What Does An Electrician Do, Exactly?

This is a question that seems like it has an obvious answer: electricians work with electricity. They set things up so that buildings and homes receive the power they need to utilize electrical devices.

But that doesn’t really tell you about the actual tasks that an electrician does on any given workday.

So, what does an electrician do, exactly?

To answer this question and give you more insight on how electricians actually spend their days, we’ll start with a broad description of the work, and then discuss the different types of electricians, the job responsibilities of each, and the tools they use during an average job.

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Job Description

Electrician Job Tasks — A Broad Overview

We’ll keep this brief, because it’s probably a review: electricians are paid to install the wiring that brings electrical power into any type of building or structure, and then they are paid to maintain that wiring as time goes on. They work in accordance with safety rules and regulations to ensure that buildings have enough power to operate, and do so in a way that is safe to residents.

Electrician Job Types

As we detailed on our electrician trade school page, there are basically four different kinds of electricians (there are a lot of specialties, but we’ll go into that later). The four different types are:

1. Residential Wiremen. They install and maintain the electrical wires that go into peoples’ homes.

2. Inside Wiremen. They place and maintain the electrical wires that go into larger structures, such as office buildings, factories, arenas, airports, municipal buildings, schools, colleges, etc.

3. Telecommunications Electricians. They lay the cable that is needed for all forms of communication, including phone, computer, and local area network wiring.

4. Outside Linemen. They set up the cables that go from power plants to buildings and homes. You’ve probably seen these folks up on telephone poles and laying thick cables on sides of the road. A very difficult (and very high-paying!) job.

Electrician Job Responsibilities

Let’s take a look at some specific tasks that electricians handle, along with the type of electrician that is responsible for completing that task.

  • Reading blueprints to learn where circuits, outlets, panel boards, and other electrical components are to be found or placed (all);
  • Planning the layout and installation of wiring through an entire building or series of buildings (all);
  • Installing electrical machines in factories (inside wiremen);
  • Putting fiber optic cable for telecommunications equipment into commercial structures (telecommunications electricians);
  • Installing systems that will enable telephones, intercoms, computers, security alarms, and fire alarms to work properly (telecommunications electricians);
  • Adding, maintaining, and replacing circuit breakers, fuses and wires (all);
  • Tracing the flow of energy to circuit breakers and transformers (all);
  • Reviewing the work that other electricians have done in a building, and making sure it meets the safety standards set out in the National Electrical Code (all);
  • Finding and replacing faulty wiring or aged wiring that could pose a safety hazard (all);
  • Managing work crews’ time and labor (all); and
  • Teaching and appraising electrician apprentices (all).

Installation vs. Maintenance

If you’ll notice, the tasks in the list above are split between “installation” and “maintenance.” New construction and installation are obviously important, and are a very satisfying part of an electrician’s job.

However, maintenance is also vitally important. Have you ever been in an office building when the electricity goes out? The place basically shuts down.

Electricians must do routine maintenance checks and periodic testing to make sure systems are running smoothly, and no interruption of operation will occur.

For residential wiremen, maintenance may mean replacing a run-down fuse box with a new circuit breaker, or adding new electrical equipment, such as light fixtures or ceiling fans.

For inside wiremen working in factories, the maintenance work can be more difficult, and can include working on generators, transformers, assembly line machinery, or motors. Factory work can be much more dangerous.

When something goes wrong, it can be very difficult to figure out what is broken, and then, it can difficult to figure out how to fix it! A good maintenance electrician who can keep a facility running smoothly (and quickly fix problems when they arise) will have a long and prosperous career.

Tools Electricians Use

Electricians use a tool set that includes many item to cut and shape wire. That includes knives, hacksaws, pliers, wire-strippers, and various hand tools. They also use conduit benders to shape pipes or tubing into specific angles.

Measuring Devices Electricians Use

You probably had some idea of everything we’ve written so far. Most people have a kind of intuitive understanding of most of the electrician job responsibilities. That said, many people don’t know about the measuring devices that electricians use OJT (“on the job”). Here’s a breakdown of the different tools they may use, and what the tool is used for:

  • Ammeters: Electric currents are measured in amperes, and an ammeter measures the electric current in a circuit.
  • Ohmmeters: The opposition to an electric current is called electrical resistance, and an ohmmeter (sometimes written “ohm meter”) measures that electrical resistance.
  • Volmeters: A tool that measures that amount of voltage that is passing between one point and another point.
  • Oscilloscopes: A device that graphs how voltage rises and falls over a specific period of time.

If you aren’t familiar with those tools, but you’re interested in a career as an electrician, don’t let that lack of knowledge bum you out! There will be plenty of time during your training to learn what each tool is, how it works, and how to use it.

A Diversity Of Tasks

As you can see, electricians handle many different jobs tasks, and have a wide range of responsibilities. For most electricians, that varied nature of the work is the best part of the job—it’s always new, and always exciting!

What Hours Do Electricians Work?

If you become an electrician, how many hours per week can you expect to work? What does an electrician work schedule look like? Given that the average American now works 47 hours per week, will you end up working more than that, or less than that?

