How to retrain as an electrician – My career change story

Are you considering a career change? Thinking about retraining as an Electrician in the UK?  I did just that and this is my story. In the following article I will disclose exactly how I went about becoming an Electrician, the steps I took to make it happen, how long it took and how much money I earnt along the way.

I’ll cut to the chase – I qualified as an Electrician 3 years ago, I’ve just started a new job as a Electrical Maintenance Engineer on a £42k salary  working a 39 hour week + over time and that’s not the most I’ve earned! Read on if you want to know how I successfully retrained as an Electrician as an adult.

First off, you should know a little about me; I’m 35 years old, male, have good GCSE’s, some useless A-levels and no degree. I live in the North of England.

Why did I decide to retrain as an Electrician?

7 years ago, back in 2015, I was working full time in the retail industry, as I had done since I left school. I was earning around £17k as an Assistant Manager. I lived with my parents, was single with not much confidence and not very happy with where my life was heading.

I moved jobs a few times and always found myself in the same position. I also tried University for a bit and that didn’t work out either.

In 2015 I met an old friend at a wedding. He had retrained as a plumber 5 years prior and was doing quite well for himself. This got me thinking! I began to research the possibilities of becoming an Electrician.

While I was considering retraining as an electrician, I did a fair bit of reading, the answers seemed to be mixed. On forums you got some success stories and a lot of negativity with a general feeling of adult trainee electricians not being wanted within the industry. There’s a common opinion that you have to come through an apprenticeship from your teens in order to be successful as an Electrician. Unfortunately, I was met with the same scepticism from some friends and family who work in the construction industry. I’ve since learnt that this is most definitely not the case, so if you come across this attitude please don’t let it phase you.

I found websites selling intensive fast track courses for crazy prices promising instant results and big pay cheques. I was sceptical.

How did I retrain as an Electrician? Going back to college

I decided the best option would be to go to a building college to train as an electrician part time.  A quick google brought up a few colleges in my area which provided courses. I went along to an open day, spoke to some tutors, played on some electrical test rigs and quickly decided I was sold on the idea of retraining as an electrician! I highly recommend you do the same, it will give you a good feel as to whether or not being an electrician is for you.

As it had been 10+ years since I left high school, I had to sit an entry exam to see what level my Maths and English were at. I knew my Maths were terrible, so I did a little preparation and thank goodness I did as with the grades I received I was able to skip the Level 1 electrical course which is effectively a foundation year for the level 2 diploma in Electrical installation – that’s a full year at college!

The course I enrolled on was a Level 2 and 3 Diploma in Electrical Installation, City and Guilds 2365, attending College 2 days a week for 2 years or evenings over 4 years. I opted for the 2 days a week and I reduced my working hours to a 4 day working week to accommodate.  I was quite fortunate that I was still living with my parents so financially it wasn’t too much of a problem. There was plenty of people on my course who had their own homes, families etc.

September 2015 came around, it felt like I was going back to school again. I had a pencil case and everything! I loved it right away, felt great to be heading in a new direction and learning something new. The Maths was a little scary at first, but with some hard work and extra hours put in at home I soon got my head round it. The Level 2 Diploma was split 50/50 classroom and practical. The Level 3 Diploma was pretty much all classroom with a bit of inspection and test work in the workshop. There was plenty of exams along the way, mostly multiple choice and nothing too difficult if you prepare for them.

The college I went to was great, the tutors genuinely wanted you to succeed. My classmates were of various ages ranging from early 20’s to late 50’s, a really good bunch of people all wanting the same thing out of the course. During my time on the Electrical Installation course, I made some great friends and really enjoyed it.

Getting my first job as an Electrician

Earlier in the article I mentioned how important it is to get yourself on site. This is where training part time at a building college comes into its own. They had careers advisors with a huge directory of contacts within the electrical trade to try help students get work placements as trainee electricians. Mid-way through Level 2 my luck came in and I got some work experience with a sole trader electrician local to me. He was a Domestic electrical installer. I did a few shifts for free just helping out where I could. I grafted my arse off, trying to make a good impression. It wasn’t long before he offered me a job and of course I took it!  As they say, the rest is history!

Make sure you push your college in this respect. Show enthusiasm, put together a CV, give it to your tutors, they’ll have contacts, ask them to pass it around. I visited the careers office every week if they see you’re eager to find a job as an electrician, they will find you something. Remember without experience and just the qualifications you will struggle to find employment.

