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Electrician Apprenticeship Programs... Union Or Non-Union

Updated on August 1, 2015

An important decision to make before pursuing an electrician apprenticeship is to figure out whether to affiliate yourself with a union or non-union shop.

This is pretty much a black or white decision that will most likely stay with you for your entire electrical career so… take some time and choose carefully.

Most all of my time spent in the electrical industry was working in non-union or 'open shops'. I did however have the opportunity to work on a couple of union jobs early-on in my electrical career and I have met and talked with quite a few union electricians, foreman, owners as well as union business agents.

Since I've worked in and been exposed to both sides of the union-non-union debate, I'm in a position that allows me to provide you with a comprehensive overview as to the pros and cons of working in each of these two different electrical environments.

Pros and Cons of Working in a Union Electrician Shop

Pros…

  • Union apprentice electrician training is 2nd to none
  • Higher pay scale than a non-union shop
  • Outstanding retirement program
  • You will have the ability to travel around the country and work anywhere
  • IBEW is one of the largest and strongest unions in the world

Cons…

  • Union shops can run out of work even when open shops are busy
  • Once you are a member of a union, you are not allowed to work outside of that union
  • Union electricians are treated equally regardless of ability or production
  • There are lots of rules to follow
  • You will be required to pay union dues

Pros and Cons of Working in an Open Electrician Shop

Pros…

  • Apprentice electrician program is typically high quality
  • Greater promotion opportunities than in non-union shops
  • More employment alternatives when work is slow
  • Less rules to follow
  • No union dues to pay

Cons…

  • Lower pay scale than a union shop
  • Inferior retirement program compared to the union
  • Inconsistent treatment of electricians between various contractors
  • Generally, less stringent safety procedures
  • Quality of work between different electricians can vary greatly

You will want to do some research to determine how strong the union presence is in your local area. How many big projects are they now working on? That will go along way in determining how busy you can stay as a union electrician over the long term.

Nothing can be more frustrating to be sitting at home and collecting unemployment because there is not enough union work in your town. A union journeyman electrician can always travel to another area to work but if you have a family, that is not always feasible.

If you are younger and plan on a long electrical career, a union shop might be your best choice simply because of the outstanding retirement benefits that they offer.

The main advantage to being in an open shop is that there are many options available to you when work gets slow. Also, if you are otherwise unhappy with your employment situation, you have complete flexibility in changing jobs.

If you are a go-getter and aspire to foreman and superintendent positions, there will generally be more opportunities for you in a non-union shop.

So... Which Way Should You Go?

As with most choices in life, there is usually a trade-off and the electrical industry is no different.

With the union you have great retirement benefits but with the possibility of dealing with more time off work than you would like.

By going non-union you will give up the outstanding benefits they offer for more steady work and greater opportunities for advancement.

These are general statements of course and can vary greatly from area to area, employer to employer and to union shop and non-union shop.

For instance, there can be a non-union electrical contractor that has a retirement or profit sharing program that rivals that of the IBEW.

There are areas that have a long standing union presence with ongoing large government projects where the local union electricians are always busy and rarely get laid off.

Every city is different so I repeat… it is a good idea to do some diligent research before making the decision to go union or non-union.

© 2013 Jerry Higgins

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