Electricity is essential for light, power, air-conditioning, and refrigeration. Electricians install, connect, test, and maintain electrical systems for a variety of purposes, including climate control, security, and communications. They also may install and maintain the electronic controls for machines in business and industry.
Electricians generally specialize in construction or maintenance work, although a growing number do both. Electriciansspecializing in construction work primarily install wiring systems into new homes, businesses, and factories, but they also rewire or upgrade existing electrical systems as needed. Electricians specializing in maintenance work primarily maintain and upgrade existing electrical systems and repair electrical equipment.
Electricians work with blueprints when they install electrical systems. Blueprints indicate the locations of circuits, outlets, load centers, panel boards, and other equipment. Electricians must follow the National Electrical Code and comply with State and local building codes when they install these systems. Regulations vary depending on the setting and require various types of installation procedures.
When electricians install wiring systems in factories and commercial settings, they first place conduit (pipe or tubing) inside partitions, walls, or other concealed areas as designated by the blueprints. They also fasten to the walls small metal or plastic boxes that will house electrical switches and outlets. They pull insulated wires or cables through the conduit to complete circuits between these boxes. In residential construction, electricians usually install plastic encased insulated wire, which does not need to be run through conduit. The gauge and number of wires installed in all settings depends upon the load and end use of that part of the electrical system. The greater the diameter of the wire, the higher the voltage and amperage that can flow through it.
Electricians connect all types of wire to circuit breakers, transformers, outlets, or other components. They join the wires in boxes with various specially designed connectors. During installation, electricians use hand tools such as conduit benders, screwdrivers, pliers, knives, hacksaws, and wire strippers, as well as power tools such as drills and saws. After they finish installing the wiring, they use testing equipment, such as ammeters, ohmmeters, voltmeters, and oscilloscopes, to check the circuits for proper connections, ensuring electrical compatibility, and safety of components.
Maintenance work varies greatly, depending on where the electrician is employed. Electricians who specialize in residential work perform a wide variety of electrical work for homeowners. They may rewire a home and replace an old fuse box with a new circuit breaker box to accommodate additional appliances, or they may install new lighting and other electric household items, such as ceiling fans. Those who work in large factories may repair motors, transformers, generators, and electronic controllers on machine tools and industrial robots. Those in office buildings and small plants may repair all types of electrical equipment.
Maintenance electricians working in factories, hospitals, and other settings repair electric and electronic equipment when breakdowns occur and install new electrical equipment. When breakdowns occur, they must make the necessary repairs as quickly as possible in order to minimize inconvenience. They may replace items such as circuit breakers, fuses, switches, electrical and electronic components, or wire. Electricians also periodically inspect all equipment to ensure it is operating properly, and locate and correct problems before breakdowns occur. Electricians also advise management whether continued operation of equipment could be hazardous. When working with complex electronic devices, they may work with engineers, engineering technicians, line installers and repairers, or industrial machinery installation, repair, and maintenance workers. (Sections on these occupations appear elsewhere in the Handbook.)
Although primarily classified as work for line installers and repairers, electricians also may install low voltage wiring systems in addition to wiring a building’s electrical system. Low voltage wiring involves voice, data, and video wiring systems, such as those for telephones, computers and related equipment, intercoms, and fire alarm and security systems. Electricians also may install coaxial or fiber optic cable for computers and other telecommunications equipment and electronic controls for industrial uses.
Electricians work both indoors and out; at construction sites, in homes, and in businesses or factories. Work may be strenuous at times and include bending conduit, lifting heavy objects, and standing, stooping, and kneeling for long periods of time. When working outdoors, they may be subject to inclement weather conditions. Some electricians may have to travel long distances to jobsites. Electricians risk injury from electrical shock, falls, and cuts; they must follow strict safety procedures to avoid injuries.
Most electricians work a standard 40-hour week, although overtime may be required. Those in maintenance work may work nights or weekends, and be on call to go to the worksite when needed. Electricians working in industrial settings may also have periodic extended overtime during scheduled maintenance or retooling periods. Companies that operate 24 hours a day may employ three shifts of electricians.
Most electricians learn their trade through apprenticeship programs. These programs combine on-the-job training with related classroom instruction. Apprenticeship programs may be sponsored by joint training committees made up of local unions of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and local chapters of the National Electrical Contractors Association; company management committees of individual electrical contracting companies; or local chapters of the Associated Builders and Contractors and the Independent Electrical Contractors Association. Because of the comprehensive training received, those who complete apprenticeship programs qualify to do both maintenance and construction work.
Applicants for apprenticeships usually must be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma or a G.E.D. They should have good math and English skills, since most instruction manuals are in English. They also may have to pass a test and meet other requirements. Apprenticeship programs usually last 4 years and each year include at least 144 hours of classroom instruction and 2,000 hours of on-the-job training. In the classroom, apprentices learn electrical theory and installing and maintaining electrical systems. There also take classes in blueprint reading, mathematics, electrical code requirements, and safety and first aid practices also may receive specialized training in soldering, communications, fire alarm systems, and cranes and elevators. On the job, apprentices work under the supervision of experienced electricians. At first, they drill holes, set anchors, and attach conduit. Later, they measure, fabricate, and install conduit, as well as install, connect, and test wiring, outlets, and switches. They also learn to set up and draw diagrams for entire electrical systems. To complete the apprenticeship and become electricians, apprentices must demonstrate mastery of the electrician’s work
Some persons seeking to become electricians choose to obtain their classroom training before seeking a job. Training to become an electrician is offered by a number of public and private vocational-technical schools and training academies in affiliation with local unions and contractor organizations. Employers often hire students who complete these programs and usually start them at a more advanced level than those without the training. A few persons become electricians by first working as helpers, assisting electricians setting up job sites, gathering materials, and doing other nonelectrical work, before entering an apprenticeship program.