I started out with my new employer part time, further reducing my hours in my other job. It wasn’t long before he was ready to take me on full time (between studies). At this point I was earning just over minimum wage. Not ideal at 27 years old, however its better than 1st/2nd year apprentice money and the electrical experience I was gaining was invaluable.

After a few months my employer enrolled me onto an electrician apprenticeship scheme through apprenticeships.gov.uk. I was able to carry on with my studies however was now classed as an electrical apprentice. This helped both my employer financially and myself greatly further down the line. More on that later.

As my experience grew, so did my hourly rate. I was  earning around £11 an hour after about 6 months and my boss was starting to send me out on electrical jobs on my own. I used my own car and was paid a milage rate. During my time as an electrical apprentice, I was doing everything from changing light fittings, fuse board swaps, rewires, condition reports and installation certificates. Domestic electrical work isn’t too hard and is a great way to learn your basic circuits, lighting and testing. The trickiest bit and the bit they can’t teach you in college is learning your way around a house. Knowing where to route cables and how to lift floor boards etc. This takes time and is another reason why it’s so important to get some experience under your belt.

Two years into my electrical career change

I was eager to learn the Commercial & Industrial side of the electrical trade as well as Domestic. My boss was going through a quiet spell and so tried to find places to sub-contract me out to. He put word out at his main electrical wholesalers and within the week we had something.

I ended up working for a couple of small Ltd electrical contractors helping with various electrical projects around my local area. I started out on a large new build storage world. I was there for 8 weeks or so and learnt loads – working on containment, power, lighting and fire alarm. The first few days were quite daunting. It’s very different to domestic and felt a lot like the first day at school again. Once I started to find my feet and the other lads began to see I wasn’t a complete idiot it went great.

2 Years in I had now completed my L3 Diploma at college and started my NVQ3 which is the last step before sitting your AM2 exam. This involved attending college on a Friday once every few weeks and couple of site visits from my college tutor. The varied work was perfect for gathering evidence for my Portfolio. The best part was as I had been enrolled on an electrical apprenticeship, the NVQ was completely free! My employer paid a small fee however it was nothing like the £4k price tag if you were to fund it yourself.

New job! Moving from domestic to commercial & industrial electrical contracting full time

I worked on a few other Commercial jobs and quickly decided I wanted to get away from the Domestic side. After 2 years house bashing I began applying jobs. As an adult trainee electrician or mature electrical apprentice you may struggle to find work through the usual Job websites. I found the best way was to send your CV with a well written cover letter to companies directly, even if they’re not advertising. It seems most of the big contractors are always looking for labour and I had no trouble at all finding something. Just make sure it’s well written, have someone proof read it, don’t be afraid to big yourself up and if you’re good on the phone give them a call first, be polite and professional – first impressions are everything.

I went for a very informal interview with an average size commercial/industrial contractor and was offered a job there and then. They took me on as a 4th year apprentice on £11.47 an hour with excellent over time rates.

Two weeks later and I was starting my new job. Straight into 12 hour night shifts! Having never worked nights it was a bit of a shock to the system. You soon get used to it though and when that first pay cheque came through I was more than happy! Around £600 Net for 4 nights work. It was the most I’d ever earned! And as it was Mon-Thurs you got a long weekend. The Job was a full new fire alarm install in a large food distribution centre. Mostly 2nd fix electrical work at high level. Not the most interesting work but I was learning loads so was quite happy.

As much of the work was at high level on MEWPS I was sent on my IPAF course within a few weeks of starting. IPAF is a must for an electricians and is something to consider doing if you’re applying for commercial/industrial work.

Working away from home as an Electrician – my first big pay cheque!

A month later my first working away job came up. A supermarket refit near Glasgow, again on night shifts, this time Sunday to Thursday. Sunday afternoon I’d get picked up along with 3 other lads. We’d generally share the driving stopping half way for a driver change. It was a 5 hour drive but nobody seemed to mind as we were getting paid for our travel time. On arrival it was straight into a 12 hour night shift finishing at around 6am. It was a long day having been up since nearly 6am the previous day! We’d typically head home around midnight on the Thursday and by that time had clocked over 60-70 hours for the week. It was double time for Sundays. 1.3x for your first 37.5 hrs and 1.5x for the rest. It sounds like a lot of hours, but when you’re away from home with not much else to do you may as well get the hours in. My first pay cheque came through and it was over £800 for the week! Not bad going for an Apprentice. To say I was delighted was an understatement and certainly made the long hours and lack of sleep worth it.

