Jon Kerr first decided to become an electrician back in the 6th grade. This decision was motivated entirely by his dad, who saw electrical work as dependable and highly respected among the trades.
"He really emphasized that skilled electricians are always in demand, always well respected. My father understood that electricians provide an essential service. He wanted me to have a secure career plan."
Jon (now 36), ended up following his father's advice.
He joined the Navy for a few years after high school, went through their electrician training program, and is now wrapping up an apprenticeship with Murray Peters Electric, in Hamilton, Ontario.
What does he know now that he didn't realize all those years ago, when he first set out to become an electrician? How has his career evolved?
And most importantly, what can you (an electrician in the making) learn from his experience? Here's what we found out.
1. Jon, what kind of electrical work do you specialize in? Did you expect to be working in this area?
Generally speaking, I'm a construction and maintenance electrician. The company I work for, Murray Peters Electric, specializes in mausoleums. That's right—a building that houses burial chambers; basically a tomb.
And no, I never expected to be specializing in this kind of work! I'd never even heard of it.
But it's actually pretty amazing. Murray Peters is the biggest provider of this service in the province. There's a huge market for mausoleums, especially in the Toronto area.
We do all the wiring for these incredible structures. We install motion sensor lighting, audio systems that can play music, extensive fire detection systems, heat detectors, smoke detectors, and flow detectors.
The work is interesting, challenging, and best of all—indoors!
2. In your experience, what are the biggest pros to becoming an electrician?
I'd have to say the challenge. Thinking on the fly, working to meet deadlines, and getting creative to solve new kinds of problems—every job is different, so you have to improvise, adapt and overcome.
Plus, safety standards and electrical codes are always evolving, and you have to stay on top of those. I'm always learning something new. This is what keeps things interesting for me.
Another major plus is the respect you get from other trades. Skilled electricians are looked up to on job sites. We're affectionately known as "sparkies".
We're the ones who set up the temporary lighting, a/c or heating, and help create a safe working environment for other tradespeople onsite. It's an important role.
3. What about the flip side? What are the biggest drawbacks to electrician work?
Well, for some jobs, it's working in extreme weather conditions—hot or cold. Some companies will pay for weather gear, but quite often, electricians must purchase their own protective clothing.
For me, I'd say working on outdated residential properties can be a bit of a pain. I do maintenance work occasionally, and you have to fix wiring that wasn't done right in the first place, which means sorting out a mess and bringing everything up to code. It can be frustrating.
Like many electricians, I prefer working on new builds, where everything's done right the first time!
Also, it's not really a "con", but electricians carry a heavy burden of responsibility. You need to be sure you're doing things correctly and safely—or someone could really get hurt, or even die.
I'll never forget the first really bad shock I got, just from being a bit careless. I won't make that mistake again.
4. What have you now realized about electrician work, that you didn't know just starting out?
Again, it would have to be the high level of responsibility—how much people rely on you to give light during a project, to facilitate the work getting done correctly and on schedule. Electricians are crucial to the success of any construction operation,
Also, the safety aspect. At the beginning, I didn't realize how important it is to follow lockout/tagout and other safety procedures. Over time, it really sunk in that as an electrician, people's lives are in your hands.
5. Is becoming an electrician all about construction/maintenance work? Are there other areas of specialization?
Absolutely. There are so many ways to specialize in this field. Niches I had no idea existed when I first started electrician training.
For example, there's industrial work in factories, underwater cable technicians, linesmen (who work on hydro lines), and electricians who specialize in fire alarms and security systems.
You've got people who do communication and call systems in hospitals, work on wind turbines, or specialize in elevators. Computer controlled relays is a growing field for electricians these days. There are many paths to explore.
6. Do you normally work alone on a job site, or only with other electricians?
Oh, no. There are many other tradespeople on site. I regularly interact with plumbers, concrete professionals, pipe fitters, welders, general laborers, and project managers.
I work with people from all backgrounds and walks of life, many of whom speak different languages.
Plus, I have to coordinate with management and inspectors. Communication is key for electricians. You need to be able to talk and write professionally.
7. What would you say are the most important skills for an electrician?
Well, you need to be in decent physical shape. You don't need to be a top athlete or anything, but there is lots of standing and moving around. It's important to have energy and physical stamina.
You need to be mechanically inclined, good with your hands, and have strong fine motor skills.
Of course, for safety's sake, you must be careful, observant, and vigilant.
Problem solving is key, and so is spoken and written communication. And you need decent math skills, like algebra, physics, and calculus.
8. What skill did you struggle with most during electrician training?
I'd have to say the math. I was never good at math in high school. I was constantly failing tests, and barely passed grade 12 math. I had dyslexia, but it was never diagnosed, and I really struggled to make it through.
But, once I learned how to ask for help, and starting using better techniques for solving math problems (using pictures, drawing out problems, taking extra time for tests), I did much better.
If I can make it through the math, anyone can!
For me, the difference was knowing that the math I learned in electrician training had a real, practical purpose.
Electricians use math skills every day to figure out things like load calculations, circuit analysis, what size panel you need, what size transformer you need, etc.
At the end of the day, I put in the extra effort and I got it done. My electrician instructors were always helpful and supportive.
If you have the drive, and are willing to work hard, you can master these skills.
Thanks so much to Jon Kerr for taking the time to talk with us. When you're just starting training, or considering entering a trade, it really helps to hear from someone on the other side—who's already walked that path.
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