The Three Paths to Becoming an Electrician: Union, Non-Union, and Trade School

Explore the distinct routes to becoming a successful electrician. We outline the advantages, challenges, and opportunities of union apprenticeships, non-union apprenticeships, and trade schools. With paid training and multiple career paths, discover how you can launch a rewarding career in the electrical field.

Becoming an electrician is a fulfilling, rewarding, and high-paying career path, but how you get there can vary. There are three primary paths to consider: Union apprenticeships, non-union (merit shop) apprenticeships, and trade schools. Each of these paths offers its own benefits, challenges, and opportunities.

Paths to Becoming an Electrician and furthering your career.

Union Apprenticeships

Union apprenticeships offer paid training under the guidance of experienced electricians. These programs, provided by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), allow you to earn while you learn, all without accumulating student loan debt.

Union apprenticeships are highly competitive, particularly in densely populated areas like NYC and LA, where union presence is large, and the waitlist can span years. But it’s worth noting that union electricians often enjoy excellent wages, benefits, and job security.

The work performed by union electricians varies widely, from residential and commercial installations to large-scale industrial projects. Union membership also comes with strong collective bargaining power, leading to better work conditions. However, a potential downside is that union dues and certain work restrictions might apply.

Non-Union Apprenticeships

Non-union or merit shop apprenticeships form the majority of the electrical contracting industry in the U.S. Similar to union apprenticeships, these programs offer paid on-the-job training, allowing apprentices to learn practical skills while earning a wage.

Non-union electricians have more freedom to negotiate their pay and working conditions directly with their employers. They typically work on a diverse range of projects, similar to their union counterparts. The benefits and pay can be comparable to union electricians, although this can vary depending on the employer.

One drawback is that without a union’s backing, some might face challenges in securing fair wages or resolving workplace disputes. However, many non-union electricians appreciate the autonomy and flexibility these roles offer. Something to consider though, going to trade school does not make you an electrician. You will still have to go through an apprenticeship either way.

Trade Schools

Trade schools offer another path toward becoming an electrician. Some exceptional schools offer labs for real-world experience and count towards licensing hours. In a small number of states, trade school education is required for licensure.

However, not all trade schools are created equal, and it’s important to remember that they are businesses. They can provide valuable education, but their primary goal is to make a profit. Thus, potential students should carefully research and consider the value proposition of a trade school program.

Trade schools can be a good interim step if waiting lists for union apprenticeships are long, or non-union opportunities are limited. Some students may also prefer the more structured learning environment of a trade school.


In summary, the best path toward becoming an electrician depends on individual circumstances and goals. Either way you go, you’ll still need to apprentice for several years before you will be eligible to test for your license. To learn more about the path of licensing from apprentice to master, we’ve written an article called Understanding Electrical Licensing: From Apprentice to Master, which we think you should read next.

Union and non-union apprenticeships both offer valuable paid training and diverse job opportunities. Although they require a significant time commitment, they can lead to a rewarding and stable career without the burden of student loan debt.

Trade schools can also provide a useful step towards an electrical career, particularly for those who prefer a more traditional educational setting or need to meet state-specific licensure requirements. Regardless of the chosen path, the journey to becoming an electrician is likely to be a path toward a secure, fulfilling, and financially rewarding career.

Enjoy learning about electricity?