How to Become a Limited-Energy Electrician
A sea change in how homes work has created the perfect storm for limited-energy electricians. Learn how you can ride the wave into a promising career.
The quickly merging universe of home security, computer networks, smart appliances and fixtures, plus advanced audio-visual technology, have created an emerging demand for electricians who work with low-current systems. Driven by the powerful combination of LEDs and power over Ethernet (PoE), networks that used to exclusively transmit data are now being harnessed to power and control virtually everything in the home that requires electricity.
“People want to be able to see everything,” says Dave Dressler, training director for Minnesota Statewide Limited Energy Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee. “Limited-energy is poised for massive growth over the next five to 10 years.” Dressler oversees the limited-energy training programs in the state for the partnership between the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) that creates apprenticeships for new tradespeople.
What Do Limited-Energy Electricians Do?
The physical demands of a career in limited-energy tend to be easier on the body than those of other construction trades. However, progression in the trade requires building up the technical knowledge for troubleshooting problematic limited-energy installations in homes and commercial properties.
The ability to climb ladders, kneel for long periods and work overhead top the list of physical requirements. The tools and materials used by this branch of the electrical trades tend to weigh less than those of a standard electrician, according to Dressler.
At the entry level, installers string category-5 or category-6 wire in structures and progress to leading crews, estimating jobs, selling installations and designing systems. Overall, workers in the field deal with “intrinsically safe” levels of energy, according to Dressler, limited to 100 watts or fewer.
How Much Do Limited-Energy Electricians Make?
First-year apprentices in Dressler’s program earn $16 to $17 per hour as specified by the state’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the IBEW union and the employers. Graduates of the program earn as much as $24 to $25 per hour, while foremen earn as much as $41 per hour.
What Qualifications Are Needed?
The minimum requirements to enter an apprenticeship program are a high-school diploma or General Equivalency Diploma (GED), a passing grade for one year of secondary or post-secondary algebra, and a passing grade on an aptitude test. Generally, a valid driver’s license and transportation is preferred.
Note that employers can hire workers who are not part of an apprenticeship program. Dressler cautions against this route, however, as the quality of the on-the-job training varies greatly and may not fully prepare the worker for advancement in the field. At present there is no direct route into the profession through trade school. However, Dressler cites the usefulness of formal IT/networking education as something candidates would benefit from before entering an apprenticeship.
How Does Apprenticeship Work?
Although limited-energy is a branch of the electrical trades, it stands by itself for entry into the field and navigating career progression.
Instead of the five-year program and board interviews required of general electrician apprentices, the limited-energy program lasts just three years (thus the lower wage at graduation) and anyone currently employed in the field who meets the basic requirements is eligible to begin an apprenticeship. The CBA addresses tuition for apprentices, who pay only for clothing, books and technology, if required, to participate in online courses.
While enrolled in the program, apprentices work full-time hours under the watch and guidance of a journey-worker electrician and attend classes for one eight-hour period every two weeks. After graduation, the apprentice will sit for a personal certification exam to become a journey-installer.
What Is the Career Path After Graduation?
Installers work toward certification as a technician, which allows greater scope of work and a higher wage. From this point, depending upon the person’s interest and how much experience they have, there are several advanced certifications available. Structure cabling focuses on data and networking. Audio-visual work has its own certification, as does fire-alarm work. Any of these certifications can lead to front-office or management jobs. Most of the front-office people in limited-energy have risen from the field, according to Dressler. And, of course, you could choose to start your own business.