Tell me your experiences in trade school
April 22, 2014 11:47 AM   Subscribe

I'm considering going back to school to become an electrician. Tell me why I should/shouldn't.

I've been a performer forever, but it's been a dry couple of years and I need to focus my attention on something attainable, predictable, and that will turn into a reliable (possibly flexibly-scheduled) job. Sitting behind a desk all day is my personal idea of hell, so the mobile/doing stuff aspect is appealing. I like problem solving and making stuff, I'm not worried about getting dirty, and I'm physically strong. I'm a woman, living in Ontario, early 30s with two kids and a BFA in Theatre (hahahaha). I also have zero experience in construction or electrician-ing (unless you count highschool technical theatre lighting).

Tell me the best/worst parts about being a female electrician in Ontario, and the best/worst school to go get started at.

(previous relevant ask is from 2007, thought I'd mine for some fresh opinions)
posted by lizifer to Work & Money (24 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Check out this page.

You can do an apprenticeship.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:51 AM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I looked into this myself a few years ago.

There is a significant time spent being an apprentice, which is at low pay. And then you have to still spend a long time at the bottom of the heap on jobs, which is still low pay.

So possibly not best option if you're hoping to be pulling in the kind of money experienced electricians make sooner than at least 5+ years from now
posted by McSockerson The Great at 11:53 AM on April 22, 2014

I am curious about why you are pursuing being an electrician specifically. It doesn't sound like this is something you previously were interested in, and you say yourself you have no experience. Can you do it? For sure. But there are a lot of non-desk jobs out there that involve problem solving and making stuff, not just being an electrician. There may be other trades or career tracks that could give you the flexibility and no-desk nature that plays to more of your strengths and interests. If you are an actress then maybe something that is more people oriented...?

My brother-in-law is an electrician in Canada, makes good money... NOW. It took a long time to get to this point though. Like others have said, you need to expect a long period of apprenticeship and low pay. A program that offers a work term or co-op would be key if I were looking in to this. You are going to want to be sure this is something you are really interested in and passionate about or else those apprenticeship years are likely going to be extremely frustrating and difficult.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:09 PM on April 22, 2014

As much as it sucks to say it, the skilled trades are still a largely male-dominated field, at least in the US. I don't imagine Canada is all that much different. You may find it difficult for people to take you seriously in that role.

Don't get me wrong: this is a bad thing! But I don't think there's any sense in pretending that it isn't a thing. The guys who make serious money doing this are (1) mostly guys and (2) good at getting clients--whether they be property owners or general contractors--to take them seriously.

That being said, you may find that there are some preferences imposed by the government for contractors owned/operated by women/minorities. There are in the US anyway. So you might well find that you can get some of that business on your own (assuming you go into business for yourself eventually) or find that larger companies are eager to hire you to get a piece of that business for themselves. Again, no idea how that is in Canada, but it's definitely that way in the US.

Also note that if you're planning on running your own business. . . you're planning on running your own business. Doing actual electrical work will wind up being a surprisingly low percentage of how you spend your time. Client development, marketing, networking, and back-end business operations will take up way more time than you'd believe going into it. You should seriously look into educating yourself about the operation of a small business before you strike out on your own if that's what you plan on doing. Doesn't have to be another degree, as there are plenty of resources out there, but it does need to happen.
posted by valkyryn at 12:12 PM on April 22, 2014

Just backing up what valkryryn is saying, I am in a male dominated trade (computer programming) and there is a moderate amount of not being taken as seriously because I am a woman. You very well may have a harder time of it because you'll have that to fight against along with all the normal hurtles you're going to encounter. It may be harder for you to find jobs/get clients because there are people out there that probably would hesitate in hiring a female electrician. That is the reality, and that is all the more reason why you should make very sure this is something you really want to pursue.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:21 PM on April 22, 2014

I am in a male dominated trade (computer programming) and there is a moderate amount of not being taken as seriously because I am a woman.

And the whole women-in-tech-fields is already something that people in academia and the media are aware of and talk about a lot.

We're talking about a very blue-collar field. There's not going to be nearly as much awareness of the issue, and you may well find that you have to put up with a lot more than you would in a different, more white-collar field.

Again, not saying that this is a good thing, just that it's a thing you should think about.
posted by valkyryn at 12:23 PM on April 22, 2014

Best answer: I am an electrical contractor.

I had a female electrician working for me for few years - and she was one of my best workers. She ended up getting hired away from me for more money. I was happy for her, even though I lost a good employee. Female electricians are rare, but they exist.

