Comparing Careers for Electrical Wiremen and Linemen

To the uninitiated, anyone that deals with electricity is just an electrician, but within the industry, there are vast differences between the different specialized roles. These differences are clear from the very beginning, influencing the type of apprenticeships electricians participates in and the type of licenses they end up holding.

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Nowhere is this difference more important than with wiremen and linemen, the two major general classifications for professionals involved in electrical work:

  • Inside Wireman – Works predominantly on residential and commercial wiring projects indoors.
  • Outside Lineman – Works predominantly on power transmission lines outdoors.

Deciding on becoming a wireman or a lineman is one of the biggest decisions an electrician-in-training will make about their career trajectory. We put together this guide to offer a clear explanation of what’s involved in working as an outside lineman versus what’s involved in working as an inside wireman to help guide our readers through this decision-making process.

Understanding What’s Involved in Working as an Outside Electrical Lineman

Driving down the road, you see a few orange cones, flashing lights, and a bucket truck pulled off next to a utility pole. High up in the air, calmly working only feet from hundreds of humming kilovolts of electricity is an electrical lineman, keeping the lifeblood of the modern world flowing.

Linemen, sometimes called “outside linemen,” are responsible for maintaining the network of transmission cables that transport electricity from generating facilities to end users, whether in homes, offices, schools, hospitals, industrial settings, or anywhere else that relies on electricity.

Linemen may also string, fix, and maintain various other types of transmission cables, including telecommunications, cable television, or fiber optic lines.

High voltage lineman work on high-tension lines hundreds of feet above the ground that deliver electricity from its source at the power station to the sub-stations that then distribute the electricity at safer levels to homes and businesses.

Dealing with Heights, Underground Wiring Vaults and Exposure to the Elements

Linemen generally do their work outside, but the image of the person working in the bucket truck only shows one aspect of the job.

Linemen might also be responsible for laying wire in ditches, through culverts, or working in massive underground wiring vaults.

Buckets also aren’t the only way they get to high-line jobs. Some linemen may strap on a pair of spikes and free-climb up wooden utility poles to get to the wires.

Those that service high-voltage, high-tension power lines that span huge distances rely on helicopters, which dangle them out over massive primary transmission towers up to 500 feet off the ground, climbing out into thin air and directly onto wires carrying 115 kilovolts or more of raw power.

Working as a lineman is intensely physical work that often involves being out in inclement weather conditions, which, of course, is when lines usually go down. It also involves lugging heavy equipment around, and working far above the ground while making repairs.

Most linemen are employed with a specific power utility district or telecommunications company, so most often they just perform installation, service and repairs to company-owned infrastructure.

Linemen that work for large contractors are more likely to be called out to jobs on different types of infrastructure, from cell towers to high-voltage power transmission lines.

Unique Safety Considerations and Tools of the Trade for Linemen

Linemen receive extensive safety training, including climbing school and ongoing training in performing high-angle rescues, which could become necessary if a fellow lineman was injured while up a tower.

Linemen have a particular set of specialized tools for working with the extremely high voltage found in transmission lines. They wear extensive personal protective equipment (PPE) to guard against shocks and use long, insulated poles known as “hot sticks” to perform a variety of tasks without having to physically touch the lines.

Linemen working with high-tension lines that transmit voltages of over 115kV may wear Faraday cage suits, that allow electricity to pass around the outside surface rather than grounding into their bodies. This allows them to conduct their work safely on high voltage lines without the power ever being disrupted on its way to from the regional power station to the many local sub-stations.

Linemen may work unpredictable hours and are often expected to be on call to deal with damage to lines whenever and wherever it occurs. Major storms that take out significant numbers of transmission lines can result in linemen being called in from all around the region or even across the United States to expedite repairs.

Understanding What’s Involved in Working as an Inside Wiremen

From residential and low-voltage electricians to commercial and industrial electricians, there are a number of different types of jobs that fall under the banner “inside wireman.” Though they fall under a common classification, each one deals with some specialized aspect of on-premises wiring and distribution.

Job sites for wiremen can range from a residential home with a relatively simple wiring schema to a major factory that houses high-voltage machinery. Still, in all cases, inside wiremen work with much lower-voltages than linemen.

Electrician wiremen have the distinct advantage of work that is generally more predictable in terms of scheduling and tasks. Still, many wiremen electricians work in construction or repair in which emergency calls are not unheard of, but are not common.

