What are you worth?

English: Power Factor Correction Unit, 75 kvar...

English: Power Factor Correction Unit, 75 kvar Deutsch: Eine Blindleistungskompensationsanlage für 75 kvar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, not literally. What I really mean is what is your time worth to an employer. And why? As usual, I’m going to use electrical work as an example because I can do it without a bunch of research. if you remember the other day, I noted that a journeyman electrician might make anywhere from $20-$50 and hour depending. Read that article here. A journeyman is a journeyman, or is he (or she, to be fair). No he’s not. There are many variables.

Also remember that absolutely everything we do is covered by various codes, usually in the US the National Electric Code but many jurisdictions don’t always adopt the newest one or make additions, so not only do you have to know what you’re doing but where you’re doing it.

First there is new construction or closely related major rewiring projects, we call these construction electricians

There are journeymen out there that do nothing but wire new houses, that’s the simplest part of the business. In truth, it is all about speed, an average house take 2-3 days to rough in and another to finish, after the sheetrock is in. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve respect, If you sent me your house plans, I could send you absolutely every part needed to wire it properly, but I’ll bet you wouldn’t get it right, even if you read the book, and I’ll further bet you’d give up in a week and call for help.   But this is the simplest end of the business.

There are also journeymen around who do commercial and industrial construction, this is quite a bit more complex, instead of the normal 120/240 volts you have at home, these are usually three-phase systems, installed in what looks to the eye like water pipe, and he has to know how to bend this to fit. It’s not easy and for the record, I’m not particularly good at it myself. But still, it’s pretty cut and tried, you essentially build what the plans say, although you have to pay attention, the engineer or architect is not going to pay you to fix code violations just because they screwed up the drawings, you’re the expert. Doing this pays better though, and is harder to get into as well.

Then there is the service side of the business

Again there are guys who have some troubleshooting skills and aptitude but for one reason or another stick with residential and light commercial work. Nothing wrong with that and in truth that what a lot of small town electricians are. Some are specialists in farm wiring as well, which is a bit weird sometimes and cuts across all lines on occasions even including skills normally reserved to utility lineman. This is where I started, and its pretty satisfying work.

Then you get into the guys that live and breathe high power stuff, they know three-phase wiring like a chef knows an omelette, they can calculate motor load in their sleep and remember to factor in the power factor correction, if required. They’re invariably fair to good troubleshooters, and know all sorts of arcane things. These are the highest of the normal electricians.

There are a few, and they are really rare, that are familiar with the really arcane stuff you find in industry, how to use a computer to control a machine tool, or an entire production line. They speak their own language, even by electrician standards, you’ll hear phrases like shunt switching, 0-20ma sensor, strain gauges, and on and on. This is what I do, you want to drive up with your grain truck at harvest and dump into the pit and have 14% moisture content in the bin automatically, I can do it (and have). What’s it take? Drawing me a picture on the back of a pretty good size check.

I’m not the best in the field, at a guess I’m probably 80th percentile, but I don’t do it enough to stay really good. When I was working center pivot irrigation, I was working with Valmont Manufacturing doing beta testing on some remote control devices, I worked for the dealer that developed and was a recognized expert on putting the computerized panel a quarter-mile from the machine. It ended up a very tight specification, some wire had a tenth of an amp at a third of a volt and if it screwed up the pivot didn’t know where it was aimed, and incidentally if you water the road, it can be a 3-5000 dollar fine, kind of needs to be right.

But you know what, I can teach that kind of stuff, and do, but not everybody can learn it, and troubleshooting takes a whole different mindset, you have to know how things are supposed to work, and why it’s not. Yes, we all get confused on occasion too. Sometimes, you just walk out to the truck and have a cup of coffee and think about what could cause this nonsense, and it can get pretty weird.

And so that’s the main reasons why there is such a disparity in pay in what is described as a journeyman electrician. It’s really a whole bunch of different jobs, sometimes all in one day.

Then there is one other factor, the Market.

I’ve been in markets where you couldn’t find a guy that had a clue how to wire your garage but, you had your choice to wire your steel mill, or vice versa. It matters on the paycheck. If you’ve worked residential for the last ten years you couldn’t keep up for years, and now you can’t find an outlet to fix. Demand matters, a lot.

