Wiring the Future: Unexpected Career Paths for Electricians

Q: What type of career options do electricians have?

The demand for skilled labor is currently at an all-time high. There's a significant industry-wide push to engage younger individuals and present the trades as a viable career option. 

The field of electrical work offers a wide array of career options that go beyond the common association with wiring and residential electrical systems. Here are a few career paths to consider:

  • Residential Electricians: These electricians focus on residential properties, including homes and small businesses. They handle tasks such as installing and maintaining electrical systems, wiring, receptacles, and switches.
  • Commercial Electricians: Commercial electricians work on larger-scale projects, such as retail stores, restaurants, and other commercial buildings. Their work involves more complex electrical systems and may include lighting, HVAC systems, and power distribution.
  • Industrial Electricians: Industrial electricians are involved in public work projects and industrial settings. They work on large-scale projects like those for public transportation agencies (e.g., MTA), tunnels, railroads, and confined spaces. 
  • Specialty Electricians: Some electricians specialize in specific areas, such as working with fiber optics or renewable energy. They may install and maintain solar panels and improve photovoltaic technology.

Q: How do high school students decide if they want to pursue a career as an electrician? Are there specific skills that come naturally to them, or is there a common profile among those who choose this path?

Typically, students who enjoy hands-on work and don't necessarily prefer auditory or visual learning are well-suited for careers in the trades. Working with their hands feels natural to them, and they thrive in applying what they learn to real-life situations. They tend to pick up skills quickly, find the work productive, and have a genuine interest in it.

As mentioned earlier, there's a growing emphasis on introducing students to the trades at an earlier age to help them realize that they have options beyond going to college or joining the military. Families also play a significant role in shaping these decisions. Having a parent who works in the trades and knows the value of such a career can be influential.

Ultimately, it boils down to an interest in hands-on work, problem-solving, and the satisfaction of building things. One of the most rewarding aspects of being an electrician, or working in any trade, is seeing a project come to life and knowing that you had a direct hand in making it happen. It's a source of motivation for many in this field.

Q: What pre-apprenticeship options do students have while in high school?

In New York State, they often refer to pre-apprenticeship programs as “direct entry.” This involves collaboration between Career and Technical Education (CTE) schools or high schools and unions or trade organizations. The idea is to provide students with opportunities for exploration, where they can take classes at their high school that are specifically geared toward preparing them for an apprenticeship program in the future.

Our training program, for example, is held at a CTE high school in the evenings. Some kids that go there become electricians, and some join our workforce.

One unique aspect of our program is the “rail car lab,” where an MTA subway car is stationed. It's been there for several decades, and many of our workstations and projects are set up around it. When students walk through that room, they can see the practical applications of what they're learning.

Q: Do all electricians have to go through an apprenticeship, or is it optional?

Not all electricians have to go through an apprenticeship, as it's not a strict requirement. Some individuals who join the field may already have significant experience in construction work, perhaps from the military or another trade, making them less suited for an apprenticeship program. However, apprenticeships are particularly valuable for young people.

One of the great advantages of an apprenticeship is that it essentially provides free training. Apprentices work and earn income while receiving training alongside their work. In our case, there is no additional out-of-pocket cost for the apprentice because it's covered by their employers, who participate in the apprenticeship program.

Q: What does the Building Trades Educational Benefit Fund offer to students?

Our apprenticeship program spans five years and includes approximately 900 hours of related instruction during that time. Additionally, apprentices receive up to 9,400 hours of on-the-job training over those five years. The training covers a wide range of topics, starting with tools and safety, basic trade knowledge, mathematics, and theory, among others. By the time they graduate, apprentices are proficient in tasks like bending pipes, understanding motor controls, and advanced circuitry, making them ready for the job.

In addition to apprenticeship training, we offer various courses and programs. We have a journeyman upgrade program that allows individuals to continue their education after completing their apprenticeship. We also provide refresher courses to help individuals refine and specialize in their skills.

