Do You Make As Much As A Union Worker Electrician?

Secret Power OutletThe media loves misery. There’s definitely a lot of bad out there, but does the media really have to focus on suffering 24/7 to generate viewership? Perhaps disinterest with negativity is partially the reason why old media is dying. And perhaps because old media is dying, journalists can’t help but write depressing things. (life hack tip: don’t watch the news for a week and observe your stress level go down and your happiness go up.)

I’ve long believed that many people make much more than we know or think. Always watch what people DO with their money, and not what they say. If they are just making ends meet, why is there a nice car in their driveway? Debt and poor choices can’t explain everything. Or can they?

We sometimes like to think other people are struggling to make ourselves feel better. But “other people” are ourselves. It’s much better to focus on bettering ourselves don’t you think? Some people had to start over in their 60s due to the financial crisis. While other people made a fortune scooping up deals for cents on the dollar. Try to always look at the positive side of things no matter what, because if you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else will.

Here’s a whole list of six figure jobs in multiple industries in case you’re curious and need proof that you don’t need to graduate at the top of your class to make a large income. This post is about discovering one more.

STATISTICS PLUS ANECDOTES = REALITY

Whenever I highlight an average income or an average net worth, those who are below average tend to advocate the use of median figures and vice versa. It’s curious no matter what the statistics say, there’s somebody out there somewhere who doesn’t believe the figures.

Given the skepticism, I like to look at real life anecdotes and report back my findings. For example, I’ve come to realize there’s a lot of parental help for adult children in San Francisco to afford property, graduate school tuition, and new cars. Perhaps not everything will be OK as I hypothesized, but the idea of demonstrating a tremendous work ethic, aggressive savings, and risk taking is no longer the only option to gain wealth. Our parents are another great option so treat them well!

I’d like to share with you my latest income anecdote as another example of people making way more than we think. Most people don’t view being an electrician as a very lucrative job. I’m not sure anybody sees blue collar labor in general as being very lucrative. But after spending an afternoon listening to my electrician’s story, I think all of you will be surprised at how much a union electrician in SF makes!

MAKING A SMALL FORTUNE AS A UNION ELECTRICIAN

I’ve known Leroy for a couple years now. The first time I met Leroy was on the public tennis courts on Turk St. and Laguna St., a block away from the projects in San Francisco. Jabir, the poorest richest person I know made the introduction.

Leroy is a 44 year old black man weighing in at roughly 215 pounds and stands 6 feet tall. He has a decent tennis game, but because he wasn’t in fighting shape he tired easily after the first set.  Given I’m a grinder who can last for three hours, Leroy couldn’t keep up and eventually lost our friendly match 3-6, 2-6. Leroy was a nice guy, so when I had to change my outside electrical panel, I gave him a call to do the work.

Given Leroy lived in Bayview, an “up and coming” neighborhood in SF where housing prices are 50% below the median SF housing price, partly thanks to crime, I never imagined Leroy as someone who made a lot of money. I figured I would pay him an hourly rate of $30 or less to get the project done. Instead, he came back to me with a bid of $50 an hour, which is supposedly $25 an hour cheaper than the going rate. Fine.

Leroy came to my house early one afternoon because he said his union negotiated a new deal with the city. His hours are now 7:30am to 2:30pm, M-F for only 35 hours a week and no more. I told him that was a great schedule, and he told me the union negotiated a new pay increase as well. Always curious, I asked him how much he made a year.

“Sam, I’m making $150,000 a year working 35 hours a week. It can’t get much better than that,” said Leroy. I agreed and asked him about other work he does given he has so much free time.

“Well, I’m here working for you now, and I’ve got a lot of other side jobs too. Overall, I make around $200,000 a year,” Leroy responded.

$200,000 is my ideal income for maximum happiness and Leroy admitted he was “living the dream.” Leroy also mentioned something else important.

My biggest regret is going to college. Some of my colleagues are making much more since they went straight to trade school after high school and have so much more saved up. I’ll get roughly $5,000 a month in pension money once I hit 55, but when they hit 55, they’ll get $6,000 a month or more.”

