Benefits of Becoming a Union Electrician Instead Of Going To College
When I was in high school, I had the thought that I needed to go to college embedded in my brain. That was the next step after graduation and for me, there didn’t seem to be another option. But what if I told you there was a potentially BETTER option. One that I’ve actually taken and I love it. I want to tell you today the benefits of becoming a union electrician instead of going to college.
Why should you explore the possibilities of becoming a union electrician instead of going to college?
CompetetivePay – The average journeyman electrician will make between $60,000 and $75,000 per year.
- Cost – You’ll be put through training put together by the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC) that will cost you $2,500-$5,000 in total. Your average bachelor’s degree costs $50,000
- Training – All of your schooling is directly applicable to your career. No longer will you have to sit through time-wasting electives.
- On The Job Training – Another part of your training is actually going to work. Yes, you get to work full-time.
- Job Security – Since you are an organized member of a union, they will help make sure you are working as much as possible. No more putting out dozens of resumes for dozens of rejection letters.
- Other Benefits – As soon as you become an organized member and start working, you may qualify for benefits such as retirement, healthcare, etc.
- Gain Exposure- If you decide you want to go to college someday, you still can. But why not get paid to learn a transferable skill and see all kinds of different companies and industries while you are getting paid? Lots of additional opportunities can arise from the many places electricians work; refineries, hospitals, airports, office buildings, restaurants, manufacturing plants, arenas, stadiums, and highways are just a few potential job sites that exposure and knowledge can be gained, in more subjects than just electricity.
These benefits are great and I’m thankful for them every day. What I didn’t tell you in the beginning though is that I actually went to college. I graduated in 2016 from Wichita State University B.B.A with an emphasis in finance and management. I don’t regret going to college and wouldn’t have changed how I did it. My experiences were right for me but they have allowed me to recognize that trade school is a great choice for some.
Mike Rowe, the popular TV personality, has made it his mission to educate young people on this. He has established Mike Rowe Works which aims to show people the possibilities in trade jobs and also allows them to apply for
What Do Electricians Do?
When most people think about electricians, the first thing that comes to mind is a guy screwing in a light bulb or climbing a power pole. I can honestly say in my three years in the trade I’ve never climbed a pole and have screwed in less than a dozen bulbs. The rest of my time has been learning skills that are much more enjoyable and thought provoking.
When you are still in school and not a fully licensed journeyman, you will get an opportunity to try multiple different aspects of electrical work within the trade. Yes, as your career goes on, you may become specialized in a certain area. This is usually centered around what you’re good at and what you enjoy. Until you find that niche, be ready to try a little of everything. Here are
- Fire alarm systems
- Indoor/outdoor lighting systems
- Traffic signals
- Blue print reading
- Operating heavy machinery
Along with learning all kinds of skills within the trade, your job site can also change. I have been on a site for as little as a couple days, and on a different site for as long as a year plus. Similar to the skills you learn, what site you work at may be dependent on what you’re good at.
If you interact with a customer well and they like your work, you might do more maintenance. Have the ability to manage a lot of people? Then you may become the foreman on a big job. Do you like problem-solving and a new situation every day? Then being a service truck driver may be the right spot for you.
To illustrate this, here are the job settings I’ve been on over the last 3 years:
- 25-mile long interstate project
- Plastics plant
- Office Building
- Call Center
- Aircraft manufacturing facility
If I’ve seen this many different sites in just a couple years, then think about the possibilities over a career? It’s not for everyone but for me, it sure beats a cubicle.
Let’s get to what’s important here: the pay. What it boils down to is we each want to make a living that can support ourselves and our family. Indeed.com says the average salary for a journeyman electrician in the United States is $31.11 per hour or $62,500 a year.
It’s important to note here that the wage is going to change based on your location. Each local or chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) sets and negotiates their own contract (more on that later). Part of this contract is the pay, thus you may see some slight differences. From my personal experience, I’ve worked in the Atlanta, Georgia, and the Wichita, Kansas area and journeyman rates are similar.
Paid To Go To School
The biggest and in my opinion, the most important difference between college and becoming a union electrician is that you get to work while you go to
There are thousands of people per year that are pursuing degrees that do unpaid internships or residencies. They don’t have the time to work which drives them to have to take out more student loans. It’s a vicious cycle that may be worth it if you are convinced that it is your dream career. But what if it’s not?
