Heating, lighting, power, air-conditioning, and refrigeration components all operate through electrical systems that are assembled, installed, and maintained by electricians. Electricians generally specialize in either construction or maintenance, although some workers do both.
To install the electrical systems in factories, homes, and other structures, electricians follow blueprints as well as instructions from supervisors. To install wiring in factories and offices, they first place conduit (pipe or tubing) inside partitions, walls, or other concealed areas as designated by building plans. Workers also fasten to the wall small metal and plastic boxes that will house electrical switches and outlets. To complete circuits between these boxes, they then pull insulated wires or cables through the conduit. They work carefully to avoid damaging any wires or cables. In lighter construction, such as housing, plastic covered wire usually is used rather than conduit.
Regardless of the type of wire being used, electricians connect it to circuit breakers, transformers, or other components. Wires are joined by twisting ends together with pliers and covering the ends with special plastic connectors. When additional strength is desired, they may use an electric "soldering gun" to melt metal onto the twisted wires, then cover them with durable, electrical tape. When the wiring is finished, they test the circuits for proper connections.
In addition to wiring a building's electrical system, electricians may install coaxial or fiber optic cable for computers and telecommunications equipment. As part of the deregulations of the telephone industry, individuals and careeres can now install and maintain the phone lines in their own buildings. As a result, some electricians install telephone wiring and equipment. Maintenance work varies greatly, depending on where the electricians is employed. Electricians who work in large factories may repair particular items, such as motors or electronic controllers for machine tools and robots. Those in office buildings and small plants can repair all kinds of electrical equipment. Electricians spend much of their time doing preventive maintenance--periodic inspection of equipment to locate and correct defects before breakdowns occur. When trouble occurs, they must find the cause and make repairs. Electricians may replace items such as circuit breakers, fuses, switches, or wire. They also may advise management whether continued operation of equipment would be hazardous, and they may install new electrical equipment.
Electricians use hand tools such as screwdrivers, pliers, knives, and hacksaws. They also use power tools, testing equipment, and oscilloscopes.
Electricians work is active and sometime strenuous. They often work from ladders and scaffolds. They frequently work in awkward or cramped positions. Electricians risk injury from electrical shock, falls, and cuts from sharp objects. To avoid injuries, they use protective equipment and clothing and follow safety procedures.
Electricians held about 545,000 jobs in 1990. Slightly more than half were employed in the construction industry. Others worked as maintenance electricians and were employed in virtually every industry. In addition, about 1 out of 11 electricians was self- employed.
Because of the widespread need for electrical services, jobs for electricians are found in all parts of the country.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Most training authorities recommend the completion of a 4-year apprenticeship program as the best way to learn the electrical trade because apprenticeship gives trainees a thorough knowledge of the trade and improves their ability to find jobs during their work life. A larger proportion of electricians are trained through apprenticeship than workers in other construction trades. Nevertheless, many electricians learn their trade informally on the job.
Apprenticeship programs are sponsored and supervised by local union-management committees or by company management committees. Because the training is comprehensive, people who complete apprenticeship programs qualify to do both maintenance and construction work. These programs provide 144 hours of classroom instruction each year in addition to 2,000 hours of on-the-job training. In the classroom, apprentices learn blueprint reading, electrical theory, electronics, mathematics, electrical code requirements, and safety and first aid practices. On the job, under the supervision of experienced electricians, apprentices must demonstrate mastery of the electrician's work. At first, apprentices drill holes, set anchors, and set up conduit. Later, they measure, bend, 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.
Beginners who are not apprentices can pick up the trade informally by working as helpers for experienced electricians. While learning to install conduit, connect wires, and test circuits, helpers are also taught safety practices. Many helpers gain additional knowledge through trade school or correspondence courses, or through special training in the Armed Forces. All applicants should be in good health and have at least average physical strength. Agility and dexterity also are important. Good color vision is needed because workers frequently must identify electrical wires by color. Applicants for apprentice positions usually must be at least 18 years old and have a high school or vocational school diploma. Courses in electricity, electronics, mechanical drawing, science, algebra, and shop provide a good background. A background in electronics is increasingly important for people wishing to become maintenance electricians because of the increasing use of complex electronic controls on manufacturing equipment.
To obtain a license, necessary for employment in most localities, electricians must pass an examination that tests their knowledge of electrical theory, the National Electric Code, and local electric and building codes.
Experienced electricians can become supervisors. Electricians with sufficient capital and management skill can start their own contracting careeres. In many areas, a contractor must have an electrical contractor's license.
Employment of electricians is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2000. As the population and the economy grow, more electricians will be needed to maintain the electrical systems used by industry and to install electrical devices and wiring in new homes, factories, offices, and other structures. New technologies also are expected to continue to stimulate demand for workers. Buildings will be prewired during construction to accommodate use of computers and telecommunications equipment. More and more factories will be using robots and automated manufacturing systems. Installation of this equipment, which is expected to increase sharply, should generate many job opportunities.
In addition to jobs created by increased demand for electricians, many openings will occur as electricians transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force. The total number of jobs openings for electricians each year is among the highest for all craft occupations, mainly because the occupation is large. A smaller proportion of electricians than of other craft workers leave their occupation each year. Electricians have a strong attachment to their occupation because they must spend about 4 years acquiring their training and enjoy relatively high earnings.
Although the employment outlook for electricians is expected to be good over the long run, people wishing to become construction electricians should expect to experience periods of unemployment. These result 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 declines. Although employment of maintenance electricians is steadier than that for construction electricians, electricians working in automobile, steel, and other industries that are sensitive to cyclical swings in the economy may be laid off during recessions.
Job opportunities for electricians also vary by geographic area. Employment opportunities follow the movement of people and careeres among States and local areas and reflect differences in local economic conditions. The number of job opportunities in a given year may fluctuate widely from area to area.
Median weekly earnings for full-time electricians who were not self-employed were $478 in 1990. The middle 50 percent earned between $325 and $612 weekly. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $254 while the highest 10 percent earned more than $740.
Electricians in metropolitan areas earned about $14.90 an hour in 1990 compared with $9.29 an hour for all production and non supervisory workers in private industry, except farming. They generally earned more in the Midwest and West than in the Northeast and South. Because the seasonal nature of construction affects electricians less than workers in most building trades, annual earnings also tend to be higher.
Depending on experience, apprentices usually start at 35 to 50 percent of the rate paid to experienced electricians and increase periodically.
Many construction electricians are members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Among unions organizing maintenance electricians are the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers; the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of American; and the United Steel workers of America.
To install and maintain electrical systems, electricians combine manual skill and a knowledge of electrical materials and concepts. Other occupations involving similar skills include air-conditioning mechanics, cable installers and repairers, electronics mechanics, and elevator constructors.
Sources of Additional Information
For details about apprenticeships or other work opportunities in this trade, contact local electrical contractors; local chapters of the Independent Electrical Contractors, Inc., the National Electrical Contractors Association, or the Associated Builders and Contractors; a local union of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; a local union- management apprenticeship committee; local firms that employ maintenance electricians; or the nearest office of the State employment service or State apprenticeship agency. Some local employment service offices screen applicants and give aptitude tests. For general information about the work of electricians, contact:
Independent Electrical Contractors, Inc., 1101 Connecticut Ave., NW., Suite 700, Washington, D.C. 20036.
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, 1125 15th St. NW., Washington, D.C. 20005. National Electrical Contractors Association, 7315 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, MD 20814.
National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee for the Electrical Industry, 9700-D George Palmer Hwy., Lanham, MD 20706.
Associated Builders and Contractors, 729 15th St., NW., Washington, D.C. 20005