I was floored! Here’s a guy who I thought was in the lower income group absolutely crushing it. The $5,000 a month pension for life is something only a few of us could ever dream of, but not Leroy. 11 more years and he’s there. The value of a $60,000 a year pension is $1.5 million if you use a interest rate of 4%, or $2 million if you use an interest rate of 3%.

Working for the government at all levels for an extended period of time is definitely a great way to get wealthy. Why do you think some of the richest neighborhoods in the country are around Washington DC? Take a drive around Great Falls, VA one day and be amazed.

MANY WAYS TO MAKE A LOT OF MONEY

We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that going to a four-year college is the only way to make enough money to live a happy life. Clearly something is wrong if you graduate from college with $50,000 in debt and have to live at home with your parents because you can’t find a high paying enough job to support yourself. Student loan debt has now surpassed credit card debt.

There are plenty of stories of successful entrepreneurs who never graduated from college, but make millions. There are also a ton of people with normal jobs like Leroy who will end up with a small fortune as well. It’s not easy being an electrician due to the physical labor involved, but if you can join a union and put in your dues, lots of money awaits.

Readers, do you earn more than a union electrician? Don’t forget he has 20 years of experience. If you want to make six figures and don’t want to go to college, why not get a job as a electrician, plumber, or city worker? Not only will you save at least two years of your life going to college, you’ll also save a lot of money by not paying college tuition. 

Do you make as much or more than a SF union electrician? ($150,000+)

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Related: Are You For Or Against Labor Unions?

Sam started Financial Samurai in 2009 during the depths of the financial crisis as a way to make sense of chaos. After 13 years working on Wall Street, Sam decided to retire in 2012 to utilize everything he learned in business school to focus on online entrepreneurship.

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Comments

  1. says

    I expect the situation in the US is very similar to that in the UK: Everyone is pressured into academic subjects and college/university. As a result, the real trade skills like electricians and plumbers become so under supplied that they are able to pick and choose their own hours for their own price.

    I’m not earning 6 figures but am on a comfortable amount in a job I enjoy.. however if I were to go back in time i’d have never gone to university and walked straight into a plumbing apprenticeship instead.

    It’s interesting that there’s so many roles out there paying very decent salaries that you wouldn’t ever expect. Our train drivers here frequently make more than an I.T. professional!

  2. Chicago teacher says

    Yeah, but when there was a housing crisis and building was not happening, these people were not working. I know a union bricklayer that was laid off when no one was building. I am in Chicago. I know that is why some conventions do not come to Chicago due to the cost of electricians, etc. due to the high union wages. It costs too much to set up booths.

    • says

      The downturn affected many different sectors, so I would consider your example as not unique. People in finance, consulting, law, real estate, hospitality etc were getting laid off left and right.

      • Erica Shun says

        Federal and Local governments downsized greatly during the “Great Recession” as well. I read recently that US federal employment is down by something like 300K over the past four or five years. Local government across the country are down something like 1 million over the same period. My city government employer eliminated 100 jobs – more than 10% of its workforce during ’09 – ’10 and remains as such.

  3. Shaun says

    I have a friend who is an electrician as well (a good profession to know a guy in). He doesn’t make what yours makes but he gets by pretty well. I often wonder how much better off I’d be if instead of college I just started working out of high school and bought the house I live in now (which at the time was less than 1/2 the price). Then my head starts to hurt and I stop thinking so much haha.

  4. says

    Haha, nice. What’s more remarkable Sam, is that shortages are developing for many of the “trades”. While I think the union dollars are extremely high, clearly it’s what the market will pay. They provide a good service and I applaud them for doing something worthwhile for society. Too many people think that EVERYONE should go to college, but that’s just hogwash

    -Bryan

  5. JD says

    Another benefit of being a skilled tradesman people don’t think about is the large scope of repair and remodel work you can do around your own home without hiring contractors.

