It’s hard to overestimate the importance of electricians. Electric power runs nearly every device and service we depend on, and these skilled tradesmen are involved, one way or another, in keeping them all running.
What Do Electrical Technicians Do?
Although the day-to-day duties of an electrical technician vary depending on their specialization, all technicians are required to perform the following general tasks:
- Reading Electrical Blueprints and Diagrams
Electrical blueprints show the locations of circuits, outlets, and other equipment, and electricians must be able to read them. More experienced electricians collaborate with engineers and architects in creating these blueprints.
It’s the electrician’s job to figure out how to lay the wiring to all the devices efficiently and safely. They must be able to foresee potential dangers in the blueprints, such as the placement of certain equipment, and suggest safer alternatives. They will also examine which items are on the same breaker and whether the items are grouped appropriately — a concept known as phasing.
Most blueprints come with a specifications manual, or “spec book,” which provides notes and information often not included in the blueprints. It is important for the electrician to review both this book in addition to the plans.
- Installing Wires and Devices
Electricians lay out wires and connect them to circuit breakers, transformers, and other components. When laying wires throughout a structure, electrical technicians must first lay conduit, which is tubing that protects the wires. Then, with the aid of a conduit mouse or fish tape, they pull the wire or cable through the conduit. They are also responsible for connecting electrical equipment to the wires.
- Inspecting Components
An electrician should be able to inspect electrical components, such as transformers or circuit breakers, and judge whether it has any hazards or defects. For example, as many electrical problems are accompanied by a change in temperature before the failure, electricians use thermal imagers to detect small changes in the temperature of the wires.
When things stop working, electricians are called upon to identify the problem by running tests with a variety of electrical testing devices. If an outlet is not functioning, for instance, they may check the voltage, amperage, or resistance to help them locate the source of the malfunction.
- Repairing and Replacing
Once the problem is pinpointed, electricians will have to fix or repair the light fixture, control system, motor, or whatever part of the system is causing the problem. This can be challenging as the failed components are often located behind walls or other areas that are difficult to access.
While in many cases these repairs and replacements are to fix old or broken equipment, sometimes it is to comply with new state regulations or new standards for environmentally-friendly technologies.
- Conforming to the Code
Every building must adhere to local and state regulations based on the National Electric Code, and every electrician should have a working knowledge of its rules. From the minimum number of branches that must be used in branch circuit to the acceptable number of conductors that can be put inside conduit, the code contains a number of specifications.
- Showing Others the Ropes
In addition to fulfilling all of the above job responsibilities, electrical technicians will often have to teach all these tasks to an apprentice. They must also monitor the apprentice’s work and keep track of their progress.
Required Skills for an Electrical Technician
In addition to a solid knowledge of their field, electrical technicians are required to have the following abilities:
- Mechanical skills. Those who can take apart — and successfully reassemble — gadgets are often well suited for the profession. Those who become flustered from simple do-it-yourself projects may want to consider another field.
- Problem-solving skills. Once their training period ends, electricians are expected to diagnose electrical problems and come up with ways to solve them. Assessing the strengths and weaknesses of potential solutions and choosing the most appropriate one is essential.
- Reading comprehension and writing skills. Electricians often receive work orders through written communications such as email. Interpreting these verbal instructions can be essential for finishing a job properly. They must also be able to clearly communicate the work they’ve done to other electricians who may work on the project after them. For this reason, some companies require electricians to maintain inventory records or job performance logs.
- Business skills. Electricians are routinely required to send invoices, track inventory, and manage employees. Mastering these skills is especially useful if they want to advance to supervisory roles.
- Customer service skills. Many electricians work directly with customers at residences and private businesses, so they must be able to interact with customers, answer their questions, and properly address their needs.
- Physical stamina and strength. Electricians often have to move around throughout the day, dig trenches for laying conduit, and carry heavy equipment up to 50 pounds.
- Color vision. An electrician must be able to identify wires by their color.
Tools and Devices
An electrician’s tool belt is full of devices, ranging from basic appliances like rulers, hammers, and screwdrivers to specialized measurement gadgets.
Many of an electrician’s most essential tools are for shaping and cutting wire, such as pliers and wire strippers. Other items, such as nut drivers, are used for working with fasteners. Fish poles assist with pulling wire through conduit, and conduit benders help shape pipes into the desired angle. Additionally, as electricians often need to cut through walls, power tools like drills and saws are also necessary.