Skills needed to become an electrician include manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination, physical fitness, and a good sense of balance. The ability to solve arithmetic problems quickly and accurately also is required. Good color vision is needed because workers frequently must identify electrical wires by color. In addition, a good work history or military service is viewed favorably by apprenticeship committees and employers.
Most localities require electricians to be licensed. Although licensing requirements vary from area to area, electricians usually must pass an examination that tests their knowledge of electrical theory, the National Electrical Code, and local electric and building codes. Experienced electricians periodically take courses offered by their employer or union to keep abreast of changes in the National Electrical Code and new materials or methods of installation. For example, classes on installing low voltage voice, data, and video systems have recently become common as these systems have become more prevalent.
Experienced electricians can advance to jobs as supervisors. In construction they also may become project managers or construction superintendents. Those with sufficient capital and management skills may start their own contracting business, although this may require an electrical contractor’s license. Many electricians also become electrical inspectors. Supervisors and contractors should be able to identify and estimate the correct type and quantity of materials needed to complete a job, and accurately estimate how long a job will take to complete and at what cost. For those who seek to advance, it is increasingly important to be able to communicate in both English and Spanish in order to relay instructions and safety precautions to workers with limited understanding of English; Spanish-speaking workers make up a large part of the construction workforce in many areas. Spanish-speaking workers who want to advance in this occupation need very good English skills to understand instruction presented in classes and installation instructions, which are usually written in English and are highly technical.
Electricians held about 656,000 jobs in 2004. Nearly two-thirds of wage and salary workers were employed in the construction industry; while the remainder worked as maintenance electricians in other industries. In addition, about one in ten electricians were self-employed.
Because of the widespread need for electrical services, electrician jobs are found in all parts of the country.
Employment of electricians is expected to increase as fast as average for all occupations through the year 2014. As the population and economy grow, more electricians will be needed to install and maintain electrical devices and wiring in homes, factories, offices, and other structures. New technologies also are expected to continue to stimulate the demand for these workers. For example, buildings need to increasingly accommodate the use of computers and telecommunications equipment. Also, the increasing prevalence in factories of robots and other automated manufacturing systems will require more complex wiring systems be installed and maintained. Additional jobs will be created as older structures are rehabilitated and retrofitted, which usually requires that they be brought up to meet existing electrical codes.
In addition to jobs created by the increased demand for electrical work, many openings are expected to occur over the next decade as a large number of electricians are expected to retire. This will create good job opportunities for the most qualified jobseekers. Job openings for electricians, though, will vary by area and will be greatest in the fastest growing regions of the country.
Employment of construction electricians, like that of many other construction workers, is sensitive to changes in the economy. This results from the limited duration of construction projects and the cyclical nature of the construction industry. During economic downturns, job openings for electricians are reduced as the level of construction activity declines. Apprenticeship opportunities also are less plentiful during these periods.
Although employment of maintenance electricians is steadier than that of construction electricians, those working in the automotive and other manufacturing industries that are sensitive to cyclical swings in the economy may be laid off during recessions. Also, opportunities for maintenance electricians may be limited in many industries by the increased contracting out for electrical services in an effort to reduce operating costs and increase productivity. However, increased job opportunities for electricians in electrical contracting firms should partially offset job losses in other industries.
In May 2004, median hourly earnings of electricians were $20.33. The middle 50 percent earned between $15.43 and $26.90. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $12.18, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $33.63. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of electricians in May 2004 were as follows:
Motor vehicle parts manufacturing
Nonresidential building construction
Building equipment contractors
Apprentices usually start at between 40 and 50 percent of the rate paid to fully trained electricians, depending on experience. As apprentices become more skilled, they receive periodic pay increases throughout the course of their training.
Some electricians are members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Among unions representing maintenance electricians are the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine, and Furniture Workers; the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; the International Union, United Automobile, Aircraft and Agricultural Implement Workers of America; and the United Steelworkers of America.
For details about apprenticeships or other work opportunities in this trade, contact the offices of the State employment service, the State apprenticeship agency, local electrical contractors or firms that employ maintenance electricians, or local union-management electrician apprenticeship committees. This information also may be available from local chapters of the Independent Electrical Contractors, Inc.; the National Electrical Contractors Association; the Home Builders Institute; the Associated Builders and Contractors; and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
For information about union apprenticeship and training programs, contact:
National Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee (NJATC), 301 Prince George’s Blvd., Upper Marlboro, MD 20774. Internet: http://www.njatc.org
National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), 3 Metro Center, Suite 1100, Bethesda, MD 20814. Internet: http://www.necanet.org
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), 1125 15th St. NW., Washington, DC 20005. Internet: http://www.ibew.org
For information about independent apprenticeship programs, contact:
Associated Builders and Contractors, Workforce Development Department, 4250 North Fairfax Dr., 9th Floor, Arlington, VA 22203. Internet: http://www.trytools.org
Independent Electrical Contractors, Inc., 4401 Ford Ave., Suite 1100, Alexandria, VA 22302. Internet: http://www.ieci.org
National Association of Home Builders, Home Builders Institute, 1201 15th St. NW., Washington, DC 20005. Internet: http://www.hbi.org
National Center for Construction Education and Research, P.O. Box 141104, Gainesville, FL 32614-1104. Internet: http://www.nccer.org
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition,
Electricians, on the Internet at
(visited June 21, 2006).