From our basic lighting and electrical utility needs to the mega-watt commercial and industrial electrical wiring applications that keep businesses, hospitals, schools, and data centers humming, electricians are indispensable to life in the modern world. This is the underlying factor that explains why professionals in the electrical trade now earn salaries as high as $88,130, and why the trade is seeing job growth projections in the double-digits for the ten-year period leading up to 2025 (US Department of Labor, 2015).
The rules and regulations that govern electrician licensing are different in every state. Even within a state, individual counties and cities often have their own rules and licensing authorities.
As you work to complete your apprenticeship program, become licensed as a journeyman and eventually go on to become a master electrician and independent contractor, you will work closely with your local electrical trade regulatory agency.
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Follow the steps in this guide and review the rules specific to your state and local jurisdiction to learn how to become an electrician:
Step 1. Gain the Technical Training and Job Experience Required to Qualify for a Journeyman License
Your first order of business will be to make arrangements for gaining the real-world, on-the-job experience and classroom-based technical training required to become skilled in the trade and to meet the journeyman licensing requirements in your jurisdiction.
In most cases, licensing jurisdictions cover an entire state, but in many cases licensing takes place at the county or city level. All licensing jurisdictions are free to establish their own on-the-job training and classroom hour requirements that must be met before you can take the journeyman examination. In virtually all cases, this would mean spending between four and six years working as an apprentice or trainee for a licensed electrical contracting company or state utility in order to satisfy the standard requirements. In most cases, you would simply transition into full time employment at the journeyman level with that same employer once you have met the licensing requirements.
These types of arrangements are great for employers, employees and the industry. By taking on eager apprentices and trainees, in just a few years electrical contracting companies and state employers end up with loyal journeymen on their teams who are skilled in the specific type of wiring work the employer contracts out, whether residential, commercial or industrial.
In all jurisdictions, training and classroom hour requirements for journeyman licensure would fall within this range:
- Between 576 and 1,000 hours classroom hours studying everything from electrical theory to electrical code
- Between 8,000 and 10,000 hours (4-5 years) of on-the-job training
There are three primary ways to gain the required job experience and technical training required to earn a journeyman license:
Earning an electrician certificate or career diploma through a trade school or vocational-technical school (vo-tech), or even an associate’s degree in electrical technology through a community college or four-year school will provide you with the most thorough classroom and lab-based technical training available.
Most licensing jurisdictions allow you to substitute some portion of your formal education for the job experience hours required for journeyman licensing. Generally, one year of education would count for 1,000 hours of on-the-job experience. Substituting formal education for job experience requirements would typically be limited to two years of education for 2,000 hours of job experience.
This means you would still need to gain the remaining hours of experience on-the-job through a trainee field placement or apprenticeship before you would be eligible for your journeyman license. Many technical schools offer job placement assistance to help make this transition easier. Often, you would just stay on with the same employer.
Some vocational-technical schools even offer full journeyman programs specifically designed to align with state or jurisdiction licensing requirements. These programs typically last two years. During this time you would study in the classroom and be placed with a local electrical contractor to gain much of the job experience required to earn your journeyman license. In most cases, you would accumulate 4,000 hours of job experience during the program, about half of what is usually required for a journeyman license.
Usually, you would continue working as an apprentice with the same employer, spend the next couple of years accumulating the remaining hours required for your journeyman license, then start the next phase of your career as a skilled journeyman with the same employer that provided your training.
Union apprenticeships are available in every state thanks to the combined effort of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). These organizations worked together to establish the Electrical Training Alliance, a program that provides union apprenticeships that meet jurisdiction licensing requirements through Joint Apprenticeship & Training Committees (JATC) located in virtually every major metro area in the United States.
Your local JATC will place you with a union employer in your area where you will work as an apprentice until you satisfy the journeyman licensing requirements in your jurisdiction. In most cases, your classroom and lab-based technical training would take place at your local JATC office.
