How I Survived my First Year as an Electrician Apprentice

While my first year as an electrician apprentice will not be your experience, I did find out quickly that apprentices live at the bottom.  

First year electrician apprentice

I'm thinking I had this look on my face a lot that first year.

If you feel like you have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, you're not alone. Apprentices are known to bear the brunt of menial tasks, and going through a trial by fire.

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What is it Like to Be an Apprentice Electrician?

​Read through my story, and you will gain valuable insight into what to do - and what NOT to do as a first year electrical apprentice. 

I was fortunate to begin my first days as an electrician apprentice working for my Dad. He had just completed 30 years at Detroit Edison, our local utility provider. His love of the electrical field being so strong, he started his own electrical contracting company straight out of retirement.

I came on board as his protege. Eventually I would earn my Journeyman’s license, but that would be several years later. Reading the steps to becoming a licensed electrician is a good place to start your own journey.

Beginning his business literally from nothing, we worked out of a spare bedroom in his home. He had a Ford Explorer which was packed front to back with tools. One of my first tasks was to learn how everything could fit in that thing - and still have room for the two of us!

One fact for which I am truly thankful, my dad was (and is) a patient and kind man.  

A superb teacher, Dad is nothing like that stereotypical “job boss” who berates and belittles the new guy, and screams up a storm when he  screws up. I have tried to remember that as I am now the teacher.

I never felt afraid or foolish to ask any kind of question - no matter how  stupid.

And I had a lot of questions!

Why must it be done that way? What difference does that make? What is an amp anyway? I felt no pressure to appear knowledgable, so I was free to ask.

I was also free to make mistakes. A lot of mistakes.  

Apprentices Make Mistakes

Since an apprentice learns by on-the-job-training (OJT), it stands to reason that mistakes are going to happen.

1. A common gaffe is attempting to economize on wire by running just enough so as not to have waste. I soon learned that if you're not throwing away a little wire, you're asking for trouble. Coming up a little short costs much time and hassle - not to mention the wire you were trying to save in the first place. My dad liked to say, "Wire is cheaper than time." Correct!

Electrician Tip

"Wire is cheaper than time."

Don't try to economize on wire by running just enough so as not to have waste.

2. I also learned (the hard way) to know where the exit is before entering. To put it differently: never dismantle something without taking note of how it goes back together.  

I once yanked apart about a dozen circuits in the basement of a very old house. Then I realized the wires were not colored black and white. They were all a shade of grey. Many hours were spent working that out.  

3. Similarly, if the plan is to take apart someone's electrical service, make sure time and material is available to put it back together. Some tasks must be completed today - right? You can't say to a homeowner, "Well, it's quttin' time. We'll be back on Monday to get that power back on!"  

4. Another barrel of fun is failing to run circuit to all locations when roughing a new house. It's only much later you find something doesn't work. Get the picture?

Newbie Apprentices - Quick & Dirty Tips

Mistakes happen but they are far easier to correct before the drywall is installed. In other words, do everything carefully.  

Quick & Dirty Tips for Newbies

First Year Electrician Apprentiice

1.  Drilling through a floor joist? Check both sides.

2.​ Tools are not cheap. Treat them well.

3.  Show confidence

​People hire us because they don't want to mess around with electricity. They are already jittery. Many see electricity as some dark force in their homes just waiting to kill them all! What they don't need is for their electrician to seem intimated, frustrated, or worse yet - confused. You must always appear to be in total control and completely unfazed. 

4.  Watch what comes out of your mouth!

If you're having a bad day, leave it in the truck. As far as a customer is concerned - theirs is the best wired house you have ever seen.  

My Very Stupid Mistake!

I was once in a home where something was wired incorrectly and I remarked to the lady: "I'm surprised this place hasn't burned down by now".  

Stupid, stupid thing to say! Firstly, I was in no way qualified to make such a statement. Secondly, even if I was right, there was no point speaking that out and causing stress. Years later she was still concerned about her house.

4.  Again, watch your mouth!  

Inspectors. You'll have your share of moments with them. For the most part, be quiet and listen. It's the foreman they will speak to, if anyone.  

What your boss knows (and what you will discover about inspectors), the less you say the better.  Let them do their job. Speak when spoken to.

5.  Respect Other's Property  

Respect people's home and their stuff. I have seen an apprentice walk into a house, look around and say, "These people are loaded". Yup, that mouth again.

6.   Be the driver of your career

No one cares as much about you as you. With this in mind, increase your skills as quickly as possible.  

That foreman may be a tool - but he's a tool who knows more than you. Watch him. Talk to him. Ask questions. And I mean good questions. Don't be satisfied with knowing what to do next. Learn why! Be an informed and intelligent electrician.

What Should I Know as a First Year Electrical Apprentice?

One of the first things you will want to know as a first year electrical apprentice, is how to avoid some of the mistakes I mentioned above.   

If you're looking for some solid, down-to-earth advice, keep reading.

If you're looking for straight classroom ​training logistics, check out these apprenticeship guides that include the topics covered each year of their individual apprenticeship.


IEC Electrician Apprenticeship

How to Join IEC Electrician Apprenticeship
ABC APPRENTICESHIP

ABC Electrician Apprenticeship

ABC Electrician Apprenticeship
IBEW APPRENTICESHIP

IBEW Electrician Apprenticeship

IBEW

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers

Remodel Work is a Great Teacher for an Electrical Apprentice

I remember a very early project in Detroit. It was an old run down but quite large house. Someone had bought it for a song and was renovating it for new tenants. It was a dirty, messy affair but a paying job - and a very good experience for me.  

