Before I started, I had a vague idea of what trade work looked like, and I tried to visualize myself as one of “those guys.” I wasn’t necessarily thinking, “do I like electricity?” or “do I want to work on electrical hazards?” I figured I could probably do it and gave it a try. Many people expect that if you’re blue-collar and your parents are blue-collar, then you’re the next candidate to be a trades worker. But, that’s an outdated idea. Most people don’t get into the trades because they want a high income, but when you tell anyone how much you make, they’re generally surprised.
Because there’s such a demand for electricians, there’s limited space in apprentice training programs. As a result, there are many pre-apprentice (or unindentured apprentice) training programs emerging to ensure that the people who get accepted are likely to see it through. How much pre-apprentice work you need is location dependent (usually 6-24 months), so if you want to get in without this, you may need to research various states or cities.
I completed six months of pre-apprentice work and was able to sign up because you no longer needed to complete the full two-year program. Due to high demand (in Minneapolis), they lifted the requirement so long as you could pass their interviews and entrance exams.
Once you’re accepted, you have five years of apprenticeship. Each year brings a different program, a pay increase, and every six months, they switch you to a new contractor. Some of the content included learning various installations, people skills, safety, bending pipe, physics/math, high voltage, DC/AC theory, ladder logic, binary, national/state code, etc. But, the biggest thing is learning how to problem-solve, which goes well beyond the codebook. You get a taste for more technical aspects, but you can also really dive into topics like programmable logic controllers, solar, building automation, data, etc. There are lots of certifications for each of these, and in the end, they prepare you very well to take the state exam for the journeyman license.
Starting as an apprentice allows you to make money right away. In my first year, I started at $15/hour, which doesn’t include your perks: paid vacation, pension, annuity, an unemployment slush fund, full health coverage for family, etc. Fast forward to today, I make $48.50/hour as a foreman or $46.50/hour as a journeyman. The pay rates are standardized through the union by location. What’s most in-demand right now is for low voltage and inside wireman, which is what I am. But, where you end up depends on your ambition and what you want to do. A lot of guys are content just being a worker; they don’t mind being laid off or moving from contractor to contractor. My preference is to work for a contractor that I like; I work hard to have that security.
In terms of options, you can be a journeyman, a foreman, a general foreman (required when you exceed a specific crew size), or a master electrician (requires 2,000 hours of additional work and a master’s license). As a master electrician, you’re likely to get paid more, but you’re bonded to the shop, so you may not do much electrical work, and you will take all the heat if things go wrong.
I’m a foreman, which is a much different role then if I was still a journeyman electrician. As a foreman, it’s more managing than electrical work. My goal is to make project managers happy, keep everyone focused (so the customer is satisfied), make sure our shop is making money, and deliver something that I can be proud to stand by. The electricians beside me need to be enjoying their day; otherwise, they will resent me and put in sub-par work. Part of what I do is to try and keep things interesting, so my team doesn’t lose interest. I do this by giving guys responsibility, because there’s pride associated with everything they do, or when things are more mundane, creating competitions.
The best thing about being a journeyman is that when you go home, you don’t have to think about work AT ALL. When you wake up, you don’t think about work; even when you drive to the job site, you don’t have to fire up your brain until the clock starts. But, as soon as you start working, you’re in a different world, and none of the problems from your home life consume you because you’re too busy problem solving, you’re dealing with something different every couple hours.
On a typical day, you wake up early as hell and drive to your job site. The site might be a mudhole, or it might be a nice parking garage, but it changes every couple of months; you’re never in the same situation. For example, let’s say I get assigned to work at General Mills at a factory assembly line with some issues and have to work on it for three days. That might be a casual experience where they have prints, plans, and diagrams to look at, and you follow the instructions and install it. Or, you might be working for that customer and BOOM, an entire assembly line goes down, which prevents thousands of chocolate bars from being made. You now have workers standing there, and your job is to get that line fired back up, quickly. You need to be able to walk into that environment and figure out how to approach it safely. I go through a mental checklist: turn the power off, determine what’s feeding it, find the electric room, what kind of equipment is needed, how many motors there are, what caused the problem, isolate the source, etc. At some point, you go on auto-pilot, and your brain solves the issue. There’s also more thought to it; you need to quickly determine if you can fix it today, how soon you can get the part, whether there’s a temporary solution, or whether you have enough knowledge to fix it.
Don’t be afraid to try it; once most people get into the work, they end up liking the profession a lot more than they ever expected. The variety of backgrounds I see seems to be increasing; this includes first-generation Americans, people looking for new careers later in life, and many more women. There’s a lot of job stability, and it’s something that isn’t going away because there’s a huge need. You’ll challenge yourself physically and mentally, and will likely receive opportunities you would never see elsewhere. If you have a lot of ambition, it can be your passion, but it also doesn’t have to be.
When you’re starting, you need to push through your training until you’re able to get your license. Once you get your license, you can’t have it taken away, and there’s a lot of freedom that comes with it, so it’s worth sticking it out.
For most people trying to get into the trades, I recommend thinking about the long-term implications. Don’t go after the first big paycheck you get offered; if the situation isn’t what you’re looking for, keep looking. Also, you need to be continually aware of what you’re doing, attentive, and present to the task. You learn to be hyper-focused.
If you’re looking to get experience and you can’t get into a union program, there’s no problem working non-union. If you’re going to be a non-union worker, you have to have more ambition; you have to be more confrontational, vouch for yourself, ask your employer for more, and there’s no one backing you with negotiated contracts. If you want an excellent education that’s varied and hope to prevent yourself from getting into dangerous situations, the union might be the way to go. Non-union, there’s no curriculum, and you have to do additional research. All things aside, there are some great non-union workers out there. You can do it if you have the drive and determination.
If you’re somebody who has no mechanical aptitude, doesn’t like to spend your free time figuring out how things work, or you’re afraid to fix something that’s broken, it might take you a while to enjoy being an electrician. You might still be good at it, but it might not come naturally. You need to have a strong work ethic if you want to have consistent employment and want to be a good electrician. You don’t need to be a perfectionist, but you need to try and do your best.
Since COVID hit, our shop has had to adapt by taking on less profitable jobs; doing this allows our best guys to keep working and stay engaged. For example, we just did a sizable solar rooftop installation, where the work was mostly outside in a safe environment versus a busy construction site. If things start to change, and people don’t want to invest in new commercial buildings, there’s always going to be a need to build homes, apartments, hospitals, schools, or facilities that need constant maintenance. The trades might take bites and hits along the way, but if you’re reasonably smart with your finances, you’ll be able to make it through any tough times, which I’ve never really seen. If need be, I could always find low voltage or travel to where the work is. I know several guys who went to Australia to improve the electric grid and help train locals. The scenario is a little extreme, but there are always opportunities.
Ultimately, technology isn’t going to slow down; electrical equipment will always get better, faster, cheaper, and more efficient. Electrical work is nearly impossible to automate, so that can be a good thing if you’re coming from an industry that’s in decline.
If you’re trying to change careers, analyze the things you don’t like about your position now, because if you’re not coming from a trade, you could be in for a big surprise. I’ve observed that service workers who work in fast-paced environments and do a lot of multitasking do very well. You have to enjoy physical work; you have to be willing to work in many different environmental conditions, whether that’s filthy outdoor dirt, extreme temperatures, hot and cold, uncomfortable positions, etc. You have to be able to see the bigger picture so that your work doesn’t become mundane.
Very informative, thank you! This is definitely something I've been considering. the biggest appeal is the idea of being able to do this anywhere I might move to.