Wiremen Perform Specialized Work in a Variety of Different Settings

Electricians can work in a wide variety of conditions based on their particular specialization. Some, like marine and aircraft electricians, may be inside almost 100 percent of the time, sometimes in confined space. Others, such as solar and wind power electricians, might be outside most of the time, often working on rooftops.

Some electricians may never deal with anything more than 5-volt alarm wiring systems, while others might have to tread carefully around 230kV industrial plant electrical wiring all day long.

There are different tools and techniques for each, from the humble multimeter to sophisticated tone generators (or “toners” as they are often called) that help ferret out individual wires from skeins of hundreds.

Wiremen have a great deal of specialized equipment for working with intricate wiring setups, but don’t work with the kind of high voltage that requires the same type of protective gear that a lineman uses.

It’s much more common for wiremen to be able to shut down the circuits they are working on so the wiring is not energized. Nonetheless, safety is a constant concern for electricians of every stripe, both in terms of personal protection while on the job, and with the long-term goal of wiring up buildings and equipment that are safe for regular, daily use.

Comparing Apprenticeship and Certification Requirements for Outside Lineman and Inside Wireman

Becoming a lineman or electrician usually starts with an apprenticeship program. Wiremen and linemen all start out as apprentices at relatively low levels of pay, and advance over time to become journeymen, and eventually fully-fledged master electricians or linemen. Both wiremen and linemen can spend seven to ten years working their way up to master level.

The National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee serves as a national clearinghouse for information on regional apprenticeship programs for both wiremen and linemen.

Because of the heavy unionization in the field, many lineman and wireman jobs require a union ticket from the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers).

Licensing requirements for both linemen and wiremen are determined on a state-by-state and jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction basis, with different exams, hands-on training and classroom hours stipulated by state and local regulatory boards.

Licenses may be regulated by voltage level, with different requirements and standards for workers who only deal with wiring under 30 volts versus workers routinely dealing with 115kV or more.

Becoming a Lineman

Apprenticeship programs typically last four years or more for linemen. Although apprenticeships are available directly through utilities companies or electrical contractors, unions and cooperative non-profit corporations administer most apprenticeship programs.

Becoming a lineman also require an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) 10-hour Transmission and Distribution certification, and potentially, other local or regional certifications.

Most lineman jobs require a class A Commercial Driver’s License, although typical apprenticeship programs will help candidates work their way up to this credential.

Apprentice lineman can expect to spend most of their time on the ground serving as “gofers” and assistants to the journeymen working overhead or directly with cables. In this way, they are exposed to actual working conditions in addition to their formal classroom education, and can gradually be introduced to actual high-wire work as they learn.

Becoming a Wireman

Technical schools are a common route into electrical work for inside wiremen. Two-year community colleges may offer associates degrees in electrical engineering, which serve as a strong springboard into the industry.

Some types of electrician positions may require special certifications; marine electricians, for example, typically need an ABYC (American Boating and Yachting Council) certification to get a job in their field.

Electrician apprentices usually have an opportunity to perform hands-on work directly related to their area of specialization, whether industrial, commercial, residential or low voltage. Until they become journeymen, however, their work will be under close scrutiny from their senior partners.

Comparing Salaries and Job Prospects for Electrical Lineman and Wireman

For both linemen and wiremen, the general expectation is that apprentices make between 30 percent and 50 percent of a full journeyman’s wages.

Linemen Salaries and Job Outlook

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that linemen jobs will increase at about the average rate (6 percent per year) over the next decade. However, due to the relatively high pay, job security, and low formal education requirements, getting a job as a lineman can be a very competitive process.

Because of the demanding nature of the work and the odd hours, outside linemen tend to be better compensated than wiremen. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for linemen in 2015 was $61,430 per year, but rates vary for different regions and by the licensing level.

For example, according to job advertisements sourced in July 2016, a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) journeyman earns a base salary of $63,950 while a journeyman lineman working in California earns $99,570.

Regardless of location, however, overtime can push those numbers up by fifty percent or more, well into the six-figures.

Wiremen Salaries and Job Outlook

The median salary for electrician wiremen in 2015 was $51,880, according to the BLS. Job growth is expected to be strong in the field, with a 14 percent year-over-year increase projected for the next decade.

Entry-level electricians may start at around $40,000 per year, although this varies according to specialization, region, and the type of apprenticeship program an electrician participates in.

From residential construction contractors to industrial manufacturing companies, many different types of companies hire electricians, and regional job outlooks can vary dramatically. In general, areas of the country experiencing strong construction and industrial growth are more likely to have strong job growth for electricians of all stripes.

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