There are various routes individuals can take in their quest to becoming a fully qualified electrician. Whether it’s undertaking apprenticeship, conducting an appropriate Experienced Worker course, or front-loading training via the Level 3 NVQ Diploma, there is an array of options. However, there is a different, rather rare, alternative pathway available. The trainee electrician process also allows candidates to secure professional electrician status. This route has the most similarity to the electrical apprenticeship scheme. An apprentice’s learning takes place in a hybrid mix of classroom-based, training centre, and workplace environments. The trainee pathway is more flexible in its approach, but, with that, comes the risk of less structure, and a higher requirement for agility. One could, in a sense, apply the phrase ‘trainee’ to any persons studying electrotechnical theory and practice. However, this article concern itself with those individuals who are not participating in particular fixed learning plans or apprenticeship schemes.
Indeed, we’ll explore how a trainee electrician develop the skills and behaviours required to acquire future electrical employment. Furthermore, it offers information on what potential courses and experiences they’ll undertake in order to achieve this end. There is a level of complexity attached to any review of the trainee electrician pathway. This is because its characteristics are largely dependent on an individual’s personal circumstance and approach. Therefore, the guidance below should be considered as a logical summary of how trainees are most likely to conduct their training plans. It is not a ‘one-sise-fits-all’ description. The text will also include references to specific obstacles these individuals may face into.
Differentiating between apprentices and trainees
As alluded to, trainees and apprentices have comparable learning journeys. Unfortunately, this sometimes produces the misconception that they are one and the same. A point not helped by the typical similar age of participants embracing these two pathways. Although particularly in recent years, these routes have been utilised more readily by an older audience, the fact remains that most candidates will be between school leaver and early adult age. This is because, for many, taking on apprenticeship or trainee status is the next, logical and organic step post-secondary education.
Industry workers may use the two terms interchangeably, however, they should be accordingly reprimanded for doing so. Although apprentices are, in a sense, ‘trainees,’ given that the trade has reserved this title for a specific position, every effort should be made to grasp the distinguishing features between the roles. This could be crucial when allocating tasks to certain individuals whilst on-site. Indeed, in the worst circumstances, this could result in an untrained individual conducting work they’re not appropriately qualified to undertake. This obviously could produce adverse impacts on client satisfaction, or, more importantly, compromise health and safety standards. It’s perhaps worth noting at this stage that its compulsory for any student of the industry, whether apprentice, trainee electrician or otherwise, to be supervised whilst undertaking electrical work by an appropriate professional.
What do the two terms actually mean?
Perhaps a good starting point is to analyse the difference in terminology between ‘trainee’ and ‘apprenticeship’ Although a U.S based organisation, and therefore operating in conditions slightly different to the U.K, the Western Electrical Contractors Association offers a revealing insight into how the two concepts differ. For reference, the WECA provide skills training and apprenticeship programmes to electrical industry insiders. They are therefore well-positioned to offer commentary on this topic.
The body suggests that, unlike apprentices, trainees are not tethered to a specific employer. They are also free to indulge in whichever learning programme or course they deem suitable. Therefore, trainees can, in theory, undertake work with several employers in a range of different in disciplines. In this way, they can more readily augment their learning journey with skills they deem necessary to build their career. This is not to say that apprentices will not discover the full scope of electrotechnical work. However, the distinction is that apprenticeship schemes are exclusively linked to one electrical contractor, and therefore, by their very nature, offer less learning freedom.
Trainees may decide to enrol on a collegiate programme, or flit between different courses available in the marketplace. Their route is often quite unstructured, and will occasionally go off on tangents to secure progression or employment. In this way, a decent analogy would be to think of trainees constructing their entry into the trade via a series of scattered building blocks. Each block may represent a course, educational programme, or perhaps some time in a relevant workplace. The intention is to eventually accumulate enough of these building blocks, i.e. skills and experience, to become a fully-fledged electrician.
However, there are some industry standards that serve to help shape a trainee electrician’s path. Therefore, there is perhaps a little more structure than one may initially think.
For any persons looking to gain access to a construction site or works area, one must hold a suitable ECS Card. This is no different for a trainee electrician.
The ECS, or electrotechnical certification scheme, is a programme that helps to determine the competency and experience level of those involved in the electrical sector. As the scheme sets a defining list of criteria for its various cards, it facilitates the identification of capability level amongst industry workers. Therefore, individuals apply for the specific card that corresponds to their current or targeted status or job title. The ECS will determine, based on submitted evidence, whether this application can be approved. This process also includes students of the industry, as card types are available for those in apprenticeships and work placement programmes.
There is also an ECS Card reserved for the ‘trainees’. In order to acquire this, applicants must comply with a set of strict criteria. This, by default, provides some non-negotiables in their training outlook.
