January 2014

Life, limbs, and licensing: occupational regulation, wages, and workplace safety of electricians, 1992–2007


Public policy approaches to occupational health and safety

Public policies on health and safety have generally taken two approaches: the regulation and setting of standards, and the implementation of social insurance through worker compensation. Illustrations of the regulation approach are the passage of the Coal Mine Safety Act in 1969 and the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1970.

The federal government has played a key role in protecting the health and safety of the workforce. For example, miners have been at the forefront of occupational health and safety legislation largely because they both have the highest rate of injuries and deaths and have gathered the most attention through the media, in part because many of the deaths and injuries involve large groups of miners who are affected at one time and often in a dramatic fashion. In contrast, deaths and injuries in construction tend to occur to a much greater extent in small groups and away from the spotlight of the media. The focus on miners develops even though construction workers are likely to have multiple times as many overall deaths and injuries annually. Recent data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that construction workers have by far the greatest number of deaths and injuries of any industry and rank high in injury and death rates.4 The sections that follow examine whether occupational regulation complements current regulatory policies aimed at promoting workplace health and safety by reducing the occurrence and severity of occupational injuries.

Further, occupational licensing gives a standard method of providing a service that promotes the health and safety of the workforce. For example, about 10 percent of the class time of electricians training for licensure accreditation is spent in discussions of health and safety, and units in apprenticeship programs are devoted explicitly to health and safety.5 (see the accompanying box for illustrations of these requirements.) The expectation is that workers who have this background in safety from both classroom and on-the-job training would incur fewer workplace injuries and deaths. One of the objectives of this article is to examine in more detail the training required by occupational licensing, using electricians—a regulated occupation in the industry—as an example.

Training and qualifications for becoming an electrician

Each year of training for electricians includes at least 144 hours of classroom instruction and 2,000 hours of on-the-job training. In the classroom, apprentices learn electrical theory, blueprint reading, mathematics, electrical code requirements, and safety and first-aid practices. They also may receive specialized training in soldering, communications, fire alarm systems, and cranes and elevators. 

On the job, apprentices work under the supervision of experienced electricians. At first, they drill holes, set anchors, and attach conduit. Later, they measure, fabricate, and install conduit and install, connect, and test wiring, outlets, and switches. They also learn to set up and draw diagrams for entire electrical systems. Eventually, they practice and master all of an electrician's main tasks.

Some people start their classroom training before seeking an apprenticeship. A number of public and private vocational–technical schools and training academies offer training to become an electrician. Employers often hire students who complete these programs and usually start them at a more advanced level than those without this training. A few people become electricians by first working as helpers—assisting electricians by setting up jobsites, gathering materials, and doing other nonelectrical work—before entering an apprenticeship program. All apprentices need a high school diploma or a General Educational Development (GED) certificate. Electricians also may need additional classes in mathematics because they solve mathematical problems on the job.

Education continues throughout an electrician's career. Electricians may need to take classes to learn about changes to the National Electrical Code®, and they often complete regular safety programs, manufacturer-specific training, and management training courses. Classes on such topics as low-voltage voice and data systems, telephone systems, video systems, and alternative energy systems (e.g., solar energy systems and wind energy systems) increasingly are being given as these systems become more prevalent. Other courses teach electricians how to become contractors.

Licensure. Most states and localities require electricians to be licensed. Although licensing requirements vary from state to state, electricians usually must pass an examination that tests their knowledge of electrical theory, the National Electrical Code, and local and state electric and building codes. 

Electrical contractors who do electrical work for the public, as opposed to electricians who work for electrical contractors, often need a special license. In some states, electrical contractors need certification as master electricians. Most states require master electricians to have at least 7 years of experience as an electrician or a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering or a related field.

Source: Occupational Outlook Handbook (U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 29, 2012),

Electrician labor market

The focus of this article is electricians for three reasons: they are a key element in the construction workforce, they constitute the most regulated craft in the industry, and they contribute much to value added in the industry. About 80 percent of all electricians work in the construction industry, and about 695,000 were employed in the industry in 2008. Approximately 32 percent of all electricians are members of a union, with most belonging to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. This percentage compares with about 13.8 percent of all construction workers who are represented by a union.6 As with other occupations prevalent in construction (e.g., plumbers and laborers), electricians' high level of unionization may raise wages, and the influence of unions on work rules is expected to be especially important within the occupation. As a consequence, unions also may contribute to reductions in occupational injuries. All states that license electricians require them to take classes on safety. Michigan, for example, requires apprentice electricians to present a plan of training in health and safety in order to become licensed.


4 For data on fatal injuries, see the relevant charts from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009),

5 Xiuwen Dong, Yurong Men, & Elizabeth Haile, Work-related fatal and nonfatal injuries among U.S. construction workers, 1992–2003 (Silver Spring, MD: Center to Protect Workers' Rights, 2005).

6 See Hirsch and Macpherson, Union membership; and Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.

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About the Author

Morris M. Kleiner

Morris M. Kleiner is Professor, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, and Research Associate, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA.

Kyoung Won Park

Kyoung Won Park is an assistant professor in the College of Business and Economics, Hanyang University, Kyeonggi-do, Korea.