Most Electricians Work a 40-Hour Work Week

For the most part, electricians work a normal 8-hour day. That can mean a regular 9am-to-5pm timeframe, but most of the time it skews a little earlier than that, and many electricians start work at 6am or 7am or 8am.

On an annual basis, those hours add up to between about 1,800 hours and 2,080 hours per year (federal employees usually end up at 2,087 hours per year). On many electrician jobs, overtime is available, so that number can increase, but the average numbers of hours per year is between those two estimates.

So, to keep things simple, electrician working hours are similar to the rest of the business world. However, there are a few curveballs that may add or subtract from the workweek, which we’ll mention below.

Your Hours Depends on Where You Work

Electricians work in a wide range of locations, under many different types of work agreements. There are electricians who work for a specific company or facility (such as a hospital), who may have a set schedule every day and work exactly 40 hours a week, and there are other electricians who go to many different jobs sites, and whose hours will vary slightly from job to job.

Sometimes the jobs will require less than 40 hours per week, and sometimes the job will require more.

Both of the electricians in this example will make a fine living, but the one will work 40 hours exactly, week-in/week-out, whereas the other will have hours that vary depending on the job he or she is doing.

Your Hours Will Also Depend on Where You Live

In some parts of the country, work for electricians is plentiful, and electricians will work more than 2,000 hours a year, no problem.

In other areas, work is harder to come by.

There are many factors that contribute to the availability of work, including the geographic location, the strength of the local economy, and the strength of the national economy.

That is a reason why many electricians choose to travel (which is partially where the term “journeyman electrician” comes from). Traveling can be a great option, and can lead to many great job prospects. Those jobs usually offer great overtime, and while they’re not for everyone, they can be very profitable.

Union Electrician vs. Open Shop Electrician Work Hours

One of the perks of being in a union is that the union negotiates the hours that you’ll work. You are guaranteed to work a certain number of hours per week, and any overtime you work will be paid at a negotiated rate, usually above the normal hourly rate you’re being paid at time-and-a-half.

And, because union jobs are usually much larger in scale than non-union jobs, that work can last for a while.

There are, however, perks of non-union (“open shop“) work as well. Because open shops are able to negotiate work with more flexibility, there can be much more opportunity for overtime, and because non-union shops often get hired for smaller jobs that are finished more quickly, and it can be easier to find work if there is “down time” between jobs.

Again, in both situations, the base is usually 40 hours per week, and the “generally accepted” idea is that non-union electricians are able to get more hours, but end up earning a little less per hour on the job, and that union electricians have a little bit more downtime, but earn more per-hour on the job.

Other Variables

There are a few other irregularities that can provide for more—or fewer—hours during the workweek.

They include:

  • Weather Conditions. It’s not uncommon for inclement weather to make work opportunities unpredictable. If you work outside, your jobs may be delayed because of rain, snow, sleet, or fog.
  • Maintenance Jobs. While most electrician work is done during regular business hours, some maintenance jobs need to be performed and completed when facilities are closed and the regular non-electrician workers are not there.
  • Emergencies. As with all the construction trades, there are times when systems crash, and experts are needed to immediately fix the problem. These problems can arise during a shift—or during the middle of the night when you’re at home sleeping!
  • Self-Employment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 9% of electricians in the United States are self-employed. Being self-employed allows you more flexibility to set your own hours, and work the schedule that you choose.It should be noted, however, that running a small business comes with a lot of responsibilities, and most people who own their own shop work more than 40 hours per week. The opportunity to dramatically increase your income comes with a price: self-employed electricians must seek new business, advertise their services, and maintain business relationships.

    All that takes time, and is in addition to the regular electrician work that needs to be done.

Apprentice Electrician Work Hours

We talked at length in another post about the workweek hours of an apprentice electrician, but it’s basically the same 40 hours as qualified electricians—but with some additional hours for classes.

As we mentioned, apprentices need to work a specific number of hours per year in order to complete each state of their apprenticeship, but they also need to complete a specific number of classroom hours, as well.

For some apprentices, there is one day a week of classes; in other apprentice programs, classroom learning is done at night, after the day shift is completed.

“Down” Times

There is occasionally “down time” between jobs, and that can affect the number of hours you work in a given year. It may be that an electrician is waiting on the union to assign him or her to the next job, or work for an open shop has dried up for a little bit. In some areas of the United States “down time” happens rarely; in other parts, it’s a little more common.

There is an excellent discussion on Electrician Talk board about it here.

Work Hours—Summary

We hope that helps give you an idea of the hours you can expect to work! Unlike “office jobs” where the 9-to-5 grind is common, there are a lot of variables and a lot of variety in an electrician’s workweek.

More Reading:

Is it Difficult to Become an Electrician?

Is Electrician a Good Career?

Is it Difficult to Be a Female Electrician?

Electrician Trade School vs Apprenticeship

What is the National Electrical Code?

Personality Traits and Skills of Successful Electricians

Requirements to Become an Electrician

How Long Does it Take to Become an Electrician?

Electrician vs HVAC

Electrician vs Plumber