The job itself I loved. It was a refit and we were responsible for all electrical work. New sub-mains, distribution boards, power, lighting, data cabling and fire alarm. I was learning loads and my portfolio was coming together nicely.

For the next year or so I was sent on a few similar jobs, generally spending 3-4 months on each. All the time learning and getting more confident, being given more responsibility and raking in the cash. In my first year as an electrical apprentice contractor I earned £47,000. I worked a few jobs close to home on flat hours as well so had I been away all year it would have been even more.

Three years into my electrical career change – qualified sparky 🙂

A little over 3 years on from starting out I’d completed my portfolio and had a date for my Electrician’s AM2 exam.  I passed first time and got my ECS installation electrician gold card. I’d done it, I’d proven all the nay-sayers wrong and felt like I was doing well in life for the first time.

Once qualified I was offered a new contract as an Electrician by my employer. £15 per hour was the rate again with excellent over time. The work was starting to get a little more varied, working on a couple of new build supermarkets and more industrial work.

5 years into my electrical career change – site supervisor

In 2020 I had been working on a large project for around 5 months when the site supervisor/foreman announced he had a new job and was leaving. I seized this as my opportunity to step up and prove myself. I assumed responsibility for running the job from site and took it over the finish line. It went well and didn’t go unnoticed with great feedback from both my employer and the client.

I then went onto run my own commercial electrical Job from start to finish for the first time. I was given my own van with fuel card and was responsible for a small team of lads. The job went great and this continued for the next few years. I wasn’t earning much more for the responsibility I was taking on and in hindsight I should have asked for more, however I enjoyed the challenges and was happy with the experience I was gaining as an an electrician and electrical supervisor.

Bought a house

Working away doing such long hours I wasn’t spending much money and quickly saved up a hefty deposit for a mortgage. Nearly £100.000 in fact. I finally moved out of my parents house in early 2021 buying a house costing £200,000.

7 years later and changing jobs again – Electrical maintenance engineer

I carried on working away for a while to pay for renovations to the house but I did begin to find it difficult being away from home so much. I had my house now, I wanted to be in it! 1.5 years later I decided it was time to move on. I was considering a few options. Going self employed and setting up as an electrical sole trader with a view to growing my own electrical contractors business, looking for a Maintenance Electrician Position or pursuing an electrical office based role I had been offered.

Worth noting at this point the most I earned whilst contracting was £50k. This was on the books with holiday/pension etc. I’m confident I could have done a lot more had I carried on.

As luck would have it whilst on holiday this year (2022) I received an email from an electrical contractors I had recently worked closely with on an industrial job. They were Atex engineers commissioning an electrical installation we had done on a large new build chemical plant. I had been responsible for all the testing and fault finding on this particular job, testing over 3000 cables. I must have made a good impression as they were offering me a job! I went in for a chat and was offered two positions. One back in contracting, the other was a Maintenance Engineers position based locally on flat hours. On the books, £20 an hour was the rate, 39 hour week with a paid lunch break. That’s the equivalent to a £40k salary + overtime. Perfect! I took the latter. As part of the deal I will be sent on my 2391 Inspection and test which will get me my Approved Electrician status. They have also booked me in to do my Compex in the next few months. This specialist electrical qualification allows me to work in Atex electrical environments.

I resigned from my old position and reluctantly handed back the keys to my Van.

I started my new job 5 months ago and haven’t looked back. Its very different to the electrical contracting, much more varied with lots of electrical procedures, checks and inspections. I still do plenty of electrical install and I love dealing with breakdowns, problem solving and fault finding. There’s even a bit of mechanical work involved which I enjoy. It has been a great move and I can see me sticking at it for a long time all being well.

And that’s where I’m currently at! When I first set out on my career change to an Electrician I never for second thought I would achieve what I have today.

It’s not been easy, I’ve worked hard, worked away, worked abroad, had some real low points and a lot of highs. I enjoy it, It’s had a massive impact on my life for the better and I’m so glad I did it.

Thanks for reading, I hope this inspires you with the confidence to do it yourself. I’ll keep this article up to date with my progress and will be posting more electrical trade articles in future.