Electrical technicians also use specialized instruments to conduct measurements. Some of the most common devices include:
- Ammeters, which measure electrical current
- Ohmmeters, which measure electrical resistance
- Voltmeters, which measure voltage flowing between one point and another
- Oscilloscopes, which graph the rise and fall of voltage over a certain time
Working with electricity presents a variety of hazards such as shocks and burns. Because of these risks, electricians follow strict safety guidelines. These protocols range from the obvious — such as disconnecting the power source before working on a component — to working with only one hand when possible, as this reduces the chance of current passing through the chest. Some other safety measures include:
- Not using metallic pencils and rulers
- Not touching electrical equipment when hands or feet are perspiring
- Minimizing use of electrical equipment in cold rooms where condensation is likely to occur
- Draining capacitors before working near them
- Touching electrical equipment with the back of the hand only
Another essential precaution is wearing protective clothing, which includes arc flash personal protective equipment (PPE), coveralls, fire-retardant clothing (FRC), electrician vests, electrical safety gloves, and industrial safety boots. Electricians who work around noisy machinery, such as in factories, should also use hearing protection.
Types of Electrical Technicians
As electricity has an immense number of applications, there are a wide variety of specializations. Some of the more common specializations include:
- Outside Linemen, who install and maintain power lines
- Residential Electrical Installers, who install wiring and devices in homes
- Commercial Installation Electricians, who work on larger projects like security and fire protection
- Maintenance Electricians, who work to ensure large and critical electrical systems are working properly
- Panel Builders, who build and manage electrical control panels
- Highway Systems Electricians, who install traffic lights
Levels of Certification
Electricians are skilled tradesmen, and most states require extensive training and certifications. An electrician is trained to one of three levels: apprentice, journeyman, or master electrician. Although the programs and certifications vary from state to state, the three levels are generally as follows:
To become an apprentice, one must have a high school diploma and be at least 18 years of age. Some unions and contractor associations sponsor apprenticeship programs, which require a few additional criteria, such as one year of algebra, a qualifying score on an aptitude test, and no history of substance abuse.
An apprenticeship lasts roughly four years. In a single year, apprentices must complete 144 hours of technical electrical training in a classroom and at least 2,000 hours of on-the-job training. In the classroom, apprentices learn math, electrical theory, how to read blueprints, and the requirements of the National Electric Code. In on-the-job training, they work under journeymen, and their responsibilities include digging trenches for laying underground conduit, pulling wire, and bending conduit.
Apprentices make between 30 to 50 percent of fully trained electricians, and their pay increases as they gain more experience. At the end of the apprenticeship, they must pass a state-specific certification exam, which licenses them to become journeymen.
Journeymen make more money, take on more complex tasks, and can work without supervision. Some of their responsibilities include installing and servicing electrical equipment, troubleshooting problems, and training apprentices. Journeyman who want to advance to become master electricians undergo a four-year apprenticeship, in which they gain expert knowledge in a wide variety of electrical systems. At the end of the training, the journeyman will take a rigorous exam to obtain a master electrician license.
- Master Electrician
A master electrician license is the “black belt” of the trade — it’s the highest level attainable. Master electricians spend less time doing hands-on work, more time managing the rest of the crew, and take on new responsibilities like pulling permits and purchasing supplies. As you might expect, they also make more money, earning on average $4 per hour more than a journeyman. And if they don’t want to work for someone else, they can even own their own business.
Every State Is Different
Most states require electricians to pass a test to receive certification, but the requirements vary. You can find out the exact requirements by contacting your local or state licensing board. You can also learn about many of the requirements by visiting the National Electrical Contractors Association.
Work Environment and Schedule
Of the roughly 666,900 electricians in the U.S. in 2016, 65 percent were employed by electrical contractors, eight percent were self-employed, and four percent worked for the government. In 2017, they made an average of $26.11 per hour and $54,110 per year. This salary is significantly higher that the average construction trade worker income of $43,490.
Electricians work in a variety of environments, including residences, businesses, and factories. They are also constantly needed at new worksites, so they might find themselves commuting long distances.
While many electricians work on their own, those at larger companies may work with a crew. Journeymen and master electricians may also oversee helpers and apprentices. Some may also consult with construction specialists, such as those who install elevators or air conditioners.
Most electricians work a five-day, 40-hour workweek, although overtime can be expected during routine maintenance and when working on construction projects. And because of humans’ constant need for electricity, it could be said that electricians are on call at all times.
Compared to workers in all fields, electricians have a higher number of workers who are members of a union, the largest being the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Explore Career Options for Electrical Technicians
It has never been a more exciting time to become an electrician. The field is expected to grow at about nine percent between 2016 and 2026 — which is about average for all occupations. And as new energy sources like wind and solar power become more popular, the duties and responsibilities of an electrical technician will likely become more varied as well. If this job description excites you, and you want to learn more about this in-demand and stimulating field, check out the Electrical Technician Diploma at Vista College.