Your starting pay is again, going to depend on your local
Have you ever heard of a college paying you $15 per hour your freshmen year, then giving you a $3 raise every single year? Yeah, me neither.
At the end of this article, I’ll give you a place to look up your local IBEW so you can get more information about the pay scale and other benefits.
One of the most overlooked benefits to becoming a union electrician is the training we get. Electricity is dangerous, there’s no question about it. If you aren’t properly trained, there is always the possibility of you getting seriously hurt or even worse.
One of the major benefits of becoming a union electrician instead of going to college is we get trained for things that are directly applicable to what we’re doing. Similar to college though, we attend school for around four years. However, we aren’t a full-time student like you would be if you attended a university (I’ll explain how in a minute). Also, just like a college, it isn’t free. Each local will be different but on average a school year costs $400-$600 total. Yes, you read that right.
Training takes place in two different ways: classroom training and on-the-job training.
Just because you decided you didn’t want to go to college doesn’t mean you get to escape the classroom. Luckily for you and me, it’s far less demanding on your schedule than what a college would require. Again, this is going to depend on where you are located but the most common school schedule is to attend one day, every other week.
That’s right. I only go to class on Tuesday’s, every other week.
In-class training lays the groundwork for what being an electrician is all about. It teaches you the theory behind it all and gives you exposure to things you may not see on a job site. It gives you a chance to ask questions in a calm setting unlike a job site where you need to be as productive as possible.
The other major part of your training is on-the-job. You surely didn’t think you would get paid to do nothing right? Of course not. On-the-job training allows you to put what you’ve learned in the classroom into practice. Additionally, you will work along side a journeyman electrician to guide you and show you best practices.
As a part of most apprenticeships, you have to have a certain amount of on-the-job training hours in order to graduate from the program. If you work full-time and show up everyday, this won’t be a problem.
Having solid pay and great training aren’t the only benefits of choosing to become a union electrician instead of going to college. Since you are a part of a union, you are organized. The short and sweet of this means that you have people negotiating a better standard of life for you constantly. Because of that, we get additional benefits.
Saving for retirement is something everyone seems to struggle with. It’s something that I tried to simplify in my book Young, Dumb, and NOT Broke?!. Lucky for us, the union takes care of this for you. We actually have a couple of different retirement funds that would take a whole article to explain but for now, let’s just talk about the 401k.
A 401k is the most common type of retirement account where you make contributions and then are taxed on it later. The way this works through the union is that we make our specific pay rate and then ON TOP OF THAT, the contractor puts money into our 401k.
This is a certain %. For me it’s 16% which is a huge number in comparison to a typical salary job. When you look at the numbers behind this, it means that you are getting over $10,000 added to your retirement account every single year by a contractor. If you work for 40 years, that adds up to over $400,000. Let compounding interest work it’s magic and this number has the possibility of reaching over $1,000,000.
The other huge benefit is that as soon as that money goes into your account, it’s 100% yours. There is no vesting period. A vesting period is something employers use to incentivize you to stay at the company for a certain number of years. For example, the large corporation I worked at had a 5 year vesting period. So imagine that you’ve been working at a company for three years and you decide to take another job. When you leave, you are only able to take a years-of-service based amount of your 401k with you. At my previous job, each year would equal 20%. So when you quit that job at 3 years, you’re only taking 60% of your saved up 401k with you. After 5 years, you would get all 100%.
– Health Insurance
The second is a hot topic in the US today and that is health insurance. While I think helping establish a retirement fund is great, I think that getting health insurance is even more important. Each local will be different but for the most part, your employer pays in every pay cycle to get you and sometimes your family health insurance.
Health insurance coverage can change drastically in every location. It’s not uncommon to see low deductibles that cover general clinic visits, dental procedures, and even eye care.
It is pretty common that we don’t get paid vacation days like you would in a typical salary job. What we do get though, is vacation pay added onto our paycheck in the form of a percentage. This is a benefit that allows us to take vacation whenever we want and in a round about way, gives us paid time off.
