Deciding between Union Contractors and Non-union Shops for Your Apprenticeship and Employment

At some point in their career, all electricians face an important question:

Should I go with a union or a non-union apprenticeship program?

Even though the tasks you perform as a union or non-union electrician are the same, there are apparent differences in the apprenticeship programs they offer.

In essence, it affects your starting point in the electrician career, particularly with employers.

So before anything else, you should first consider all factors, such as the program itself and job opportunities, before making a decision.

Lucky for you, we have put together some of the important information you should take note of on this page.

After reading them, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about whether to go for a union or non-union apprenticeship.

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Joining the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) is the main organization governing all electrical labor unions.

It has many local chapters with the aim to produce properly trained and experienced electricians for the construction industry.

So by joining a union contractor, you will become a member of the IBEW.

Most of your involvement and contact with the union would happen through the local chapter.

Each local chapter will have different specialties:

  • Industrial and commercial electrical installation
  • Residential electrical wiring
  • Telecommunications wiring

A union apprenticeship program covers both classroom-based training and on-the-job experience hours.

To be accepted, you need to go through an application process.

You should apply at the local Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (JATC) operating under the IBEW and NECA (National Electrical Contractors Association).

The acceptance will depend on the availability of openings and your qualifications.

Joining a Non-union-Sponsored Apprenticeship

Applying for an apprenticeship with a non-union sponsor (merit/open shop) is like a regular job application process.

There are many non-union sponsors that you can apply for, but most would go for these associations:

  • Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. (ABC)
  • Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC)

Like the union sponsors, their apprenticeship programs involve classroom and on-the-job training with partner construction companies.

To get admitted, you must complete a post-secondary electrician’s training at a trade school first.

Comparing Union and Non-Union Electricians

Apprenticeships

Both union and non-union apprenticeships help develop skills and knowledge through classroom and on-the-job training.

Completing the required training will qualify you for the journeyman electrician license.

Union

Union apprenticeships have strict hiring standards and can be difficult to get into, making them highly competitive.

With high standards, however, comes high quality.

The Electrical Training ALLIANCE is a partnership between the IBEW and NECA.

They offer apprenticeship programs through the JATC offices located nationwide.

Typically, they are scheduled for particular days and take place at the JATC office.

Most days, however, are spent with you working at the job site.

Non-Union

The ABC and IEC will then help non-union contractors look for apprentices.

Non-union sponsors usually cover the training costs of the hired apprentices with the intention of making them employees.

They expect that the long-term investment will pay off as you become skilled and gain the required field experience.

To qualify for a non-union entry-level trainee position, you typically need to have some formal technical training.

You would have to earn an electrical certificate or a degree in electrical technology at a trade school.

Potential Salary

The biggest difference between the IBEW and a non-union apprenticeship and employment is in the wages.

Union jobs come with a pay rate professionally negotiated by union reps, as enforced by the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)

So, union electricians earn a higher wage than non-union electricians, especially apprentices and lower-ranked journeymen.

Meanwhile, the pay rate of non-union electricians is influenced by and set at the market rate.

Employers offer rates consistent with what employees in other merit/open shops make, but rarely higher.

Job Stability

Unions are usually strongly tied to specific industry sectors and communities where union members live and work.

Once you become a member of a union, you have certain permanent benefits and rights.

During protracted economic downturns when the work slows down, unions usually help you find work in a different city or state if you are able and willing to relocate.

That’s why non-union employees can be affected by the seasonal slow-downs more.

Larger trends, such as the housing boom and the following corrections can also influence work.

That said, you can be temporarily or permanently laid off without any safeguards to fall back on if your employer doesn’t have enough work to keep you busy.

Retirement and Other Benefits 

One of the major factors to consider when deciding to go with a non-union or union employment is the benefits package.

This would include everything from medical benefits to retirement.

Union

Union members are eligible for a guaranteed pension, which non-union shops usually can’t match.

Even though a part of the paycheck of union members is charged for membership dues, members can retire and collect regular pensions.

Union membership also provides great dental and medical benefits.

In the U.S. Department of Labor report in 2012, it stated that union employer medical benefits covered 83% of all healthcare costs for employees and their families.

Non-Union

Through a non-union employer, you can often be entitled to a retirement plan that includes matching your contributions up to 10%.

With that, you can sock away an amount equal to 20% of your annual income in an account that grows over time.

The Individual Retirement Account (IRA) and 401k plans allow you to manage your investments to some extent.

It gives you more control over your retirement money.

With the Affordable Care Act, you can get basic paid medical benefits, which are now standard for any employer with over 50 employees.

Smaller shops usually count medical benefits as a part of the total compensation and retention packages they offer.

This allows them to remain competitive with union employers.

Contracts and New Opportunities for Contractors

Both union and non-union contractors can work on particular projects in specific fields, with the most cost-efficient and qualified companies winning the bid.

Union

Certain industry sectors require specialty electricians, such as aviation or shipbuilding.

So particular parts of the country where these jobs are concentrated have more unions.

In a region with a strong union presence, union contracts are in place for years or even decades.

In this case, non-union contractors may be restricted from bidding for union-based wage jobs.

Non-Union

In the southern part of the U.S., there are relatively few chapters of the IBEW as compared to the north.

So, the union employees there have fewer contracts than in non-union independent shops.

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Get information on Electrician programs by entering your zip code and request enrollment information.

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