  6. Greg says

    In the Canadian oil patch blue collar jobs can be very lucrative. My company, a major pipeline co, has many welders, electricians, inspectors, clerks, etc that work on the field billing us as contractors. You can earn $300,000 and it’s pretty common. Unfortunately many of them spend too much on big diesel trucks and greedy women who divorce them and steal half, so they begin to rely on $300k as normal. They also don’t tax plan very well. And they have to work in the middle of nowhere for weeks on end.

  7. says

    There was a great article I read a while ago about why we need to stop pressuring kids to go to college and why more of them should be skilled laborers. I’m fairly sure the specific example was of an electrician and how much money you can make doing that. I can’t remember where I saw it for the life of me though. Anyone know what I’m talking about?

    Either way, these jobs need more visibility. College isn’t (and can’t!) be for everyone.

    Jay

    • says

      There are so many good opportunities out there for sure. Maybe with college tuition so egregiously high now, more people will become tradesmen, and prices for their services might go down for the good of the consumer.

  8. says

    The high costs of higher education are making it much smarter to go into a trade instead in many cases. A friend of mine from high school starting a landscaping business in his early 20′s and is very wealthy now, as are several acquaintances who went into plumbing or other similar fields.

  9. says

    I make more than $150k a year with a college degree, but I could have done the same thing without a degree. I think trade school is a great way tonget started in life. Not only can you make good money without student debt, but it is a great way to become an entrepreneur. Many tradesman start their own companies an then higher other workers. Then they can make great money without constantly working.

  10. JC says

    $150k seems high, thats $82.41 per hour. Not that it matters, but are we sure that’s his gross pay or is it his gross “package”. Unions like to show their members the value of the whole package the employer pays. Pension, health, training…all adds up and the collective benefit to the employee could be $150k per year. If he works a significant amount of OT, then I certainly believe his gross was $150k.

    • Doug P. says

      JC, see my other post. Their base rate may be closer to $60 or $65 but there are many opportunities for OT. In addition, the union IBEW guys that I know in So Cal go to double time at 8 hours, not 1.5X. It is not difficult for these guys to make $150K.

  11. says

    A lot of the trades do pay more than you’d imagine at first, a lot of the times because there aren’t many qualified people out there to fill the jobs. I have a friend who is an electrician and one who is a plumber, both union. They’re not making near what your guy in SF is, but they do make more than I would have guessed either of them make. Electricians do seem to be on the top of the heap as far as those jobs go too, according to the people ive talked to.

  12. says

    I work at a contracting company that does heavy highway construction. We work with Operating Engineers, Laborers, and Teamsters. I have a college degree, plus some graduate school, and am the bottom 1/4 of annual wages at our company (in with the new employees who only end up being employed a month or two before being let go.). Most of our staff only work 6-9 months a year, and have a great pension and health insurance that the company pays for as part of the contract. They aren’t making $150,000 a year, but we’re in the Midwest, so the pay scale is lower. Many of them will make twice what I do in a year, and then on top of that claim unemployment during the winter.

    I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it sucks that guys are coming out of high school, with zero training, and making so much more than me. And it bugs me the way some of the guys use the system; I have guys making $80,000 a year who turn around and apply for utility assistance during the winter! But then, they’re also doing hard, dangerous, manual labor, through all types of weather. Some weeks they work 80 hours, some weeks they don’t work at all, and they never know which it will be. As a female, I’d be golden if I wanted to do that type of work (Federal and State contracts require meeting a certain % of minority and female work, which is really hard for most contractors to do). But I don’t. So I can’t really complain.

  13. Joe says

    The census.gov for San Francisco lists per capita income at 47k. Family income at 73k. So the electrician really is making god money. That said, I don’t think the census accounts for pensions, which can effectively double the net present value of per capita income, for those that will get a pension, mainly government and union.

    I suspect the majority of Silicon Valley electrical engineers, those with a MS EE, from a top 25 university aren’t clearing $150k with a nice pension waiting at 55. Salaries for those guys get throttled by immigration / H1b, off-shoring, etc.

    • says

      The pension really is the massive cherry on top. $115 – $160K is the standard for Silicon Valley engineers with MS degrees. Then they have equity, which has an unknown value.

      But getting a MS in EE is not easy. Definitely some of the smartest people around. I know I would never be able to get one, get in, or graduate.