Besides my one female employee, I have worked for several women as construction managers. We are doing a job right now where there is a woman as the construction foreman.

The people making money as electricians - it has nothing to do with being a man. It has to do with being smart and knowing the business. Clients will take you seriously if you can produce.

There is a shortage of electricians, and it is getting worse. Fewer and fewer young people are entering the electrical field, and more Master Electricians are retiring every year. Everyone (from the government, to the hospital, to every business) depends on electricians. If the plumbing stops up, the business can still limp along. If the power goes out, the business is closed.

I will tell you this though, if you are capable of doing paperwork and desk work - you may find yourself back at a desk within a few years of becoming an electrician. The real money is in being able to read plans, being able to estimate cost of large commercial jobs, and being able to produce bid presentations to clients. It is much easier to find people who can swing a hammer, than it is to find someone who can correctly do lighting take-offs on the blue prints for a doctors offices. I actually have not been in the field for even one day in the last few years - I am tied to the desk, with several crews of guys out in the field working.

If you do become an electrician, one thing is for sure: you will always have work.
posted by Flood at 12:25 PM on April 22, 2014 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm looking at electrician because... I was look at it from a perspective of finding a field wherein there will always be work available (doesn't have to be highly paid work, just consistent, and there if I want to do it) and where I don't have to deal with sewage. I don't have an abiding love of electricity or wiring, but I am interested in finding out how it works and how to manipulate it.

Re: more people-facing jobs because I'm an actress/comedian... yeah, those jobs are often in sales and I really really really hate sales. I have a hard enough time marketing myself. I want to learn a useful skill, not blow smoke for someone else's profit. I'd be equally interested in carpentry, or building mud huts (if there were a demand for such a thing).

Hope this makes sense, typing on the fly.
posted by lizifer at 12:33 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you should definitely consider it. Try to contact a local Tradeswomen organization. Here's one in Alberta. There are more women in trades than you might think. You could also consider a different trades field, like steam fitting or contracting.

You will serve an apprentice ship for a few years and make $10 an hour. No way around that. When you are finished with that, however, you can become a unionized journeyman and charge union rates. I don't think you will need to put in 20 years or whatever to make a pretty decent income.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:37 PM on April 22, 2014

I don't know about Ontario, but in Quebec companies are all in desperate need of welders, if you're looking for most hireable.

I work at a technical school in Quebec, so I know we get a lot of requests for welders, though our electricians get hired and it is the group with the most women. We have a one year program, plus there is a 3 week apprenticeship. After that, as I recall, it's about 4 years of apprenticeship before you can become a journeyman. Apprentice wages here start at 17.50/hour the first year, reach 30/hour in the fourth, and journeyman start at 35/h. There is quite a large push by the government to hire omen in the trades.

I do not actually know schools in Ontario to suggest for these trades, sorry.
posted by jeather at 12:40 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

My husband is a tradesperson, though not an electrician. A few things to keep in mind: (1) not all electrician jobs are residential, which is probably what you think of when you think electrician. A big chunk of the work is in the commercial and industrial sectors; (2) schedules kind of stink for many of the trades--day shifts may start at 6:30 or 7 am, and especially in commercial/industrial jobs some jobs are 2nd/3rd shift, weekends, swing/rotating shift arrangements, with the worst shifts going to those with less seniority; I think you'd have to be at it for a long time and working as a self-employed master electrician to have much meaningful schedule flexibility; (3) field installer/repairman positions may require lengthy, unpaid commutes to different job sites over a fairly wide territory.
posted by drlith at 1:44 PM on April 22, 2014

Best answer: I'm not in your province, but I am a woman working in the construction industry. If I had my time back, I would have gone to trade school instead of spending six years going the BA/MA route. Unlike a lot of sectors these days, there is always room for competent, hardworking individuals. If you're good at what you do, you can make really good money. And no two days are ever alike. I say go for it.
posted by futureisunwritten at 1:56 PM on April 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Have a look at this article about an Ontario woman who went back to school to become and electrician. And here's another article about an Ontario woman. It looks like Durham College in Whitby/Oshawa and Centennial College in Toronto do electrical apprecnticeships. You can call your local office of the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities to learn more about women in trades. There's a push on to increase numbers of women in trades so there are likely lots of female people you speak directly with to learn about the trades and their experience in it.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 2:15 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oops, I mean "that you *can* speak directly with..."
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 3:35 PM on April 22, 2014

Hi, I'm a 5'0", 105 lbs woman who started a four-year carpenter apprenticeship at age 29 for pretty much the same reasons as you, and to earn more money than what I was making with my science degree (my starting wage as a 1st period apprentice was almost double what I was making with my BS and the benefits are excellent). A quick heads up: carpentry apprenticeships here in Seattle, WA currently have a two year waitlist and a fairly long unpaid pre-apprenticeship program, I believe – so it might not be as easy as you think to get started. The completion rate is something like 35%, I've been told, so you have to be fairly disciplined and committed.

