The work of electricians keeps our lights on, our refrigerators cold and our computers working. The power demands of our modern homes and buildings require the expertise of several types of electrical contractors. The skills they employ take years of development through formal education and on-the-job training. As emerging technologies change the ways we live, work and play, the demand for electricians continues to grow.
What Do Electrical Contractors Do?
Electrical contractors fall into one of three type of contractors: inside electrician, outside electrician or integrated building systems electrician. The three categories differ in the type of work each electrician performs. Many construction projects require the work of all three types of electrical contractors.
Inside Electrical Contractors
Inside electrical contractors work within the interior of a house or building and outside along the perimeter of the structure. They install wiring and components for fixtures such as electrical outlets, ceiling lights and patio lighting.
Some electricians assist homeowners, building owners and building contractors with the layout and design of electric cabling for new structures. Inside electricians provide maintenance for existing electrical fittings and replace or repair defective electrical wires or fixtures.
You can understand the diverse nature of an inside electrician’s job by considering some of the work they are contracted to perform. For example, a building contractor might hire an inside electrician to install the wiring and electrical outlets in a new building. A family might hire an inside electrician to install a ceiling fan or a 220-volt electrical outlet to operate an air conditioner or clothes dryer. A landscaping company might contract an inside electrician to install garden lighting or electrical cabling to operate the lights and pump system of a new swimming pool.
Outside Electrical Contractors
Outside electricians – also called line contractors or linemen – work with high-voltage power lines that distribute electricity from the electric grid to buildings and houses. The electric grid is the network of power cables, substations and electrical transformers that deliver electricity from a power generating plant to a community.
Linemen install, repair and replace high-voltage power lines and transformers. When a lightning strike shuts down the electrical power in a neighborhood, the electric company sends a team of outside electricians to locate and repair the source of the damage.
Some line contractors work in power plants, monitoring electrical production, maintaining electric generating equipment, and troubleshooting and repairing faulty equipment.
Over the years, the lineman profession has changed with the evolution of technology. America operates using an electric grid designed and installed in the late 19th century, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Over the decades, line contractors have worked to upgrade power lines and transformers with newer and more technologically advanced equipment.
As new technology has entered the marketplace, job opportunities for line contractors have increased. Today, line contractors install, maintain and repair lines and infrastructure transmission equipment for a variety of telecommunications utilities, including cable television, cellphone transmission and fiber optic internet.
A new wave of technology promises to revolutionize the outside electrician profession. The energy industry is preparing to create a new “smart grid” infrastructure to power the technology that is redefining our future. The smart grid will distribute energy generated from traditional sources such as coal burning and hydroelectric power plants, as well as green energy sources such as solar and wind farms. The new infrastructure will incorporate the mechanics of power generation with digital and computer monitoring, sensing and control technology. The large-scale revamp calls for the coordinated skills of all three types of electrical contractors.
Integrated Building Systems Contractors
Integrated building systems (IBS) electricians – also called voice/data/video electrical (VDV) contractors – primarily work with technologies that make houses and offices functional abodes and workspaces. Like inside contractors, IBS electricians work in the interior and within the perimeter of houses and buildings, installing technical products such as wireless networks, fiber optic infrastructure, backup power supplies, security systems and climate controls.
This 21st-century career stems from the growth of home automation that controls everything from power generation to streaming entertainment. IBS contractors must integrate complex systems, comprising different types of technology, to work in concert. For example, an IBS contractor might install a smart home system that integrates a home security system with Wi-Fi enabled closed-circuit cameras and automated light fixtures that must activate simultaneously during a burglary.
The tasks of an IBS contractor constantly change as new technology arrives at the marketplace. Emerging technologies such as smart windows, which control the amount of natural light that enters a home or building, will play a major role in energy conservation and comfort control. IBS contractors must stay abreast of the latest smart-building technologies and learn to integrate them seamlessly with existing infrastructure.
As renewable energy and off-grid construction become more common, the role of the IBS electrician will increase. In future constructions, home and building plans will call for a variety of power-generating features such as solar wall curtains and photovoltaic roof tiles, which an IBS contractor must integrate with battery supply units and electric distribution systems. IBS contractors will install, maintain and repair smart-home features and optimize them for maximum control and energy efficiency.
IBS contractors also install and optimize telecommunication and entertainment systems. For example, a building contractor might hire an IBS contractor to install a Wi-Fi internet system that provides complete coverage in a multistory office building. A family might turn to an IBS contractor to install Bluetooth-enabled speakers throughout their house or a Wi-Fi enabled lighting system that integrates with retractable skylights.