      • Jon says

        Some Silicon Valley Engineers make 400k+ so 160k is low. I’m about to graduate with my EE and in NM I’m looking at starting pay of 105k pre benefits on a masters and it just goes up from there… If you’re a top student in engineering at any school you will probably start around 100k and get 250k+. Now if you have C’s get degree mentality you’re looking at 60k starting and going over 100k at about 7 years experience. Engineers make a LOT thinking we rarely do OT if you know where to look and great hours etc. Of course not all companies aren’t the same. That being said running financial models for WallStreet I think I can get much higher than 400k sooo it’s making me think. That being said tradesmen do make quite a bit for their limited amount of higher education – glad it’s working well for them!

          • Jon says

            105k is just starting pay at 23 by 30 it’ll be 200k + benefits and investments… in Albuquerque that’s a 200-250k job in NYC adjusted for living (from the 100k) and such. Getting my first salary established at this rate will forever set me for life.. I can still transition to WS after I have experience. But in engineering it’s low stress, 40 hr work weeks, fridays off if you want, get paid to go to the gym because they care about work life balance. I’ll live longer and still get wealthy as long as I save and invest. Also, going to NYC that larger amount gets taxed higher (higher bracket and lose more total dollars) and I have to spend more to live plus work 80 hr weeks. If I build investment income, I pay lower tax rates on the capital gains. So when I factor in extra work, losing years of my life due to stress from that, and how much I lose in take home pay. I’m not sure the 400k is worth it. To me it’s at what point is it worth working more on other peoples investments than mine? How much more would they have to pay to make it worth it to me when I’m convinced I’ll be a millionaire either way. What’s your take on it?

  14. Doug P. says

    I am a professional engineer working in So Cal. I happen to be working with one of the local utility companies. I can confirm that the guys that I cross paths with that are Union Journeyman Electricians working both for the utility and for the contractors that do business with them, are making that pay. I think their hourly rate is on the order of $60/hr, PLUS BENEFITS. In addition, there are opportunities for overtime, etc. In the case of the IBEW guys that I know, their union contract indicates that they go to double time after 8 hours, not 1.5x. It is not difficult for these guys to make $150K.

    That being said, the guys (and gals) that I deal with are, in general, professionals and earn what they make. The union folks have 4 (or 5?) years of night school in addition to the apprenticeship.

    I am sure there are folks that are qualified that are not making that much. With any profession, in addition to being technically qualified, you also (in most cases) need to know people and get people to like you.

    It is not just what you know anymore. It is who you know and what they think about you that counts.

  15. says

    I work for a construction company that does mainly state/federal heavy highway construction. All of our field workers are union. We’re in the Midwest, so our wage scales aren’t as high, but most of our guys will clear $50,000-90,000, working 6-9 months a year. Almost all of them will claim unemployment during the off season as well. As an office worker, I’m in the bottom 25% on our company’s pay scale, down with the guys who were only with us a few months.

    I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s a little frustrating that I have a college degree, and some graduate school, and am making much less than guys straight out of high school with zero experience. And so long as they stay in the union, a great pension (with healthcare) is pretty much a guarantee. And there are definitely guys who take advantage of the system; We have guys that will pull in $70,000-90,000 during the season, then turn around and apply for utility assistance during the winter!

    On the other hand, our guys are doing hard, dangerous work. They work long hours in all sorts of weather. One week they might work 80 hours, and nothing the next, and they have no idea which it will be until they’re doing it. There’s no guarantee how long the season will last, or how much money you’ll make.

    Whenever I start to feel frustrated about it, I remind myself that if I wanted to I could go and do the same work; Women are in high demand in highway construction, since there are state and federal %’s that each company must meet to maintain their contracts. If you’re a woman or a minority, and a halfway decent worker, you’re pretty much guaranteed as much work as you want. Do I want to do that type of work? HELL NO! And for 20+ years in order to qualify for a good pension?

    There’s a reason some jobs pay better than others. I kinda like my desk job, with my set schedule and vacation pay!

