requirement for 8,000 hours may be shortened for candidates who receive their initial training in the military or certain building industries. Also, in some states, an apprentice can be licensed as a residential wireman, working under a licensed journeyman, after only 4,000 hours (two years) of work experience.

While learning how to become an electrician, the trainee works with an experienced journeymen electrician and under the supervision of a master electrician, who teach the apprentice a wide range of practical techniques required for electrical work.

Apprenticeship Program Studies

In addition to the on-the-job training, the apprenticeship program may also require four or five years of classroom study (typically 192 hours of annual coursework) in registered apprenticeship classes that meet once or twice a week.

In many states, the apprenticeship program is tuition-free, so that the only cost to the apprentice is textbooks and lab fees.

What does apprentice job training include?

  • Installing residential and commercial wiring
  • Installing lighting fixtures and power outlets
  • Reading wiring diagrams and blueprints
  • Identifying problems using test equipment
  • Using specialized tools to install or repair
  • Ensuring that work meets electrical codes
  • Ensuring electrical safety and worker first aid

Apprentice electricians often work in new construction because the techniques for installing new wiring, switches, lighting, power outlets and circuit breakers are simplified while interior walls are being built.

Apprenticeship Program Specialization

As apprentices gain experience during their 8,000 hours of required training, they will learn more complex techniques for maintaining electrical systems, inspecting existing electrical wiring, identifying problems and making repairs.

Apprentices are taught how to use specialized electrical tools, such as conduit benders, wire strippers and terminal crimpers. To gain access to covered wiring, they must also learn to use saws and drills. To identify wiring problems, apprentices must learn to use volt meters and other testing devices.

In addition to residential and commercial electrical equipment, the apprentice may learn to maintain specialized systems, such as elevators, HVAC systems, generators and solar power systems.

How to Get an Apprenticeship

Both trade unions and non-union associations sponsor apprenticeships in partnership with builder trade groups, community colleges and state education departments. Start by learning about the legal requirements for apprenticeship in your state and city, and take the time to compare the training offered under union and non-union programs.

How to Find a Union Apprenticeship

To get a union apprenticeship, contact the local electrical workers’ union, which may be an office of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) or another large union.

Union apprenticeships can be more difficult to get, due to stringent hiring standards and strong trainee demand for union memberships. Pay is generally higher than non-union jobs, although membership requires paying union dues.

IBEW apprenticeship requires a five-year commitment, but it is generally considered to be excellent preparation for a career as an electrician. IBEW works with the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) in a partnership called ALLIANCE, combining classroom, online and hands-on training.

How to Find a Non-Union Apprenticeship

Non-union apprenticeships are offered by community colleges and technical schools. Some are sponsored by the state department of education or directly by employers who want to foster worker loyalty and improve the quality of training in various specialties.

Non-union apprenticeships may be found in job listings or through national sponsors such as Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC), National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC).

As with the union programs, these apprenticeships require 8,000 hours of on-the-job training over at least four years, plus training classes that meet twice a week.

Pay is based on local market rates and may be less than a union apprenticeship. However, trainees have plenty of opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of union membership versus a non-union apprenticeship.

Get an Apprenticeship and Get to Work

Whether you choose a union or non-union apprenticeship program, the main objective is to get an apprenticeship and get busy learning and earning.

After completing the apprenticeship, the trainee is qualified to sit for the journeyman examination. With a passing score, the journeyman electrician can be licensed to work independently and to supervise others. A journeyman electrician can also continue to study and become a master electrician, eventually qualifying for an electrical contractor license.

Apprenticeship Training Alternatives

In some jurisdictions, it is possible to complete all of the classroom training at a technical school or community college prior to starting your working apprenticeship. This path could give you a leg up on getting hired for apprenticeship by a contractor, who may appreciate a candidate who already has a fundamental understanding of electricity and is familiar with electrical tools and skills. Be sure that the course is recognized by your state education and labor departments so that you will get credit toward your electrician license studies.

In some areas, it is possible to sit for the journeyman license with no classroom work – if you have six years of work experience with an electrical contractor. While this is a good option for a candidate who already has the work experience, it is better to combine the classroom work with on-the-job training, as the standard path is more likely to provide a better training foundation – and faster increases in pay.

The Journeyman Licensing Examination

When you have completed your apprenticeship, you are ready to sit for the exam that will make you a licensed journeyman electrician! If you chose the five-year IBEW apprenticeship, you may take the exam in the fourth year, allowing you to work the last year of your apprenticeship as a licensed journeyman.

Licensing is typically handled by local authorities, such as county boards. Most jurisdictions require a score of at least 75 percent to pass an exam.

Is the journeyman examination difficult to pass?

County licensing boards advise that the most common reasons for failing the journeyman examination are: (1) not understanding what questions would be asked; and (2) not answering all of the questions. Both of these problems can be easily avoided by taking the time to prepare for the test.

Should you fail the test (usually with a score of less than 75 percent), you may have to wait 30 days to repeat the test. You can retake the test as many times as needed until you pass an exam, but you will have to pay the fees each time. The best course of action is to study hard, be prepared and pass the test on the first try.

Extra Help to Pass Your Journeyman Electrician Exam

Most of the journeyman electrician exam is based on knowledge of the National Electrical Code. Should you feel that you need extra help to prepare yourself to pass an exam, there are many providers of test prep books, videos, flash cards, study guides and other learning tools.