Electrician Job Classifications
Electricians perform at different levels within the industry. Electrician classifications, which include apprentice, journeyman and master, represent positions in the pecking order and usually an income hierarchy.
Most employers seek linemen, inside electricians and IBS electricians who have earned at least a high school diploma. Many prefer candidates who have completed a certificate or associate degree program in disciplines such as telecommunications, electronics or electrical utilities from a community college or technical school. Technical school certificate programs typically take about one year to complete, while an associate degree program takes around two years.
Some job candidates qualify for entry-level or advanced electrician positions after receiving training and experience during military service. Students pursuing a career as an electrician can benefit from coursework in subjects such as fiber optics, electricity, microwave transmission and electronics.
Novice electricians must complete an on-the-job training program or apprenticeship. Typically, electrician apprenticeships take three to five years to complete and usually include hands-on training and classroom coursework.
Apprenticeships play an important role in the education of electricians because they typically focus on a specialty area that corresponds to the service their employer delivers. In some cases, employers work with electrical unions to design and administer their apprentice programs.
Most apprenticeships are paid and consist of about 2,000 hours per year of hands-on and classroom training. Classroom studies provide foundational knowledge and include subjects such as mathematics, electrical theory, building code requirements, blueprint literacy and first-aid procedures. Hands-on training may include practical exercises working with home electrical systems or building features such as elevators, communication infrastructure and security systems.
During the apprenticeship, the apprentice serves as an assistant to an experienced electrician. Typically, the experienced electrician tasks the apprentice with basic duties during the beginning of the program and slowly increases the complexity of tasks as the apprentice progresses. Beginning tasks might include troubleshooting a defective electrical outlet, while advanced duties might focus on wiring a home according to schematics and diagrams.
Although electricians do not need a license, they can earn certification from industry organizations, which can enhance their careers by making their skill more marketable. For example, a telecommunications lineman can earn a fiber optics certification from the Fiber Optics Association. The Electrical Training Alliance offers several types of certifications for outside and inside electricians.
The term “journeyman” applies to electricians who have completed their on-the-job training or apprenticeship. After years of supervision, a journeyman can carry out electrician duties without constant supervision.
Most journeymen have accumulated a variety of skills in installing, maintaining and repairing electrical features of houses, office buildings and others types of commercial structures. A journeyman may have experience working with heating and cooling systems, internal wiring, smart home systems and lighting equipment. A journeyman lineman may have years of experience installing and repairing electrical transformers, and an IBS journeyman might be an expert in installing solar power systems.
Often, electricians remain in the journeyman classification for many years before advancing to the master electrician level.
Master electricians are at the top of their profession. They perform the same types of work as journeymen, but many operate their own businesses or work independently, offering services directly to clients.
In some instances, master electricians design electrical systems. Most master electricians have experience supervising teams of journeymen and training apprentices.
Essential Qualities of Electricians
In addition to the training electricians receive in school, on the job and during their apprenticeships, they must possess certain physical and personal qualities to succeed in their careers. Since electrical systems use color-coded wires, electricians must have good vision and color perception.
Mistakes in the electrician trade can lead to serious injuries or death, often caused by electrocution or fire. Electricians must apply sound critical-thinking skills when installing electrical wiring and diagnosing defective electrical systems. Likewise, electricians need good communication skills to avoid accidents and injuries when working with other people at construction sites.
Electricians must have the physical stamina to carry heavy equipment and have the flexibility to work in close quarters.
A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) survey of linemen revealed a median income of nearly $70,000 in 2017. The median income represents the center of the occupation’s pay scale. Line contractors who work in telecommunications earned a median salary of around $54,000, with top earners taking home nearly $93,000. Linemen who install power lines made around $75,000. Line contractors at the top of the pay scale made around $100,000.
In 2017, indoor and IBS electricians earned a median income of more than $54,000. Top earners made around $93,000. Government agencies paid the top salaries, followed by manufacturing companies.
Typically, apprentice electricians earn a lower salary than journeymen do. However, most employers offer apprentices pay increases as they progress through their training.
Job Outlook for Electricians
The BLS projects that job opportunities for all line contractors should increase by around 8 percent by 2026. Employment opportunities in the telecommunications sector are expected to show little or no increase. However, linemen who install power lines should experience a 14 percent increase in job opportunities.
Job opportunities for indoor and IBS electricians are set to increase by around 9 percent through 2026. IBS electricians who work with green technology such as solar photovoltaic and wind energy generation equipment should see the biggest increase in jobs. Often, electricians who specialize in alternative energy production find the most opportunities in states and cities that offer incentives for green energy installations.