Good Evening, Gentlemen.
Readers Vicomte and Leap of a Beta, among a few others, have asked me to put together and present information about learning and working in the Trades. I’m going to present as much information as I can, from my own personal experience and that of my co-workers.
For those of you who don’t know this: I am an Electrician, Instrument Fitter and Instrumentation Technician. I am what is considered “Multi-Craft”. This makes me more valuable to employers and increases my pay. You average Electrician will earn anywhere from 18-25 dollars an hour. These are some who make more, some who make less, but that is the typical range for an average Electrician. This is comparable to the pay grade of an average Welder, Millwright, Pipe Fitter etc.
When I say average, I mean a man “on his tools” as we call it. This refers to a craftsman who still works with his hands. The majority of Foremen and Superintendents do not work with their hands anymore, but manage the work and answer any question that may arise from those less skilled or experienced over the course of project completion. These supervisors, if they earn an hourly wage as opposed to salary, will earn between 25-40 dollars an hour on average. Salaries for these positions range from 80k a year to 150k a year, depending on their title and employer. All these numbers are averages, there will always be those who earn significantly more or less.
I am 26 years old, and I took my first job in my field at the age of 19. With my 7 years of experience I typically gross around 110k a year as a multi-craft Industrial Maintenance Technician.
I put all this forward as a preface to anyone considering the Trades, as you should know what you are getting into and what to expect. If you are intelligent and have good problem-solving skills, I highly recommend following my path. Instrumentation especially is a high pay, competitive field. But it’s not for everyone. There’s a lot of math, formulas, troubleshooting and deciphering complex blueprints involved. Your mileage may vary, I took to it like a pig to mud. I’ve encountered many who go to school for it, then simply cannot perform on the level required. Troubleshooting is complex and requires critical thinking and problem solving abilities, specifically under pressure. There are lucrative positions in this field available all over the country, since demand is far greater than supply.
How do I get started?
There are 3 different and distinct paths for beginning a career as a Craftsmen. I will list each, with it’s respective pros and cons.
Apprenticeship Programs are typically offered through Union Halls. These are usually working apprenticeships. This means that the Union will find you employment as an Apprentice with a company that hires from their Hall. Every trade has a Union and Apprenticeship Program. Starting pay is usually around $12-15/hr. You will attend evening classes to learn the theory and academics required for your Trade. Every year, assuming you have performed up to standard on the job and passed the requisite tests for that year level, you will move up a level and your pay will increase accordingly.
Your books and schooling will be paid for by the Union Hall, but they will be taking “Union Dues” out of your check every week. On top of the ones taken from your check, you are usually required to pay an additional amount to the Hall yourself. Even if you are not employed, at any time while part of the Union, you will be required to make these monthly payments to the Hall. In return, you are provided with medical and dental insurance, life insurance, and retirement benefits even if you are not currently working. Failure to pay your Dues will result in loss of benefits and Union Membership. If you find yourself unemployed, you put yourself “On the books” at the Hall. They will attempt to find you work, as long as you are paying your Dues, and your benefits will continue.
Apprenticeship generally lasts anywhere from 4-7 years, depending on Trade. Your pay will increase as you advance, along with cost of living raises annually. These are negotiated by the Union with your employer on your behalf. These raises usually range from 1.5 to 4 percent every year.
After your Apprenticeship, you become a Journeyman. As a Journeyman, you can seek out your own work instead of the Hall telling you where to work, as they do during your Apprenticeship. Any employment you take must, however, be with a Union company. Working for non-union contractors is specifically forbidden in the Oath you take when you “Swear In” to the Union. Since this is an introductory guide, I will stop there.
If interested in the path, seek out the local Union Hall of the Trade that interests you and ask them for information.
If you have the time and money, you can also attend a 2-year Trade School. This is similar to College, only without having to keep taking the classes you took in High School. You will not be doing any Women’s Studies or Literature 101. You will be taught only information pertinent to your Trade of choice. This is also a much cheaper option than College, with much better job prospects afterwards.
Having a degree from a Trade School will give you access to a lot more jobs than just walking in off the street, as it will be assumed you have at least a theoretical knowledge of the Trade. However, when seeking your first job, potential employers will be aware that you have not been “field tested”. My company hires these people as “Trainees” for a 6 month period. We pay Trainees $21/hr, so still not bad. Your mileage may vary.
The problem with Trade Schools, unless you are fresh out of High School and still living at home, is they cost money and do not offer immediate pay, unlike Apprenticeship. You can possibly work a day job and attend class at night, but that’s pretty tough and completely up to you. I’ve met, as mentioned, many people who paid the money and spent the 2 years in school only to discover that they are not capable of the actual field work. That sucks.
Take Non-Union Entry Level Position, Train on Job
For the record, this is the path I took. I cannot say if it’s for everyone, so I’m not going to endorse it. I started out at $7/hr and was making $12/hr after a year. I was also working for a contractor in a small town. Pay for this kind of thing varies greatly from one location to another. Were I still with that contractor, I would have hit the pay ceiling at $21/hr.
When hiring into an entry level position with no skills, you are commonly referred to as a “Helper.” I was an “Electrician’s Helper.” In the non-Union world, you are either a Helper, a Journeyman, or a Master. A company will usually consider you a Journeyman when you display the skills and knowledge they think a Journeyman should have. This is based solely on ability, not on how many years you’ve been doing it. I was considered a Journeyman after 18 months. I’ve seen incompetent people remain Helpers anywhere from 5 years to their whole lives.