Participating in a union apprenticeship would require you to become a card-carrying member of the IBEW.
Apprenticeship programs are also available through non-union employers, which sometimes refer to themselves as open shops or “merit shops.” The merit shop philosophy is that when employees do exceptional work, the business is successful and the employees enjoy the benefits that come along with that: raises, bonuses, benefits and overtime.
Choosing to go with a non-union apprenticeship through an open shop versus a union apprenticeship is a personal decision that all prospective apprentices need to make for themselves. This would involve weighing the benefits that come with collective bargaining as a union member versus the cost of union dues, as well as personal preference and philosophy about union versus non-union employment.
There are two main organizations that help offer apprenticeship and trainee placement with non-union electrical contractors: Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC) and Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc (ABC). Both these organizations have chapters located in major cities throughout the United States that work to connect aspiring apprentices with non-union contractors in their area.
As you near the end of your apprenticeship or on-the-job training program, you can start preparing for the journeyman electrician examination.
Step 2. Pass the Examination Required to Become Licensed as a Journeyman Electrician
Once you’ve completed the classroom education and on-the-job training required of your apprenticeship program, you should be well-qualified to take your jurisdiction’s journeyman electrician examination.
Registering for this exam usually entails:
- Applying with your state, regional, county, or city government regulatory agency
- Showing proof that you completed the required number of classroom education and on-the-job training hours
- Registering for the examination with a third-party testing company
Each jurisdiction may each offer its own unique version of the journeyman examination. These exams are usually multiple-choice and take between 3-4 hours to complete. A passing score is often considered to be 70 percent, and some exams are open-book.
The subjects evaluated during the exam can include:
- General electrical knowledge
- Wiring and protection
- Feeder circuits
- Wiring materials and methods
- Raceways and boxes
- Branch conductors and circuits
- Equipment and devices for general and specialized use
- Special conditions
- Communication systems
- Grounding, bonding, and surge/overcurrent protection
- Special occupancies
- Motors and generators
- Reading plans and blueprints
- Control devices
- Photovoltaics and solar power
- Electrical system installation
- Low voltage electrical systems
- Electricity safety
- Local, state, and federal electrical code
- Local, state, and federal safety standards
- National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) National Electrical Code
- Other topics covered in Ugly’s Electrical Reference
Passing the journeyman electrician exam is typically the last step required to qualify to become licensed or certified as a journeyman in your jurisdiction. In most states, this license allows you to work as an electrician on residential and commercial assignments without direct supervision, doing activities like wiring, installing, and repairing electrical equipment. You will still work as part of a team led by a master electrician, although direct oversight of each task isn’t usually required.
Take care to renew your license as needed and keep up with any continuing education requirements.
Some states offer a variety of different journeymen licenses in specific areas like residential/commercial, specialty installations, or industrial electric instead of a general journeyman license.
Step 3. Gain the Experience and Additional Qualifications Required to Become a Master Electrician
Once you start work as a journeyman electrician you can begin to accumulate hours of experience. If you choose to move up the ladder to become a master electrician, you must accumulate a specific number of years of experience as detailed by the regulatory agency responsible for overseeing the licensing laws in your local jurisdiction.
While you’re accumulating experience you may choose to take additional steps to qualify for a specialty license if it is available in your jurisdiction. If you are interested in any of the following, then check with the licensing authority in your jurisdiction to see if any of these specialty licenses would be available to you:
- Maintenance electrician
- Outside wireman
- Photovoltaic/solar power
- Electrical signs
- Refrigeration, heating, and air conditions
- Low voltage
Qualifying for a specialty license usually involves gaining additional work experience and education, as well as passing another examination.
Many electricians are happy working their entire careers at the journeyman level. However if you want to take your career to the next level then you can consider becoming a master electrician.
