A Day in the Life of an Electrician

“Most people start at 7:30am,” he says, “but there are lots of us who are on the job site closer to 5:30 even.” If Nate’s enthusiasm comes as a surprise to those of us who have an intimate relationship with the snooze button, it’s because Nate Nord is a man who loves what he does. “I think like any job you’re going to have little things that you may not like or whatever but I enjoy getting up and going to work,” he tells me as his red beard is split by a wide grin.

Nate Nord is a master electrician, and he was gracious enough to share with me some of his insights into a trade that many people know very little about, in spite of the enormous impact it has on our society and the benefits it offers as a profession. I tell him about the article I’m working on and ask him why he thinks so many people tend to overlook the field. “I think a lot of times, (people) are afraid of electricity. But the thing is, electricity can’t hurt you if it’s not on. If you get trained right, like in the training center, you learn to understand electricity.” The training center he refers to is the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, or JATC, a cooperative between the electrical workers’ union and the National Electrical Contractor’s Association (NECA). “Once you understand electricity, you know what it’s trying to do. And that can save your life,” he reassures me. I glance at the iPhone charger plugged into the outlet I take for granted, and nod for him to continue.

The morning hours of an electrician can vary significantly depending on their specialty, and where they are in their career. Working in an apprenticeship—the four-to-five-year process by which a student of the trade sharpens their skills in a combination of schoolwork and job site experiences—pits a person against an incredibly wide variety of problem solving scenarios. “It all depends on what environment they’re in.” Nate says. “It could be anywhere from digging a trench one minute, to bending pipe, to pulling wire, to setting up wire poles.” Each of these apprentices is paired with a journeyperson electrician—a craftsperson who has completed their own apprenticeship and passed state licensure exams permitting him or her to perform electrical work without supervision.

it often includes coffee, and some form of setup/prep for the day’s work ahead. An electrician working construction at a jobsite frequently starts by cleaning & laying out equipment, ensuring necessary tools are at the ready and charged if they rely on battery power. Likewise an electrician working in the service field begins by confirming the service calls on their schedule and loading their service vehicle with the appropriate equipment before they hit the road.

Whether the day began in a truck or at a jobsite, Nate’s descriptions emphasize several common elements: “You’re trying to figure something out at least 50% of the time. That’s a normal day in the life of an electrician – troubleshooting”. That troubleshooting often includes reading and interpreting blueprints and electrical drawings, solving algebraic equations such as Ohm’s Law, and applying logical reasoning skills to determine the source of a problem and the most effective solution in the middle of a real world scenario. Sounds kind of like what I do, but with a bit more Ohm’s Law (ok, probably a lot more).

Now it’s time for lunch, and Nate tells me that during down time it’s common for journeymen and master electricians to pass along knowledge of the trade to their apprentices—often via amusing anecdote. Nate points out that part of the advantage of learning the trade through an apprenticeship is that it gives fledgling craftsmen exposure to not just different areas of the trade, but also a variety of management styles and company structures. An apprentice can take note of the sort of those environments they prefer to work in, and use that knowledge to steer their career after passing their journeyman’s exam.

For those (like me before this article) who are unfamiliar with the “different areas of the trade” mentioned above, electrical specialties include (but aren’t limited to) commercial, construction, domestic, industrial, limited energy, and lineman, each having their own subcategories. There is a vast range of duties, projects, working conditions, day structures, and even job titles that an electrician can have. A service electrician may be at 6 different houses throughout the day working to make sure families stay safe from electrical fires, whereas a construction electrician might be working on wiring the newest building in the area. An outside lineman may be digging trenches, or working on telephone poles, while an inside lineman may stationed at the site of a brand new apartment complex.

Being an electrician comes with its physical demands as well. Electricians are often shoveling, bending conduit, climbing scaffolding, couching, crawling, or maneuvering obstacles while trying to work on electrical systems. “I think people are afraid of the labor,” Nate tells me. “But actually it’s not that hard of work, it’s not that bad.” Many electricians dig smaller trenches by hand. “If it’s under 60 -70 feet, why not just dig it? Get your workout in for the day”, Nate laughs. He says Journeymen and Master electricians may not have to do the labor of cleaning tools, setting up, or digging trenches that they once did as an apprentice, but many opt to do so and enjoy the work.

“Equipment is more available to union guys. They say “work smarter, not harder”. They always use equipment if possible”. Nate holds a uniquely qualified perspective, having worked for years as both a union and non-union electrician.

Many of us look forward to the end of our work day. It’s a chance to take a break, see our families, and get caught up on Game of Thrones. What makes the end of the day most exciting for Nate and his colleagues however, is the chance to see how far they’ve come since they hit the jobsite that morning. Regardless of their level of experience or area of specialization, most members of the trade get the opportunity to see firsthand how their work impacts the community. “You can see the work you’re doing, and you’re like, ‘boy, I’m excited for tomorrow. We’ll do another 80 feet of pipe, pull the wire, and light this place up.’

The standard full time position as an electrician is 2,080 hours per year, and as long as the economy is stable, there is usually more than enough work for electricians to hit that number. “Less people are going into the trade, we’re going to be more in demand in 10, 15 years. There’s an opportunity there.” Due to the resurgence of construction the majority of electricians are able to pick up additional hours should they wish to. “Everyday I get off at 3:45 and if they want you to work overtime they ask you. It’s up to you.” Nate cautions me that non-union shops are rarely able to offer their employees hard start & stop times for work shifts and overtime is typically mandatory.

Depending on an electrician’s specialty and employer, it’s not uncommon to see some seasonal layoffs; construction, after all, isn’t a year-round business in Minnesota. While that may alarm some of those looking into the industry, it’s important to remember that electricians who belong to a union immediately get put on a contact list for first available positions with local contractors. “I’ve only been laid off twice and that was because I told them to go ahead and lay me off,” Nate relays to me.

Foreman, general foreman, service truck operator, estimator, or sales representative are all within reach of a licensed electrician, and should that person hold a master’s license, they can even open their own shop (electrical contractors in the state of Minnesota are required to employ a master electrician–typically this is the owner). Nate, who at one point owned & operated his own company, admits this level of freedom comes at the cost of considerable responsibility.

My interview with Nate came after my research had made it clear there is no such thing as a “typical” day in the life of an electrician. But what became even more clear during my conversation with Nate was that this variability is perhaps the profession’s most shining quality. Those entering the electrical field are able to pursue many possible niches, each with their own rewards. But even more valuable than its flexibility, the field offers that sense of achievement we derive only from work we can stand back and admire. “A lot of times towards the end of the day, when you get to turn the lights on, everyone cheers. Even the other trades are excited when that happens.”

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