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Circuits, fuses, volts and watts – terms we vaguely recall from grade-school science class – are all part of an electrician’s jargon. The more than 519,850 workers in this profession know the ins and outs of designing lighting systems, installing street lights and intercom systems, ensuring electrical work is up to code and repairing faulty wiring and fixtures. To qualify for such work, electricians must undergo at least four years of training as an apprentice, followed by whatever licensing their state requires. Most in the profession specialize in either designing, installing, maintaining and repairing the motors, equipment and electrical systems of businesses and factories or installing, maintaining and repairing the electrical systems of residences. "I like to work on projects that have complex systems, such as water and wastewater treatment facilities," says Ryan Lee, a journeyman electrician and crew leader with the Ohio-based company Claypool Electric. "I am kind of a perfectionist, and these types of facilities require a great deal of accuracy to ensure that tasks are done accurately."
There are other subsets, like electricians who specialize in iron and steel mills, or electricians who coordinate the lighting for a motion picture or television program. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most stable employment is for electricians who work for businesses and factories. And at present, this is a profession where employment is expected to blossom. Learning to use alternative energy sources in homes and businesses requires coordination with electricians, and maintenance still needs to be performed on older electrical systems. The BLS predicts this occupation will grow by 19.7 percent from 2012 to 2022, which translates to 224,600 new positions.
This can be a lucrative career. In 2012, the median wage for an electrician was $49,840. The highest-paid earned north of $80,000, while the lowest-paid electricians earned around $30,000 that year. The best-paying industries include motion pictures (where electricians are known as gaffers) and natural gas distribution. The best-paying cities include Trenton, N.J., San Francisco, New York City and Fairbanks, Alaska. An apprentice usually makes between 30 percent and 50 percent less than someone who is fully trained.
"My job is physically demanding, but that does not mean that I have not had a great deal of education to do it correctly," Underwood says. "I work with complex systems that could kill you in an instant. ... Just because you can wire a ceiling fan in your house does not make you a competent electrician. What we deal with is much more complex, which is why it takes four years of study to reach journey-level status." Some choose to attend a technical school before entering their apprenticeship program, although this isn't required. And most program entrants are at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma or equivalent. Not everyone enters the field at a young age, however. "I never knew there would be a way for me to become a state-certified journeyman electrician at this point in my life," says Martin Messerly, another employee with Claypool Electric who had previously worked 27 years as a journeyman mean cutter. "I always thought that it was something that you had to do right out of high school. Now, I just finished my fourth year of apprenticeship training, and with a few more [on-the-job training] hours, I will be a state-certified journeyman electrician."
An electrician may be taught about volts and amperes during an apprenticeship, but some of their most-used skills are inherent. Many of those who excel in this field are critical thinkers who can quickly diagnose electrical problems. They should also be good listeners and practice patience. "It takes time to solve complex issues with equipment that can be expensive," says Anthony Pennybaker, a Claypool Electric employee.
Learning to respect and collaborate with other construction workers is also essential. Underwood says it's important to know that "all levels of people on a job site can have a good idea, and [you should also have] the willingness to listen to them."
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Last updated by Casey Quinlan.