Amazon is a great source for workbooks and study guides with practice questions and calculations. You can even find versions that are customized for the journeyman electrician exam in your state.

Your Journeyman Electrician License

When you pass the exam, you will receive your license in the form of a certificate of competency. Bear in mind that this certificate is valid only for the jurisdiction where the license is issued, although if you need to move your business, other counties or cities in your state may have reciprocity agreements to recognize your original license.

Your license is not perpetual. In most states, journeymen are required to take continuing education courses during each term in order to have their license renewed.

Your Next Goal: Become a Master Electrician

Once you’re working as a journeyman electrician, your next goal should be to earn your master electrician license.

As a master electrician, your extensive knowledge of the National Electrical Code and your expertise in the installation, inspection, maintenance and repair of electrical equipment and systems will qualify you for more responsibility – and higher pay.

With a master electrician license, you can start your own electrical contracting or consulting business or remain with a large company as a team leader, senior employee or qualified agent.

What is a qualified agent?

In many states, a business entity may not be licensed as a contractor. Rather, the business must apply to the state department of professional regulation for a certificate of authority naming a qualified agent who is responsible for all work provided by the firm and who has authority over business matters, such as contracts, specifications, billing and payments.

A qualified agent is an individual who assigns his or her license to single company, and the company provides the required insurance for the operations of the business. A master electrician may also provide his or her own insurance and sub-contract as a master electrician for multiple clients, rather than being a qualified agent for only one business entity.

No Work Without a Qualified Agent

When a construction contract is created, a business will designate its responsible qualified agent with a sworn affidavit to the licensing board, affirming that the named master electrician has final approval for all work performed. Should the qualified agent resign or be terminated, no work can be performed on the project until another qualified agent is approved by the licensing board.

In addition to work specifications, the qualified agent is also responsible for financial matters related to the project, unless a separate financially responsible officer is named by the business. In some cases, the business names a secondary qualified agent as the project supervisor, where a building permit was pulled under the named individual’s license.

How to Become a Master Electrician

Although licensing requirements vary by state, typical requirements include: two years (4,000 hours) to four years (8,000 hours) of experience as a licensed journeyman electrician; payment of examination and licensing fees; and a score of 75 percent or better on the master electrician examination.

In some jurisdictions, a portion of the journeyman work experience may be waived if the master electrician applicant has a bachelors’ or equivalent degree in engineering, or is registered in the state as a professional engineer.

In addition to NEC codes and electrical work practices, which may comprise two-thirds of the questions on the master electrician examination, another one-third of the questions focus on business management, including payroll taxes, workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation, lien laws and other laws that affect the daily operation of a building or electrical contractor.

How to Become an Electrical Contractor

Now that you know how to become an electrician, you may find that you want more control of your career plan. If you’re comfortable with the risks and responsibilities of owning your own business, you can become a licensed electrical contractor.

In most states, licensing for contractors is administered by a department of business and professional regulation under a contractor licensing board. In some states, there is a special licensing board for electrical contractors.

Registered and Certified Licenses

A registered license permits a contractor to work only in a county or city where a local license was obtained. A certified license allows the contractor to work anywhere in the state. The certified license requires additional examinations with a certificate of competency issued by the state.

In addition to registered or certified electrical contractor, a state licensing board may issue licenses for many electrical specialties, such as alarm systems, residential electrical, utility line, lighting maintenance, electrical signs, solar energy, elevator maintenance and two-way radio communications.

A Solid Path to Career Success

Becoming a licensed electrician is really just a matter of patience and work. We all know a college student who worked hard for four years and borrowed thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars, only to have few job prospects at the end of the process.

The path to becoming an electrician could not be more different. As soon as you finish high school and trade school, you can go to work as an apprentice and start making money while you gain the 8,000 hours of experience (and the classroom preparation) required to sit for your journeyman license.

There is no guesswork as to whether your studies will lead to a journeyman electrician license or a master electrician license. The common standard of the National Electrical Code means that all apprenticeships must teach the same specifications, all training is focused on the same tools and techniques, and all licensing requirements must be similar in every jurisdiction.

How much will you earn as a licensed electrician?

The national average salary for an apprentice electrician is $35,000-$40,000. With a journeyman electrician license, the average jumps to $55,000-$60,000, and with a master electrician license, average pay rises to $65,000-$80,000.

Your pay as an apprentice is negotiated by the union (if you get a union apprenticeship) or is determined by your local job market if you are non-union. At this writing, the market is strong, and growing stronger. When you get your journeyman license, the same conditions will apply. If you put in the work, pass the exam and get the license, you will get the raises in pay.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 82,200 new openings for electricians will be available each year, double the growth rate of the job market as a whole.

Are you ready to take the first step?

If you’re ready to stop reading and start moving toward a great career as an electrician, take the next step now by finding a qualified trade school in your area. Why not sign up for the next trade school term today?

Whether you’re a recent technical college graduate or an experienced electrician, Higginbotham can help you get the business insurance coverage you need. Talk to a specialist to learn more. 

Not sure where to start? Talk to someone who wants to listen.

A great plan starts with a conversation. Let’s talk about what you need.

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