Then there are the little things, do you know how to run computer networks? Voice networks? Coaxial cable, and what kind of crimps must you use to avoid screwing up a digital signal? Except that, more and more, they’re required.

The more you know the better your chances of making a really good living every year but, you’re going to spend a lot of time studying for the rest of your life.

This business has changed more in the last 20 years than in the 60 before it.

About NEO
Lineman, Electrician, Industrial Control technician, Staking Engineer, Inspector, Quality Assurance Manager, Chief Operations Officer

28 Responses to What are you worth?

  1. I was on the other end of the business: selling and trouble shooting electric motor problems. Almost always it had to do with an “electrician” that had no idea what he was doing in wiring up the motors (usually 3 phase motors were the problem) though often single phase as well. So I know that the knowledge and experience of the electricians and maintenance people in a plant are essential to getting a good install where you don’t end up with a pallet of burned out motors coming back to be fixed or replaced. Ran into some pretty smart cookies out there as well and they were a joy to work with.

    • Yep, it varies a lot. Seems like maintenance in plants out here don’t have much of a clue but, occasionally you’l run into one. Guys that can troubleshoot seem really rare anymore.

      The thing is in industrial work, a good install is critical but, what is so often lacking is a good maintenance program. Seems most are so busy fighting crisis work that they can’t get preventative done. Part of the problem is that management only looks at quarterly numbers, Guys like me can set it up so the motor will tell you it’s going to go bad but, as long as maintenance is nothing but cost, it’s nearly impossible to sell.

      I’m surprised really though, 3 phase motors are easy compared to single, as long as you know the voltage. Good people are always hard to find though.

      Then we had the homeowner that wanted to use European appliances in the US, you haven’t lived till you try to explain flux density to a liberal arts major.:-)

      • The 3 phase problems usually stemmed from plant maintenance people who pulled 1 phase lines off of the 3 phase lines and never allowed for balancing the load or for inrush current when they powered up a line all at once. The other comes when they (not kidding) try to single phase a 3 phase motor. Happens all the time.

        • Yep, I’ve seen those so often. Single phasing a motor is just about inexcusable to me, tells me you’re unqualified to hold a screwdriver but, it happens all the time.

          My all time favorite was when I was in the packing plant, I came in one morning and was told to go phase a motor (10HP, if I recall) on a Gorman Rupp pump in a lift station in rail load out. I go out there and there’s a brand new motor and pump installed. The crisis guys were right, it wouldn’t run. I think it had something to do with the burned off wires in the conduit but what do I know. :-) So, I replaced them, phased it, and its all good. Couple weeks later my supervisor had me take a forklift and dump both the pump and motor in the metal dumpster, What a waste, bet they were fine, the overloads were correctly set and all.

        • Indeed, I’ve see such things myself where thermal overloads in the motors were popping everyday due to poor power management of the plant wiring – and of course the maintenance guys want to tell their management that they got a load of bad motors.

        • Maintenance guys almost have to, if they want a job. Management doesn’t want to here about all the studies that should be done to make it work right. management seems to think maintenance is simply a cost but you and I know that it can add a lot to productivity but sometimes you need a brain instead of a screwdriver. Power management, and power quality in (especially older) plants is often a nightmare, especially because no one will spend money on it, and even most electrician look at you like you’ve gone bonkers when you start talking about triplens and harmonics and sometimes even lead/lag.

      • You’re right. They don’t want to hear about it, especially if the maintenance manager wired the plant himself. They just want it fixed.

        I think the other thing that was interesting was seeing the electricians and maintenance people waste a ton of money on over sizing buck boost transformers not realizing what load was actually getting boosted or bucked. I would walk out and give some 2 or 3 kVA trasformers and they were looking 150 kVA or some other ungodly size to do the job. But I guess I made heros our to some them because they were willing to spend the bosses money for something that was not even remotely in the ball park.

        • And so often what they really needed was power factor correction, and not try to start every motor in the plant within 2 seconds.

          I can remember putting a 75KVA step down in a Y one time, I haven’t a clue what they were running but I’ll bet a lot of it would have been just as well (or better) off on 480.

          Funniest one I had for a while was I once speced a #8 neutral on a 20A circuit in an office-it was a long run and something like 30 computers on it. My helper thought I’d lost my mind. He had no idea what switching supplies can do to power quality.