The challenge of remodel work is adding new things to old things and making them work together. One must be able to understand what he sees, as well as what he can't see.  

How was this place wired? Where does this circuit begin and end? Why do only half the plugs in this room work?

Electrician Tip

"I still say the best teacher in electrical work is tracking down and fixing a problem."

Jobs like that were a great learning experience. I still say the best teacher in electrical work is tracking down and fixing a problem.

Of course, working on older homes is no picnic. You're going to face stuff like:

  • Cutting into plaster to install boxes
  • Fishing wire down walls
  • Working in attics in the heat of the summer with that nasty insulation
  • Belly crawling under houses where you hope you are the only living thing down there

An apprentice electrician is going to need tools for all these jobs.  

But I survived. I survived because I loved learning new things on a daily basis, loved my boss, and was committed to being the best electrician I could possibly be.

The job of an apprentice can be summed up thusly:

Electrician Apprentice Job Description

Electrician apprenticeship IEC

Apprentices at IEC Rocky Mountain, Colorado

1.  Assist and support your Journeyman supervisor in every way imaginable.

​That means whatever is needed at the moment. You're going to unload stuff in the morning and pack it back up at the end of the day. You will hand tools and material to others. If someone needs something, you are the guy running to the truck to get it.  

And that truck? It gets dirty. Guess who's going to clean it.

Sweeping floors, digging trenches, crawling through attics and under houses - if it's crap work, you're the one doing it.  

Don't feel bad. This is how you earn your stripes.  

Remember Karate Kid?  

Remember how Miaggi had the kid doing all those chores that seemed to benefit the teacher? It wasn't until later he discovered he was gaining skills the whole time. Stay positive and do your time in the trenches - it won't be forever.​

2.​  Keep Your Eyes and Ears Open

​Employers greatly value (and notice) initiative; someone who's head is in the game.  

Don't wait for someone to give you a task. Look for ways to be useful. Find something that needs to be done (there's always something) and jump in on job sites!

Find something to do or ask the boss, "What now?" If the job is being discussed, listen in and see what you can pick up. If you don't want to be sweeping up job sites forever, make it your business to increase your skills. Which brings me to the next point.

3.  Learn and Keep Learning!​

​It's simply not possible to pick up everything you need to know while in the classroom. Pay attention and ask questions. Try new things and volunteer for the tough jobs. Get as much experience as fast as you can.  

My Experience as an Electrician Apprentice: Year Two & Beyond

As my experience as an electrician apprentice continued, it didn’t take long for us to build up clientele. My father is well known as an honest, decent person and a consummate professional.

Our first jobs were residential remodel work such as new additions, small projects, and service calls. A service call is usually when a customer had a problem they couldn't fix themselves.  This included breakers tripping, outlets not working, sparks flying, etc.

Nothing teaches you how electrical systems work like having to fix one that doesn't work. It can be a real brain drain,  but using logic and deductive reasoning to track down a problem did tons to teach me this trade.

We didn't turn down many jobs. Because of this I learned to:

  • Bend conduit
  • Work with PVC
  • Install panels
  • Design a circuit
  • Work with wiremold (no, it's not a fungus)
  • Finish installs 
  • Take care of  remodel installs
  • Manage disconnects
  • Arrange machine hook-ups
  • Complete over current protection
  • Bid jobs
  • Work with builders

Although some jobs were small, they established a relationship with a new customer. Today's piddly repair job can easily become tomorrows big project. And often that is just what happened.

Growing as an Electrical Contractor

At this time we were doing exactly zero advertising. Everything was word of mouth. New contacts increased our network and helped us grow. 

Before long we were plenty busy. A typical day saw dad picking me up at home and dropping me off that night - sometimes quite late. Tired, dirty, scratched, bruised - but happy.  

Of course, what I didn't necessarily know was the “other” job my dad was doing. My day ended when I got home. His ended hours later when he finished all the administrative tasks associated with any business.

First year electrician apprenticeship

I'm talking bookkeeping, invoicing, quoting, corresponding, scheduling, purchasing, and on and on. As I grew in knowledge and experience, I was able to take on more responsibility and help out more. But make no mistake - owning a business is very hard work! 

Our staff began to grow as well. My brother joined us about one year later, and we became a true family business.

We also established working relationships with a number of new home builders, and thats when things started to get busy.

The building boom was still cruising along and it seemed every available piece of land was sprouting a new house. New home construction is another great way to learn the electrical trade. We were intensely busy with many projects happening at once, and moving from one house to another.

How Does the Electrician Apprentice Process Work?

Now, it’s important to understand that things were a little different back when I started my apprenticeship. The law in Michigan required an unlicensed employee to register with the state as an apprentice just as it does today. But at that time it was simply a matter of filling out an application at the Secretary of State. My apprentice card came in the mail and that was that.

Today the apprenticeship process is more structured, and requires a certain amount of class-room training that goes hand-in-hand with on the job training. (Requirements vary state to state.)

​Inspect full guides to the most popular apprenticeships. Just click a number.

IEC Electrician Apprenticeship

How to Join IEC Electrician Apprenticeship
ABC APPRENTICESHIP

ABC Electrician Apprenticeship

ABC Electrician Apprenticeship
IBEW APPRENTICESHIP

IBEW Electrician Apprenticeship

IBEW

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers

I share my personal story in the hope you can learn from my mistakes, and survive through your own apprenticeship.

I welcome comments and questions. I have worked over 2 decades as an electrician, and I will do my best to answer your questions.

Steve Schnute
The Electrical Guy
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