Rarely is there a “best” path to take when developing one’s professional skill set in the building trades. The road to success is different from one craftsman to the next, and is shaped by the person’s introduction to the trade, his/her long term goals, the educational options available, and the state of the industry at large. At some point during this journey the craftsman is required to attain a level of professional credential indicating his or her mastery of the trade. Being held to a standardized set of expectations is a critical step in every person’s professional development for several reasons:
1) it acknowledges the value of the trade as a whole by supposing the need to assess and regulate the quality of its workers
2) it establishes consistent expectations that professionals can hold of their peers, which improves the efficiency of every worker and the industry as a whole
3) it enables workers to present evidence of their professional credibility when seeking employment or promotion
4) it creates universal principles that ensure not only the safety of workers but also that of the ultimate customer: the public.
The test is an in-depth examination of an electrician's conceptual understanding of the physics & design of electrical systems, his or her mastery of technical skills, memory of safety procedures, and knowledge of electrical code. The exam is not to be taken lightly, and many who take it do not pass the first time. The key to passing the test—and doing well—is preparation that combines both formal instruction and field experience to provide a complete picture of how electricity functions and is put to work in a practical capacity. How is such an education possible? I thought you’d never ask.
The answer is to learn via apprenticeship. This is a 4–5 year program in which an electrician (apprentice) works under the instruction of a licensed Journeyworker electrician—one such program (Minnesota’s IBEW) even boasted a passing rate of over 90% for the Journeyworker’s exam in 2017. These apprenticeships offer a tremendous variety of electrical work, ranging from everyday trench-digging and pipe-bending to advanced automated controls installation and configuration. As part of their professional education these apprenticeships also include classroom & lab instruction in addition to on-the-job training. This blended learning approach is good for several reasons:
1) The breadth of experience is critical for the maturing electrician as it exposes him or her to a wide variety of environments, tools, techniques, and procedures that the craftsman will then be able to draw upon throughout the rest of his or her career.
2) It can help guide that person to the area of the electrical trade that speaks best to his or her abilities.
3) The integration of classroom concepts and practical on-the-job application of electrical code mean that these electricians walk into the Journeyworker’s exam with a tremendous advantage.
Those who hold Journeyworker cards are fully fledged electricians able to conduct electrical work without supervision in the state of licensure, and they likewise command a greater level of compensation. Having this documentation of skill makes it far easier for an employer to justify promoting an employee to positions like that of project manager or estimator. A craftsman may also choose to go even further in their education by pursuing a master’s license—enabling him or her to own & operate as an independent electrical contractor.
In short, earning a Journeyworker’s license means higher pay and more say in your career. Sound like a big deal? It is. While the average apprentice electrician might make $17/hour, the average Journeyworker electrician earns around $32/hour. By multiplying these numbers by the average amount of hours a full time job has (2,080 hours), the average apprentice makes about $35,000 per year, while the average Journeyworker makes more than $66,000 per year.
Not only do journeymen get paid more, but they are also entrusted with a greater level of autonomy on the jobsite. As an apprentice, all work that is done has to be carefully looked over before getting the thumbs up, but having reached Journeyworker status means an electrician has the freedom to move on to something else rather than having every task reviewed. Master electrician Nate Nord told me “If you want a job where your boss isn’t looking over your shoulder all the time, it’s a good field to get into. And if you’re responsible, you can be given tasks, and left alone to finish. (Bosses) don’t want to babysit you. You have a lot of freedom that way”.
Becoming a master electrician comes with even more benefits. Pay increase, job flexibility, and the freedom to open up their own shop are the primary reasons journeymen cite for pursuing this title, while others simply delight in furthering their knowledge of the craft. As mentioned, every electrical contractor in the state of Minnesota is required to have at least one master electrician on staff, and he or she is often the authority figure on what needs to be done and how to do it throughout a project. Along with this responsibility there is often a handsome increase in pay; it’s not uncommon for master electricians to be earning six figures. Starting as an apprentice and ending up as a business owner is a very realistic opportunity for many electricians.
And it’s not because the incentives aren’t appealing. It’s because they can’t pass the exam. The failure rate is extremely high. In 2016, only 34% of those who took the exam in MN passed on their first try. As of mid-October of 2017 only 35% had passed. Occasionally these numbers dip even lower. One document I found showed that in Texas in 2014, only about 20% passed the Journeyworker exam.
These numbers tell us that not just many but in fact a majority of applicants who believe they are ready to work as journeymen are wrong—through no fault of their own. They are walking into exams ill prepared, and believing they are ready to go out and work as electricians relatively unsupervised. It could be argued that the standards for these examinations are unreasonable and ought to be lowered in favor of increasing passing rates—but is that really the solution we would choose for an industry as important as electrical?
These exams were crafted to be benchmarks for professional grade understanding, and they were designed by leading authorities on the theoretical concepts and practical applications of electrical power. Many of these people worked in the industry for years and helped construct the the very buildings we sit down and work in every day. They made their bread and butter making sure my toaster wouldn’t toast me. The key isn’t to rewrite our exams, it’s to re-examine our preparation. An apprentice with better training will be a better Journeyworker. And each apprentice deserves the best chance possible, since failure is costly.
Those who fail cannot simply retake the test whenever they like. There are only certain days that the test is administered, making it tough for people to schedule the test. The time between testing periods can be weeks to months depending on where the test is being taken. Also, a mandatory 30 day waiting period from the time they were notified they had failed must take place before that person can re-submit an application to take the test.
So what are these passing applicants doing that the others aren’t? If you recall earlier I had mentioned the importance of apprenticeship programs and the dramatic effect they can have on the passing rate for these exams, and I cited Minnesota’s IBEW and their remarkable passing rate. Nearly every single apprenticeship graduate who attempted to pass the Journeyworker’s exam in 2017 did. Only 42% of all other test takers passed at all.
Although apprenticeship graduates only made up less than a fifth (16%) of the exam takers, they disproportionately accounted for more than half (53%) of those who passed. Equally important, apprenticeship graduates passed on their first try at a rate about six times higher rate than others. A whole 75% of apprenticeship grads passed on their first try, versus only 12.9% the other test takers.
What’s the reason behind this disparity? Well it all goes back to that blended learning approach we covered earlier. IBEW apprentices are given the advantage of an education that seamlessly integrates traditional classroom instruction with real-world application in a professional environment. It is as fine a preparation for the Journeyworker’s exam one could ask for.
There are, of course, apprentices outside of IBEW who pass their Journeyworker's exam, and they go on to become great electricians. The IBEW is just a way that an apprentice can almost guarantee their future success as an electrician. They are well equipped once they leave they become Journeyworker, and able to take on projects that many other electricians who have not had their level of training would not be able to. Nate Nord, a master electrician here in Rochester, MN, explained that many of the apprentices who are close to taking their Journeyworker exam know as much as he does (and he has occasionally called one of them to ask for advice).
In the building trades everyone forges their own path. Becoming a great electrician can be tough, but there are opportunities for increasing one’s chances for success. Choosing an apprenticeship program with top notch facilities and accomplished instructors is one such step. Passing the Journeyworker’s exam is another, and perhaps the most important step. And it is therefore appropriate upon completing this step for one to feel pride—pride in the knowledge and effort required to attain this mark of accomplishment. For it is not a credential that makes a craftsman, but rather, a craftsman who lends credit to the credential.
If you would like advice or guidance regarding your educational or career path, get in touch with us by filling out the form to the right and we will reach out to you!