          And God save all from the maintenance manager that wired the plant. :-)

      • Ain’t that the truth Neo. I just finished working for a company that did just that. The maintenance guy knew what he was doing but wasn’t given the budget to have things done right. Throughout the winter when the heaters kicked on, we would wipe out a whole row of computers and office lights. They think they are saving money and I bet that with power factor correction they could have saved a ton on their electric bill not to mention the down time of the salesmen that stood around with their hands in their pockets while they without computers.

        • Yep, I looked at a house a few years ago, the homeowner wanted to change the service panel, well OK but he had already bought the same size panel, same brand too. So we scratched our head and started trying to find his point. Found out that he had 4 of those bloody 1200 watt space heaters upstairs (where there was one circuit, old house) when they started it tripped the breaker, the genius figured out all by himself that it was the panels fault. Somehow we never found time to even submit a bid. :-) Why do something that is guaranteed to fail to satisfy the customer, then it’ll be your fault. We told him what he needed to do but he wouldn’t believe us. *walk away shaking head*

        • In regards to your title. I guess it depends on the knowledge of the individual and his ability to work hard with safety. But then there is always the dopey boss who hires and fires them. Sometimes they won’t let them do the job. It seems that most plant electricians need to take courses in negotiations and in finance to go into a boardroom filled with imbeciles and present a plan including an ROI for what is proposed and a guess of losses to time, energy, productivity etc. In the end its the bean counters that make most of the decisions whether it is the right one or not. And who will get the axe when they don’t follow the electricians proposal? You guessed it – they go get another electrician. I’ve seen so many good guys leave plant after plant because they were looking for someone to save them money by putting bubble gum on the system to fix it.

        • That is exactly one of the points I wanted to make at some point. If you don’t fix it right, you’re going to keep fixing it over and over, lost production and all. But try to tell a bean counter that can’t see past the end of the quarter that.

        • I’ve fought many battles on that front and lost almost every single one.

        • You and me both. For an electrician, especially in a plant without engineers, the code book and the inspector are your only friends, and often that’s not enough.

        • I would almost say that it is rarely enough. Once they leave the premises, the onus usually falls on the “fall guy” – their own expert who is expected to save them money without doing all that is truly required.

        • Yep, I’ve learned over the years to (if he can follow) to teach my liaison as much as possible because his butt is on the line, even more than mine. does it always work? No, but you have to do the best you can for the poor schmuck, cause he’s truly caught in between a rock and a hard place.

        • It is really hard on these people: their whole livelihood is in the balance and yet they must have integrity as well and enough sense to start looking for another employer if this is the situation they are dealt.

          As you know this isn’t the only arena these same things occur. Try telling a plant about their poor roof materials or insulation or lack of ventilation and consequent poor air quality. They don’t seem to think that fixing these things will actually make the workers more productive and that they might actually start making more money.

        • Nope, they sure don’t. very little conception of how to make people productive. It’s hard to deal with 1/4watt resistors with your mittens on but, they can’t see it.

          And yes, you have to do your best to protect those guys.

        • I just see many factories getting out dated and unable to compete they way they ought in the global market. Americans are the best workers in the world and we don’t need to handicap them so that other countries can produce equal products at a lower price. We taught the world how to mass manufacture goods and if they were to spend the stimulus money on updating productive factories instead of Green Companies that are going belly up then we might get our loans repaid and we may have mad an investment that would give us a return on investment.

        • Much as I disagree with the government throwing money at problems, if they are going t, you are absolutely correct. Trouble is that no one in government (especially this bunch of academics) has a clue.

        • I agree with part 1 and part 2 of your comment.

        • Thought you would :-)

  2. This is a deeply interesting discussion of your craft. Full of things I didn’t know. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    • It’s fun to write these as well partially because there is a whole lot of knowledge in the trades that the average homeowner, never finds out about.

      • True. But then, you are a craftsman, so you would have knowledge the rest of us don’t have.

      • That’s true, of course, but the more open we are it usually makes it easier to explain why everything we do costs so much. Usually it’s not really because we’re greedy, although, of course, some are. Usually their work shows it too.

  3. the unit says:

    I enjoyed the article and the discussion. The only electrical expertise I have is if my AC won’t start, try a new capacitor.
    And don’t call Obama. :)

    • NEO says:

      Worth a try, often is, and they’re cheap. :-)

      Got that right. :-)

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