Usually only Construction Contractors will hire unskilled labor. Maintenance will not, as you are expected to be able to keep machines running and unskilled labor cannot do this.
A Helper will be required to fetch tools and material, assist his assigned Electrician in any way possible, and learn from his Journeyman. Masters don’t have Helpers, as they own the Company in most cases. Only passing a State Test will make you a Master, pre-requisite being 8 years of work under a Master. When Mastery is achieved, you can start a company in your Trade and compete for bids and projects.
Some people consider being a Helper demeaning, primarily because of the title. Helpers do the exact same thing Apprentices do, just a different title, so that’s silly.
The only out-of-pocket expense for going this route is buying your tools and steel-toe boots. Hard hat and safety glasses, ear plugs, etc are provided. Aside from not having to pay for your education and not having to take an Oath to only work where the Union tells you, the good thing about this route is you learn at your own pace and are paid according to ability alone. There is not a structured, year-by-year advancement like with the Union route. You employer will give you a Tool List of what a Helper needs.
If interested in this route, seek out local non-Union contractors. You can also go online and apply with one of the Big Contractors: Brown and Root, ABB, BE&K, Zachry, ICS, Triad and many others. This will often require moving around the country from project to project, but if you want to travel and be paid well to do it….apply with one of them. Projects last anywhere from 1 month to 2-3 years. When the project is finished, they tell you where another project is that needs people. You can go there and keep working, or collect you final check and go somewhere else, no hard feelings and they will usually call you when they have something you may be interested in.
What Exactly Will I Be Doing?
The answer to this depends on the Trade you pick, of course. But they all have a few things in common, so I will list those. This is not an office job. If you cannot handle heat and cold, hate getting dirty, or don’t like being outside….stick to your cubicle.
Wearing PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). Unless you are building houses for a Mom&Pop outfit, you will be expected to wear a Hard Hat, Safety Glasses, Steel-Toe Boots, Earplugs and Leather Gloves while working. You will not be wearing any shorts. Jeans or durable khakis. Get used to it. If you don’t normally wear a belt, start. You will find yourself clipping things onto your belt a lot, like tape measures, small flashlight holsters, etc. And “sagging” will get you laughed off the jobsite fast.
Working in extreme temperatures. I live in the Deep South. Our Summer days are rarely below 105 degrees. Despite this, I go to work every day wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a long-sleeve button-down. The jeans and button-down are flame-retardant. Not everyone has to wear FRC (Flame Retardant Clothing) but I do because I can be exposed to electrical fires and arc flashes. Most can just wear jeans and a t-shirt. If you don’t think you can handle working 8, 10, or 12 hours a day in temperatures from 10-110 degrees, this may not be for you.
Getting Dirty. It will happen. Not just dirt, either. Grease, oil, metal shavings, sawdust are just a few of the things you will be covered in. After a particularly hard day for me, the water going into the shower drain is BLACK for the first few minutes. That won’t always be the case if you choose construction instead of maintenance, but I work on old equipment.
Working unexpected hours. When a project is nearing its deadline, and you’re a little behind schedule, that means 12-16 hour days, 7 days a week to meet deadline (in most cases). But that’s not exactly an every day event. Normal hours for Craftsmen are: Mon-Fri, 7AM to 3:30 PM or Mon-Thurs 7AM to 5:30PM. I prefer the latter, as you get a three day weekend. The most variation from this is found in Maintenance. I, for example, am at work right now and I will get off at 6:30 in the morning. I will work 84 hours this week. I’m covering my shift and the shift of a fellow on vacation. It happens. I thrive on the grind. So yes, I’m getting paid very well to write this.
Carrying heavy shit and using tools. In my trade, your toolbag weighs around 25 lbs. Those in the Mechanical Trades (welder, millwright, pipe fitter) will be carrying a lot more tools and much bigger tools. If these guys aren’t built when they start, they will be after a few years. Aside from tools, you will be carrying sections of pipe and other material.
If you aren’t familiar with the following tools, you will be: wrenches, screwdrivers, tape measures, nut drivers, Channel locks, Crescent wrenches, hammers and pliers.
If you can see yourself waking up every morning, putting on a pair of jeans and steel-toe boots (and a shirt, please) and heading off to work by 6am, working with tools around other competent, masculine men all day, and coming home tired with a nice paycheck….this is the work for you.
A basic Trade Rundown
Electrician: This is the least physically demanding trade. You will install conduit (electrical piping), pull wires through the conduit, and “terminate” those wires (strip the insulation and put them where they need to go). You will install electrical equipment (breaker panels, disconnects, transformers, receptacles, lighting and electrical motors). You will figure out why things that should be working are not working, and fix them.
Welder: You will use electrical arcs in a controlled fashion to bind pieces of steel together. This takes a steady hand, precision, and a really dark shield protecting your eyes so you don’t go blind.
Millwright: You will properly align precision mechanical equipment to insure smooth operation. This involves lasers, squares, math, and precision down to 1000th of an inch.
There are other trades like “Boilermaker”, but these are all combinations of those 3 basics. You either work with electricity, weld, or align things. Those are the Industrial trades. In Commercial or Residential, I should mention…
Carpenter: If you don’t know what a carpenter does, smack yourself for me. You take boards, cut them to length, and nail/screw them together. This is not the most lucrative trade, but still better than flipping burgers. Do your research.
Masonry: This could be brick-laying or concrete pouring. Also not the most lucrative of trades. Typically populated with “ethnic” folks.
That’s about it, folks. Leave me a comment if you want any further info, and if i’ve missed something glaringly obvious so I can amend this.