Master electricians have more career options than journeymen. Depending on your jurisdiction’s regulations, as a master electrician you can do things that would include:
- Working independently without supervision (some jurisdictions allow this, while others require you to have a separate contractor license)
- Obtaining permits from government agencies to perform specific work projects
- Hiring electricians to work on your team (some jurisdictions allow this with a master electrician license, others require an independent electrical contractor license)
- Install, maintain, plan, layout, supervise, and construct electrical systems
Qualifying to become a master electrician usually involves the following process:
- Apply with your local jurisdiction
- Demonstrate between 4-8 years of work experience as an electrician (The specific work experience requirements depend on your jurisdiction and can include education as well as work performed as an apprentice and journeyman. Your jurisdiction may also stipulate a specific amount of experience in certain tasks and applications, including installations, commercial, and industrial work.)
- Submit letters of reference from your previous customers
- Provide letters of reference to prove that you are of good moral character
- Apply for the master electrician examination (your local regulatory agency or a third-party testing company may administer the exam)
The master electrician exam covers advanced methodologies and theory of the subjects that were originally covered in your journeyman examination. It is usually multiple-choice, three to five hours in length, and may be open-book. A passing score is typically considered to be 70 percent.
Depending on your jurisdiction, you may need to:
- Renew your master electrician license/certification periodically
- Obtain continuing education and/or hours of work experience
- Take no action to renew or maintain your master electrician license/certification
While you may have reached your professional goal by becoming a master electrician, you still have the option to become an independent contractor if you choose to take your career one step further.
Step 4. Become Licensed as an Independent Electrical Contractor
At some point in your career as a master electrician, you may decide to take the next step and become an independent electrical contractor. This involves a high level of responsibility and can involve bidding your own multi-million dollar projects – both government and private. Independent electrical contractors are master electricians (and can be large companies that employ at least one master electrician).
Whether as an individual contractor working smaller jobs with a team you put together yourself, or as the owner of a major electrical contracting company, holding a contractor’s license would allow you to:
- Hire electricians
- Operate a business as an independent contractor
- Work independently without supervision
- Perform a full range of electrician duties with government and private entities
- Accept projects with a high value (some jurisdictions only allow licensed independent contractors to bid on projects above a certain dollar amount)
Typically, jurisdictions offer a general contractor license that would allow you to perform electrician services as an independent contractor. Some jurisdictions require you to apply for a specific type of contractor license, such as:
- General license for general electrical projects in residences and commercial locations
- Residential license
- Maintenance license
- Industrial license
- A license that specifies the dollar amount of projects you can bid on
Qualifying for an independent electrical contractor license often requires:
- Filling out an application with your local jurisdiction (this often involves your jurisdiction’s building inspection department or contractor’s board)
- Demonstrating a minimum number of years of work experience as a master or journeyman electrician
- Having proof of personal financial stability, such as a minimum net worth of at least ~$2,500-$10,000
- Being bonded for ~$4,000-$15,000
- Having insurance:
- ~$300,000-$1 million for general liability
- ~$300,000-500,000 for bodily injury
- ~$100,000-$300,000 for property damage
- Workers compensation insurance for each employee
Some jurisdictions also require you to pass an independent electrical contractor exam. If this is necessary, you can expect the exam to be multiple-choice and take between 60 and 90 minutes to complete. The contents of this exam can include:
- Making bids and estimates
- Rough wiring and finishing wiring/trim
- Managing and planning projects
- Business licensing, structure, and practices
- Electrician troubleshooting and maintenance
- Lien and tax laws
- Managing startup companies
- OSHA and safety regulations
- Public works projects
- Personnel policies and labor law
- Bonding and insurance
- Contract requirements and execution
- Dispute resolution
- Contractors and acceptance
You can register for this exam with the contractor’s licensing authority in your local jurisdiction or with a third-party testing company.
Depending on your jurisdiction, you may need to renew your independent electrical contractor license periodically. This can entail continuing education and a minimum number of hours of work for each renewal period.
Once you have completed this step you are prepared to work as a highly experienced senior electrician at the top of your field.