So you want to know more about becoming a licensed electrician. Congratulations, you’re in the right place. At the moment, trade jobs are in high demand with too few workers to fill them.
In fact, demand for electricians is projected to increase by 9 percent through 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Welcome to the start of an exciting, well-paid profession with diverse areas of specialty and interests that can make you a high earner without being overburdened with debt.
In our in-depth guide, you’ll learn about what you can expect in the electrical field, what career paths you can choose, and what education, certification, and licensing you’ll need to get there.
Let’s start with the basics. What exactly does an electrician do, besides work with electricity?
It’s admittedly a huge profession. Electrical power touches nearly every aspect of our modern lives, which means that electricians also need to interface and understand how electricity is generated, conducted, and managed safely.
The highest level electricians install, manage, maintain, and fix electrical power both in homes and commercial buildings as well as in the electrical infrastructure of urban and rural communities.
Electricians are everywhere: out in the field, working for the government, employed by large factories, or running a small business making house calls. One of the beautiful things about the profession is its sheer versatility – you have so many options to pick from!
Speaking of options, here are just a few you can choose:
A residential wireman does pretty much what you would expect. These electricians work on people’s homes, and are the type of electricians you are probably most familiar with.
There's a plethora of work to do as a residential wireman: You could be an electrician who mainly goes and fixes existing issues at home or in an existing construction. You could also be the residential wireman who installs wiring on newly-built constructions.
Both require similar skill sets and knowledge, including their tools of the trade, safety knowledge, education, and familiarity with local and state electrical codes. Wiring an entire home before installing drywall will require further expertise.
Most of the electricians start with residential before moving on to another specialization in the field.
An inside wireman does much the same tasks as a residential wireman, but they specialize in office buildings and other large corporate organizations.
An inside wireman might work with an architect or engineer to help get a spot off the ground. An inside wireman will test everything, help execute a plan, and make sure everything is up to code.
An inside wireman might also be called upon to test the fire alarm system, work with an HVAC tech to properly patch in the unit and integrate it with the old wiring, install lighting, and security systems, among other possibilities.
Basically, everything electrical within four walls is the inside wireman’s duty.
Now, we get to the glamorous subset of the electrician profession not for the faint of heart nor height phobic.
Outside lineman are the ones you see in the trucks being hoisted up an electrical utility pole. These are experts who repair the arteries of electricity running to our cities both above and underground. They are responsible for bringing power from the substation to your home or business and thus one of the most important pieces of mechanical connective tissue in our society.
Unsurprisingly, the pay is great. It’s one of the most dangerous areas of the profession since the possibility of fatal electric shock or other accidents is higher than some.
It’s also one of the few trades to have a classic song written about it.
A telecommunication technician is an electrician who works specifically on telecommunications infrastructure. Think phone lines, but also every length of low voltage wiring inside a commercial office or other business.
This can also include computer cables, wired and wireless networking, and any other media networking and wiring required. This often goes hand-in-hand with the work for an inside wireman and an inside wireman can wear both hats and be trained as telecommunication technician in addition to their primary focus.
As anyone who’s ever tried to troubleshoot a problem with a car only to discover a fault in its electrical system, an auto electrician is worth his or her weight in gold.
Automobiles feature sometimes complex wiring schemes with often hidden points of failure. Beyond that, auto electricians can learn how to work on advanced powertrains, receive performance electronics training, and learn applied service management.
If you love cars, this is a great way to combine being a gearhead with a well-paid full-time job.
Commercial electricians work in and for commercial buildings. They are responsible for keeping the lights and products from businesses and restaurants to retail.
In most cases the commercial electricians are on salary and there was to be “on call” to the organization.
Commercial electrical work will look the most like the work of a Residential Wireman, with many of the same general skills carrying over, but on a commercial scale.
If doing whole-home or whole-office installs isn’t your cup of tea, you may want to focus on becoming a maintenance electrician.
As the name implies, this is all about maintaining existing power infrastructure in homes and buildings as well as overall systems health. This is a job that often takes place in large buildings, hospitals, and field operations, and requires thorough knowledge of blueprints and schematics to diagnose and repair electrical systems.
A maintenance electrician is also often familiar with generator maintenance, allowing a workplace to function effectively off-grid in the event of a storm or other power-interrupting mishap.
Generally, maintenance electricians take a “preventive care” approach, just like your doctor, and their job consists of frequent equipment and systems inspection. But just like a doctor, when something goes wrong, they have to be able to respond quickly, knowledgeably, and effectively to get power back up and running again.
As opposed to a commercial electrician, who is working in storefronts and offices, an industrial electrician is tasked with maintaining, repairing, and optimizing industrial-level electrical. That includes, but is not limited to, large DC and AC power generators, high voltage systems, complex mechanical machinery, transformers and polyphase circuits, as well as industry-specific electrical.