The percentage varies from 5-10% which seems like a small number but can have a huge impact. If you made $700 a week at 7.5% then you would get $52.50 a week. Or a total of $2,730 a year, which equates to about 3 weeks of paid vacation.
It is important to note that you will get paid hourly. This means opportunity for overtime and even double time is always there.
– The Union Itself
I briefly mentioned it above, but the union is there to support you and represent you. They do a ton of things that people just don’t know about. In my eyes, one of the best things they do is keep a good relationship with the contractors that actually hire you. The largest part of that is negotiating a contract that is a win-win. This contract is quite complex but their main goal is to advance your interests as an electrician. Whether this be through raising wages, lowering hours, or just the working conditions and methods overall.
Why This May Be A Better Option Than College
Our economy has a big problem coming. One that you would have never even considered a potential issue fifteen years ago. We have a shortage of skilled laborers and it’s only getting worse. I know this is true just from my personal experience but the Bureau of Labor and Statistics backs this up. They say that there are over 150,000 vacant construction jobs nationwide.
A 2015 survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America found that out of the 1,358 contractors surveyed, 60% of them were having a hard time finding electricians in particular. This is a problem, but also a potential opportunity for someone looking to becoming a union electrician instead of going to college.
On the flip side of things, there are record breaking graduation classes from universities. I’m not knocking higher education and its great that people are getting smarter. What isn’t great is that most of these grads are having a hard time finding a job. If they are lucky enough to get hired, often times they are underemployed.
The biggest reason I think people should look at becoming a union electrician instead of going to college is the money aspect. It’s no secret that college is expensive and it’s only getting worse. Nothing makes me cringe more than hearing someone say they took out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans only to change their mind about what they wanted to do.
These student loans stay with people for 5,10, even 20 years after they graduate. It’s not a monkey on their back; it’s a gorilla. The average 4-year degree cost around $50,000 dollars. This can be a great investment IF you know exactly what you want to do and there is a demand for that job.
Alternatively, the four years of training it costs to become a union electrician is going to cost you a total of $3,000 max. Let me break all of this down in a easy-to-read chart. For the numbers, I’m going to use the pay rates that I talked about above and these assumptions:
- College cost: $50,000 divided up over 4 years.
- Work 20 hours a week at a $10/hour job while in college
- You pay off each school year in full so no student loans (loans would make this even worse)
The only number you need to focus on is the one at the bottom right. After 6 years a union electrician will have over $150,000 in earnings! I get that this is over simplified and the long term may be different, but the numbers don’t lie. I know a handful of guys that are retiring with over $1,000,000 in their retirement accounts.
1) Where do I apply for the union electrician apprenticeship program?
The first thing you need to do is figure out what local you are located in. For example I live in Wichita, Kansas which is Local 271. From there you can find out where their offices are and give them a call. Here’s a search tool where you can input your location: Local Union Directory
2) Are there positions above a journeyman electrician?
Yes absolutely! The first is becoming a foreman or general foreman where you spend more time managing man power and the job in general than turning a screwdriver. From there you could maybe become a safety director, superintendent, or project manager.
3) What’s the best part of being an electrician?
The endless opportunities. Once you get through the apprenticeship you can travel whatever route fits you best. If you want to be a service truck driver, work outdoors, or deal with data systems, you can. Usually you will find a niche of what you’re good at and what you like. If you truly are good at it, then a contractor will find a way for you to do it as often as possible.
The Bottom Line
There’s no right or wrong direction to go from here and the purpose of this article wasn’t to convince you one way or the other. Rather, the goal was to lay out the facts of other opportunities that you may be interested in. For the last 20+ years, young adults have had it pounded into their brains that they need to go to college or they won’t be ‘successful’. This is a myth. Actually worse yet, it’s a big fat lie.
Here’s the facts; we are going to run out of skilled craftsmen and someone needs to fill that void. You don’t have to have a degree in economics to know that when the supply of trained labor goes down. the demand goes up. In addition, when demand goes up, usually wages follow.
Now is a perfect opportunity to start thinking about whether becoming a union electrician is a better option for you than going to college.
If you want to learn more about my experiences or need help figuring out who to contact for more information then shoot me a message via the Contact Us tab.
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