I work with a fair deal of electricians – although none of them are women – and will concur that they do have really rough schedules. It seems to be especially difficult for the people who have children, to the point of guys quitting jobs so they can spend time with their kids, so that's something to consider. I haven't felt discrimination based on my gender (less so than in the science world, interestingly) since I've made it clear at work that I want to be treated just like everyone else and judged based on my craftsmanship. Having said that, I love my job and I've never been happier. Feel free to get in touch directly if you have any specific questions.
posted by halogen at 3:45 PM on April 22, 2014

Best answer: (I'm in BC.)

Not every apprentice makes a shit wage. I work for a union electrical contractor and our first term apprentices make 55% of journeyman wage, which is currently ~$34.50, and we also pay a good LOA. We've had first years break $100K gross on more than one occasion. We keep our apprentices busy and they never want for work. I talk to guys working for other outfits who make a lot less, but they are scared of the union so they get what they get.

We have a few departments that are really different. Controls and security is all small wire stuff, very little motor control, and the work can be short in duration. Some of our controls guys spend a couple hours here and there every day, which means a lot of wasted time setting up and taking down. Construction is long duration, often out of town, and there's big money to be made. Hope you don't mind living in Fort Nelson and sharing an apartment with whoever gets sent along with you for nine months straight though. Service is mostly in town, home every night, but you often find yourself out of your home nine hours but only billing six; guess which of those numbers you get paid for?

Something to keep in mind is that as an electrician, especially in construction, your career is not "I work for XYZ Electrical Inc" but it is instead "I am a journeyperson electrician and I go where the work is". My company is one of the three largest contractors in the province and we are never not busy, so we always have something for good employees. We also lay off the bad ones and conveniently never seem to have work when they come asking.

Another challenge that sadly my company is guilty of, is treating women in the trade differently. When a male apprentice asks a lot of questions, he's cautious and wants to do the job right. When a female apprentice asks a lot of questions, she's afraid, not confident or just trying to get out of work. It sucks and we are trying to break the pattern but in a trade that is rife with white guys in their late 50s this can be a challenge. We've got guys who flat out will not take a female apprentice, they'll call in sick if they get wind from the superintendent that they'll have a female apprentice. Other guys are just fine with it and they are all younger and newer to the trade. Like everything else the assholes are dying off and retiring so change will come.
posted by Sternmeyer at 4:19 PM on April 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just to second some of the observations above, my husbands an apprentice industrial electrician (non-union) in the US with a company that specializes in a particular industry (yeasty beverage production). I don't know how typical this is, but he does some of EVERYTHING, drilling a billion holes into concrete/rebar to anchor a 40 foot tank, plumbing, trench digging (which CAN be electrical if you're laying lines in the ground). It's hard work. And the hours are often long and erratic (depending on project needs), so he'll randomly have an 18 hour day here or there, I think of an 8 hour day for him as "short", and he's currently in a period where their 'standard' work week is 6 - 10 to 12 hour day, every week, for at least six weeks. They also almost always start at 7am, sometimes earlier. This is difficult with family life, but it's better than his previous job (shift production work, with a schedule that changed every month, bleh that really sucked), and it is temporary. In another year or two he'll get his license and start to have more options/control of his schedule. As far as I understand it, hours are generally more sane in a union shop. And I suspect they may be less terrible with residential type electrical work, but that's just a guess.

On the positive side, he really likes the electrical part of his work. I think it appeals to the somewhat particular side of his nature. Wanting things to be done right (not just done good enough), which is a great preference when you're dealing with something that can kill you. And I think he really likes the "attention to detail" aspect. It provides a good balance of physical and mental stimulation, and I think as a career trajectory offers the option of less required manual labor as he gets older. I could see it as being a good career possibility if you are okay with the challenging aspects (male dominated, hours, manual labor, etc.)
posted by pennypiper at 4:57 PM on April 22, 2014

Do it! I was an electrician until I became a slackful network engineer lazing about in my cushy white-collar office. It's hard work, but sometimes interesting, and the pay is good.

Okay, apprentice pay isn't good compared to the pay as a licensed electrician, but apprentice pay is still pretty good compared to other low-skill things (when you're a low-skill apprentice) and goes up as you actually become useful. I've been out of the trade for over 15 years, now, so I can't speak to what pay is like these days in the states.