As you might surmise, this is not an entry-level occupation. Pay is high, but so are the stakes; a mistake in an industrial application can cost a company, factory, refinery, etc. thousands or millions of dollars.
Hence, industrial electricians must be highly educated and trained in an industrial electrician training program. Coursework will include not only fundamentals industrial electronics but may require college-level physics courses as well.
If you want to be part of the critical electrical infrastructure of your town, city, or state, then substation electrician is the career for you.
The position requires a lot of education and training – nearly 600 classroom hours and 8,000 of practical experience – before you can even sit for the certification, but the pay is excellent and the job an absolutely critical one.
Your job, as much as it’s about maintaining, assessing, and repairing damage to the substation, is to protect the public and your community by keeping the lights on. The job is very “on call” and is contingent on acts of God like extreme weather events, but that’s also what makes it exciting and in some senses, heroic.
If serving the community with high levels of expertise while collecting a nice salary sounds good, then a substation electrician position might be right for you.
Those are just a sampling of the specialties you can pursue when you learn how to become an electrician. As you explore the field, you’ll find there are many more and niches within niches (love green energy? You could be a solar or wind farm electrician, for instance).
Clearly, there are plenty of choices to choose from, but you have to walk before you can run. There are multiple ways to get into the electrical field, here are a couple pathways you can take.
First thing’s first. Make sure you get your high school diploma or equivalent, that’s a non-negotiable.
From there, one option is to enroll in technical school to learn how to become an electrician. Technical school has the benefits of a flexible schedule where you can train around work you might already be doing and is much less competitive than the big apprenticeship programs.
Community college courses also fall under this category and while not free, are much less expensive than traditional four-year degree programs.
On the downside, school still usually means debt unless you’re able to secure a scholarship and not all schools and programs are equally good. Take time to assess your options and talk to professionals who’ve gone through the same training to see if it’s right for you.
If you can manage to secure one, however, an electrical apprenticeship is by far the best route to a solid career as an electrician.
Apprenticeships offer practical on-the-job experience that can’t be learned in the classroom while you collect a paycheck.
On the union side, there’s ALLIANCE, a joint venture between the International Brother of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). On the other side, non-union apprenticeship organizations include the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and the Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC).
You can also find local apprenticeships near you through the United States Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration website.
Union and non-union apprenticeships are similar in that they both combine on-the-job education with experienced contractors who will show you the ropes.
Key differences: Union apprenticeships will pair you with a contractor or contractors (so you can get a wide variety of experience) and the union controls your pension, which you will begin contributing straight away. Non-union apprenticeships entail you choosing from a list of contractors to work with and control of your own pension.
Both have pros and cons, so you should weigh these carefully before making a decision. Both are effective routes to becoming an electrical pro.
Your apprenticeship will typically end with a journeyman license or certification – assuming you successfully complete the exam. What is a journeyman electrician though?
Journeyman electricians can conduct electrical repairs and tasks without direct supervision, and it means a pay bump! As a journeyman electrician, you won’t be able to run your own business yet.
This can be considered an intermediary career step, though it’s entirely possible to stay a journeyman your entire career and make a good living. After all, it generally requires thousands of hours of work experience, as journeymen are electrical experts.
That said, if you do wish to continue to move up the career ladder, a Master Electrician accreditation is the next step.
Requirements vary state-by-state but acquiring a master electrician’s license requires up to 1,000 classroom hours and 10,000 hours work experience.
Those who have a Master’s license can run their own businesses, pull permits, supervise and manage electrical projects, consult on safety regulations, electrical schematics and diagrams, and manage vendors and contractors.
Now to the important part - money! Most electricians on average make between $45,000 - $65,000 a year, but it varies by state. For the full list of the average electrician salaries by state, click here.
Keep in mind that apprentices typically make about 50 percent what journeymen do and master electrician’s make the most.
The choice of whether to join one of the electrical unions or remain an independent worker is one of the most impactful ones you’ll make as a budding electrician.
Union workers tend to make 20 to 40 percent more than their non-union counterparts, a compelling argument for joining. Here’s what electrician Matt Day told The Art of Manliness in 2015:
“Union, Union, Union! Remember, the Union brought us the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, along with several other benefits. While you can get an electrical job in the non-union sector, it’s far better to be an IBEW electrician. I speak from experience, I’ve worked both sectors. Also every job listing I’ve seen for an electrician, the company preferred a “Certified Electrician.” A certification you can only get from the IBEW. Better training, better pay, better benefits…period.”
That said, every area is different. Local conditions where you are should help you decide whether union or non-union work is right for you. We’d recommend talking to other electricians in your area to get a sense of what’s right for you. Lean into the experiences of those who’ve come before you.
At this point, you should be well on your way to selecting the right bath to become a successful electrician. The journey may be long but the rewards are many. Good luck!
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