Deciding Between Union Contractors and Non-union Shops for Your Apprenticeship and Employment

All electricians find themselves faced with one very important question at the onset of their career:

Do I go with a union or a non-union apprenticeship program?

Although the particular job tasks that you perform as an electrician are identical between union and non-union jobs, there are many important differences when it comes to apprenticing and beginning a career with the union or with an non-union employer. Some of these differences are obvious and straightforward, while others are a little less clear-cut. Still, it is important to consider all these factors when making the decision.

Here at ElectricianSchoolEDU.org we understand the weight of this decision. We also know just how difficult it can be to find unbiased information on the subject. In the interest of helping our fellow tradesmen and aspiring electricians we took it upon ourselves to act as an objective third party, providing the facts in plain English so that you can make an informed decision on your own.

Becoming a Member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)

The IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) is the overarching parent organization that governs all local electrical unions. If you’ve seen a local chapter office in your area, you can be sure they answer up to the IBEW.

The union is part of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations), the largest federation of unions in the United States. Under the AFL-CIO, the IBEW wields enormous bargaining power. Many major electrical contracting companies, and even entire industry sectors, rely on the IBEW to develop a properly vetted, trained, and experienced workforce.

Although joining a union contractor would mean becoming a member of the IBEW, most of your contact and involvement with the union would be through your local chapter – or just “local” as most members call them.

There may be several different locals covering a particular geographic region, each with a particular specialty:

  • Telecommunications wiring
  • Residential electrical wiring
  • Industrial and commercial electrical installation

Being accepted into a union apprenticeship involves an application process. You would apply to your local JATC (Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee), which operates under a joint trust through the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and the IBEW. Just like any other application and screening process, you would be accepted based on the availability of apprenticeship openings and your qualifications.

A union apprenticeship program would include both the job experience and classroom-based instruction hours you need to qualify for your journeyman license.

Joining a Non-Union Shop as an Electrician’s Apprentice

Getting a job and beginning training or a formal apprenticeship at a non-union shop is more like the conventional job application process most people are used to: get some formal training through a trade school, answer an ad for an apprenticeship or trainee position with a specific contracting company, put in an application, go to an interview and try to land the job.

Alternately, you can pursue an apprenticeship through Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc (ABC) or Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC), two major non-union trade groups that facilitate and help sponsor apprenticeship programs through the non-union electrical contracting companies that affiliate with them.

An apprenticeship through ABC or IEC would provide the classroom-based instruction and hours on-the-job you need to earn your journeyman license.

Comparing the Wages of Union and Non-Union Electricians

The most obvious difference between going with the IBEW or a non-union shop for your apprenticeship and long-term employment can be seen in the wages you can expect to earn.

Union – Union jobs command a pay rate that has been professionally negotiated by union representatives, with the prevailing wage then enforced by the entire AFL-CIO. Consequently, wages tend to be higher with union employers than in non-union shops, particularly for apprentices and lower-ranked journeymen.

Non-union – In a non-union shop the market has more influence in determining the rate of pay. Shop owners will pay a rate consistent with what other shops are paying to retain employees, but rarely more.

Comparing Non-Union and Union Apprenticeships

Whether through a union or non-union program, training and apprenticeship programs are all about developing knowledge and job skills while accumulating the on-the-job experience and classroom-based training hours required to earn a journeyman license.

Non-union Shop – Non-union shops effectively cover the costs of training by hiring an apprentice or trainee as an employee, betting that the long-term investment in a new-hire will pay off as they become skilled and accumulate the on-the-job experience required to earn their journeyman license.

Qualifying for an entry-level trainee position with a non-union shop would often require you to first have some formal technical training. This would involve starting out by earning an electrical certificate or degree in electrical technology through a trade school, community college or vo-tech (vocational-technical school). If you are able to get hired on before completing a classroom-based program, you would have the option of taking night classes to complete the hours required to earn your journeyman license. The larger contracting companies often cover the cost of classroom-based training

There are also two membership organizations that help facilitate apprenticeship placement with non-union contractors looking to train new electricians: Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC). Apprenticeships through either one of these trade groups would include the classroom-based instruction hours you need to earn your journeyman license. Classroom-based instruction would take place at their local offices or they may make arrangements for you to attend class at a local community college or vo-tech.

Union – Union apprenticeships can be difficult to get into because of their rigorous hiring standards and since they can be quite competitive. High standards also mean high quality, however.

The Electrical Training Alliance, established through a partnership between the IBEW and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), offers programs through local Joint Apprenticeship & Training Committee (JATC) offices throughout the country.

An apprenticeship through a JATC would include the classroom-based technical training hours required to qualify for a journeyman license. In most cases, classes would be scheduled for specific days and would take place at the JATC office. Of course, most days would be spent on-the-job getting hands-on training.

Comparing Non-Union and Union Employers in Terms of Contracts and New Opportunities

Opportunities to work on particular projects and in particular fields are typically available to both union or non-union contractors, with the most qualified and cost-efficient company winning the bid.

Non-union Shop – There are relatively few IBEW local chapters in the southern part of the US as compared to the north and union employers there tend to have fewer contracts compared to independent, non-union shops.

Union – In certain industry sectors that require specialty electricians, like shipbuilding or aviation for example, certain parts of the country where these jobs are concentrated may be heavily unionized. In an industry sector, state or region where the union presence is strong, union contracts may have been in place for many years, even decades. In cases like this, non-union shop contractors may be all but restricted from being able to bid for union-based prevailing wage jobs.

In general, the northern part of the country tends to be more heavily unionized.

Job Stability with Non-Union and Union Employers

Union – Unions have a long-standing tradition of strong ties to certain industry sectors and the communities in which union members live and work. Once you are a member, you have certain rights and benefits that are permanent.

When work slows down in the winter, or even during more protracted economic downturns, the union will often help you find work in a different city or state if you are willing to relocate.

Non-union Shop – In small non-union shops in particular, you may be more affected by seasonal slow downs or larger trends that may result from things like a housing boom, and the subsequent corrections that sometimes follow. This means that if your employer doesn’t have enough work to keep you busy, you could be temporarily or permanently laid off without any immediate safeguards in place to fall back on.

Weighing Retirement and Other Benefits Available with Union Versus Non-Union Employers

Often, the biggest factor to consider when deciding to go with union or non-union shop employment is the big picture benefits package. This would mean considering everything from wages to medical and retirement benefits.

Non-union Shop – Non-union shops often offer retirement plans that include matching employee contributions up to 10%. This means you could sock away a dollar amount that is equal to 20% of your total annual income in an account that will grow over time. These 401K and Individual Retirement Account (IRA) plans give you the freedom to manage your own investments to some extent, giving you more control over the money that’s being contributed toward your retirement.

With the Affordable Care Act in place, basic employer-paid medical benefits are now standard through any employer with 50 or more employees. In smaller shops, medical benefits are often part of the total compensation and retention packages they offer to remain competitive with union employers.

Union – Union membership comes with a guaranteed pension, something that few non-union shops can match. Although a portion of every paycheck on a union job will have a deduction for membership dues, members can expect to retire and collect a regular pension after putting in their time on the job.

Union membership also comes with some great medical and dental benefits that are hard to beat. In 2012, the US Department of Labor reported that union employer medial benefits cover an average of 83% of all healthcare costs for employees and their families.

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