I ran into some sexism in the trades, but not as much as I suspect some women did - I did most of my work in a loosely knit network of contractors many of whom also had women working for them.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:10 PM on April 22, 2014

Since you're in theater this synapse is firing - maybe talk to some of the electrical staff you've met during shows? Maybe putting in a shift or two hanging lights in exchange for some on-the-job basic training could be a way to transition.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:26 PM on April 22, 2014

Best answer: Third year electrical apprentice in BC here. Shifted over from tech support. I'm in favour of the career change for myself for similar reasons to those you stated. Because I'm in BC and Northern BC and AB are acting as big trades vacuums some of my experience may not directly apply.

I'm not sure how flexible scheduling the job is at most companies. It's not generally a set your own hours sort of profession as the work involves coordination with other trades or you are doing service. Some companies may be able to work with you though to come up with a reduced work week. Generally though electricians are looking for overtime rather than reduced hours. And there are lots of positions not working for electrical companies. Most tiers of government for example have electrician positions including school boards. Ski hills, breweries, any sort of industrial process you can think of, hospitals, etc will all have maintenance electricians on staff.

Be aware that even the most varied of positions can be somewhat repetitive. You could end up spending weeks at a time mounting boxes or building tray or digging ditches for pipe.

halogen: " A quick heads up: carpentry apprenticeships here in Seattle, WA currently have a two year waitlist and a fairly long unpaid pre-apprenticeship program, I believe – so it might not be as easy as you think to get started. "

The Canadian apprentice program bares little resemblance to the American system. No one is working for free; it's essentially illegal and no employer wants the insurance exposure of an unpaid (and not covered by WCB) trades employee. Also I'd be surprised if anyone is making $10 an hour as a first year; even residential 1st year apprentices in my small city are making $12-13 dollars an hour and I started out at ~$19 doing industrial construction (essentially the same as union scale though we are non-union). Generally speaking residential pays the least, commercial is a bump up and then Industrial pays the most.

Wages of course vary but generally there is a pay scale at a company and all journeymen make close to the same wage with maybe long service bonuses. There are some bumps for different levels of foreperson (A / B / Site supervisor/ Lead hand) but everyone else makes the same.

Your first job is the hardest to acquire especially if you are unwilling to travel. Once you are registered as an apprentice the job search becomes easier. There are alot of provincial Women in Trades programs here; I'd guess Ontario is similar because women are wildly underrepresented in all trades.

Sexism: it's there and probably worse than most office jobs. It's at least more blatant. But it's not being ignored. Most places have policies addressing it and generally the bigger the company the less of a problem it is. And of course there are lots of small shops where that sort of thing isn't tolerated.

Finally I'd personally stay away from welding. The money can be better but it is much harder on your body and you and your lungs are exposed to burning metal and flux all day long.
posted by Mitheral at 6:58 PM on April 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Sexism: it's there and probably worse than most office jobs. It's at least more blatant. But it's not being ignored.

Depending on the source of the sexism, you're also more likely to be in a position where you can blatantly tell someone to go fuck themselves than in an office job.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:51 AM on April 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If you do end up going for this and want to make your own business out of it eventually, the fact that it's a male-dominated, blue-collar industry might be to your advantage - I'm pretty convinced that there's a niche market in most places for people who just want someone to do the job well without trying to bullshit them, patronise them or overcharge them.

I've had enough bad experiences with car mechanics as a young woman that if I had any capital at all I'd consider setting up - well, not necessarily a specifically lady-friendly garage/auto shop, but one based on principles of dealing ethically with customers and not trying to squeeze cash out of them based on the business owner's/employees' perceived superiority and their perceived inferiority within the industry.

My theory is that if you branded yourself as a no-nonsense lady electrician who would rather not shaft people, you'd get more work than you could handle. It's years down the line from where you are now, I know, but it's also one possible counter-argument/eventual payoff to the "it's going to be so hard to be a woman in this environment"* line.

*That's not to say it won't still be really hard while you're finding your feet, and only you know if you're going to be able to handle this or not.
posted by terretu at 6:22 AM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This has been hugely informative, pretty encouraging, and the cons aren't anything I wasn't aware of. Thank you so much, everyone! I'll try not to get electrocuted.
posted by lizifer at 6:42 AM on April 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

I should have qualified my answer by saying that I am American, and so it's quite different here it turns out (though still a very good field to get into here, just different process or whatever). Glad some Canadians chimed in with awesomely good and specific advice. Good luck you will be awesome.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:12 PM on April 28, 2014

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