Indeed, to successfully become a holder of this card, candidates must prove that they’re part of a JIB-approved training programme. The JIB, or, to give its full title, the Joint Industry Board, is a regulatory body within the electrical sector. This organisation is accountable for delivering testing, grading, and general guidance across the industry. Therefore, if a ‘trainee’ wants to steer learning towards site-based experience, then, in effect, they must also enrol on a JIB-approved training course. Without this, an ECS Card will not be allocated, which means individuals would need to review other learning opportunities. Candidates would also need to take the ECS Health, Safety and Environment Assessment to qualify for a card. This is therefore another unnegotiable element of their training efforts.
Prescribed courses and workplace activity
To become an electrician, it’s compulsory for all candidates to prove they have refined certain skills whilst engaging in employment. Experiencing the real-world workplace is seen as a vital component of any electrical professional’s learning journey. However, this again circles trainees back to more familiar routes. This is because the employment phase becomes essential during the NVQ assessment schedule. Indeed, candidates must produce a suitable portfolio of evidence conduced whilst in employment to pass.
As acquiring a Level 3 NVQ is another fixed part of the criteria, all learners, including trainees, therefore find themselves obligated on two fronts: experiencing employment, and gaining this specific qualification.
Trainee electricians, like everyone else, will also need to pass the Electrotechnical Assessment of Occupational Competence. Or, as it’s known in the industry, the AM2 Assessment. Their choice of learning provider or employer is their prerogative, but, critically, it is another obligated part of their training. Therefore, as we’ve now learned, trainees are held to the same account as all other prospective students of the trade. This means that their journey may well overlap significantly with those on fixed course plans and apprenticeships anyway.
However, gaining trainee electrician status may actually serve to increase your earnings potential. An apprenticeship scheme, as desirable as it can be from a structure, support, and future prospect perspective, is compensated at a relatively low-level. Some apprentices will earn in and around minimum wage, with others dipping under. Given that this programme takes approximately 3-4 years, this results in a significant period of time sat on an extremely modest salary.
However, for those undertaking a ‘front-loaded’ training route, the financial hardship deepens. This is accentuated further if the individual choose to resist employment until the final NVQ/AM2 stage.
If those on this path are resolved to work through their learning plans with pace and intensity, this may mean having to commit to training on pretty much a full-time basis. This may result in having no current source of income in place.
Furthermore, individuals will have to physically pay for their training, as opposed to having employer support through an apprenticeship programme. The cost of each compulsory course is significant, and therefore these students should be braced for a large financial outlay.
This whole dynamic of course depends on the personal circumstances of the candidate, and ultimately the level of financial and time investment they can afford. However, it does still illustrate the scope in costs between the apprenticeship and front-loaded training routes.
Potentially balancing the books
Trainee electricians can circumvent minimum wage restrictions, and also find a hybrid balance that mitigates against an initial, substantial cash outlay. In basic terms, in order to supplement their training programme, they can work for as long or as little as they determine.
Arguably, those conducting the ‘front-loading’ training route have a similar level of independence. After all, they’re in control of the how quickly they progress through their training, and whether they want to harness alternative employment in the background.
Yet, the fact remains that, in comparison to apprentices at least, earnings potential for trainee electricians is significantly higher. This may come at the detriment of employer security or learning pathway structure or clarity, but is nevertheless an important advantage. And, given that the profile of a trainee is typically more similar to apprentice than those on front-loaded training routes, it suggests a tangible and wholly legitimate benefit in taking this approach.
Becoming an official, ECS Card-holding trainee could be a perfect temporary solution. For those looking to dabble in industry employment whilst at college, or perhaps experiencing the workplace before making a decision on a front-loaded training plan, trainee electrician status is ideal.
However, this should not be utilised as a permanent method for approaching your learning campaign. Indeed, even the ECS put a two-year limitation on trainee cards granted. This is because their expectation is that ‘trainees’ will move onto more structured endeavours within this timeframe.
As we’ve seen, regardless of work conducted to date, trainees will still have to enrol on a Level 3 NVQ Diploma scheme in order to become a fully-fledged electrician. Whether this is delivered through joining an apprenticeship scheme or committing to front-loaded training, is entirely their decision. However, there is an important conclusion to draw from this.
Despite ‘trainee’ status initially offering a decent scope of flexibility, they will always find themselves eventually having to revert back to the same learning vehicles as their student peers. Therefore, being a trainee electrician is only desirable in a particular set of circumstances. However, if reviewing your career options, or looking to experience the industry first-hand, this is a perfect avenue to explore.
This article has hopefully provided ample information on the trainee electrician route, and indeed how this perhaps differs from other learning journeys. If currently assessing your situation, or really struggling to select the right learning path, it’s worth contacting your course tutor or an industry professional to discuss. There’s every chance they’ve been in a similar position!
If you do decide to engage in a trainee-style approach, then it may be worth setting a progression deadline. This will spur you on during periods of stagnation, and also suggest when it’s time to potentially consider other options.
Best of luck in your future training efforts!