Safety training is a significant component of our offerings. We collaborate with the New York City Department of Buildings to provide site safety training. We also conduct OSHA classes, first aid, and CPR training for all our apprentices. The list goes on, but the emphasis is on maintaining workplace safety, keeping our apprentices informed about best work practices and safety protocols, and ensuring they are well-prepared for any job they choose.

Q: How many electricians in the United States are union members, and does union membership apply mainly to those working in large corporations?

The number of unionized electricians can vary significantly depending on the state. In states like New York, which tend to have a more liberal and union-friendly environment, the majority of electricians are union members.

In contrast, in states like Florida or Texas, you'll typically find fewer union electricians and more freelancers or non-union workers. There are different dynamics at play in these states, and the balance between union and non-union work can be quite different.

Even when you have an electrician coming to work on your home, they might still be a union employee who is occasionally taking on side projects for their local community. Some of these electricians may hold licenses that allow them to do so.

Q: What is the connection between climate-forward careers and the move into renewable energy and electricians?

Renewable energy is not only environmentally friendly but also economically viable. This is the direction in which the entire electrical field is heading. Having the skills to work with renewable energy sources is becoming essential in this field.

Some of our existing infrastructure is very outdated, with systems that are 30 to 40 years old. It's time for an overhaul. Technological advancements over these decades have been substantial. When we undertake renovation projects or develop new ones, we're incorporating the latest technology, including renewable energy solutions.

To add to that, we're looking at a shortage of 25,000 electrical technicians to handle electric vehicle repairs. That's a big gap that needs to be filled with proper training.

Climate laws also mandate specific changes. For example, New York State has a climate act that requires buildings to decarbonize. As New York is decommissioning and taking out systems to electrify buildings, they are turning to organizations like the Building Trades Educational Benefit Fund to get them ready.

On top of that, New York has 4,500 buses that will have to be replaced starting in 2028. When moving to electric buses, you’ll first need to have a place to charge them, but currently, the facilities are not ready. Over the next several years, we are going to need a workforce to get the MTA bus terminal ready for electric buses. Again, NYS is turning to organizations like the Building Trades Educational Benefit Fund to get them ready.

Even though people may not always associate green energy with electricians, green energy is a facet within the broader field of being an electrician.

Q: Why would someone choose to become an electrician versus going to college to get an electrical engineering degree?

Electrical engineers' work often involves a deeper understanding of blueprints and schematics compared to a typical electrician. Electrical engineers are the ones managing a project or spending more time in an office. The training they receive builds on the foundational knowledge that every well-rounded electrician acquires.

When comparing the two, however, it's also important to note that electrical engineering programs typically span four to five years of college and often come with a substantial price tag. When weighing the two paths, the financial burden associated with pursuing electrical engineering can be significantly greater.

In contrast, our electrician apprenticeship program is entirely free for electricians. They simply join the program, and the apprenticeship costs are covered by their employers. This hands-on approach allows apprentices to apply what they learn in real-time, and it enables them to enter the workforce shortly after high school.

Whether they hold a high school diploma or a GED, they can join our apprenticeship program, start working, save money for their future, and receive contributions toward their healthcare from their employers. These benefits extend to their spouses and families, as well as secure retirement options.

While many individuals aspire to have a pension, not everyone has access to one. However, our electricians enjoy an exceptional pension plan. Additionally, we offer other plans, including defined benefit and defined contribution options, alongside an annuity that apprentices begin building from their first year in the program.

Overall, choosing to become an electrician can lead to a more positive and fulfilling career experience.

Q: What is the acceptance rate to get into your program?

We are actively seeking new members, and our partner contractors are continually on the lookout for more workers as well.

The driving factor in our acceptance is interest. Do you have a genuine passion for hands-on work? Are you eager to dive into real work experiences right away?

The primary requirement for entering an apprenticeship program is that applicants have a GED. We don't have a waiting list, and we can admit individuals quickly. There's lots of work and projects out there, and I don't see it slowing down anytime soon.

We want to provide opportunities for people to become more educated, prepared to work with each other, do better work for themselves, help the communities around them, and just be better people as well as electricians.

Join Our Exclusive Community!

Keep up with the latest insights into fast-growing careers

The Latest Articles