    • says

      The work is definitely harder than sitting behind a desk and computer, that’s for sure. $60-90K a year in the midwest is like $120,000 – $180,000 here in SF.

      But their pension.. boy oh boy, is awesome.

  16. Ace says

    Sam,

    Electrician is an excellent profession and I highly recommend this field for young folks whom prefer to work with their hands.

    My observation is that this job typically pays between $35 and $45/hour in most large cities. Overtime is very common. So, yes…. $100,000+ electricians are common. I suppose if you add up all the benefits: health, dental, pension, etc. then $150,000 would be about right.

    $100,000/year plumbers are also common.

  17. Josh says

    Jobs in trades such as electrician and plumbers are good jobs and society needs them. However, most kids who excelled in academics in school nor most readers of your blog probably aren’t likely pursue these blue collar professions. I know few people who are electricians. They make decent money, but doesn’t rake in the kind of bank your friend Leroy claims to make. I state “claim”, because I really like your position regarding stealth wealth and also not revealing one’s salary to others. I’ve noticed that people who tend to overstate their income and qualifications are often the ones who are more likely to share and volunteer these sort of personal information. At 150 to 200k a year, it doesn’t make much sense to live in Bayview to me.

    Good topic though. Going to college isn’t for everyone and there are other ways to make a living as your tennis buddy demonstrates.

    • says

      There is probably some truth to what you say. Leroy also said he was a millionaire once, but he lost it due to poor decisions. He also got a divorce.

      Bayview is rocking now. Prices are up 60% and there is huge new development going on at $900/sqft.

  18. says

    The electricians union i Los Angeles is looking for people, but most students cannot pass the math test. Those who can want to be engineers. Quite a dilemma! A journeyman electrician starts at $65k in LA. Not bad for a 22-23 year old and no student debt. The problem is academics. At my school, we have auto shop, the kids can go to a trade school and earn $1-200k a year after they graduate. It is not the old mechanic stereotype!

    • says

      Amazing.

      But you are right. Leroy said something like 6,000 applied recently and less than 1,000 were accepted to be a union electrician in SF. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but a lot of folks don’t pass is the bottom line.

  19. Bryan says

    This post resonates very strongly with me. I graduated 2nd in my class in high school and went to an elite small liberal arts college. I now have a very comfortable paying job in the finance and accounting department for a large mutual fund complex. Contrast this with my brother in-law, or my wife’s uncles, who are all firemen in Orange County in California. ALL of them make somewhere around $150k without graduating from college! Yes they work 3 days away from home but for them its a welcome rest from their kids and families. My wife’s uncle didn’t even want to retire because he enjoyed his job so much! But don’t start to feel sad for me, my wife is an ob-gyn who just graduated from residency and will be making twice as much as me so I’m easy street now too right?!!!!

  20. Erica Shun says

    “If you want to make six figures and don’t want to go to college, why not get a job as a electrician, plumber, or city worker?”

    I can speak to the financial rewards of being a “city worker.” Wages for city workers vary widely depending on geography. I am 50 years old and have worked in local government finance for a total of 20 years. The “Great Recession” has had a tremendous adverse affect on local government workers’ wages. I have a BS Computer Science, MBA, and MS all from very reputable universities. I am an expert in my field. I work in a mid-size metro area in the southeast for a city of 80K population. My employer employs 900 full-time workers. I earn $70K. My salary has increased by just 10% in the last ten years.

    I will receive a defined benefit pension at age 62 (that’s in 12 years), which, as of my current service time (20 years), will be about $20K (in today’s dollars). This pension will increase by about $1K for each year additional year of service. So, in 12 years at age 62, I will have 32 years of service, and my pension will be about $32K. (Of course, I don’t plan on working until age 62, but five more years of service will earn me a $25K pension at age 62). I must contribute 3% of my salary toward the pension fund. My employer offers, but does not contribute toward, a 457(b) plan.

    My ultimate boss is the City Manager. He oversees the day-to-day operations of this 900-employee organization, which includes a water & sewer system serving 100 square miles, and police, fire, public works, engineering, finance, and recreation departments. His annual salary is $140K. For comparison, a corporate manager at, say GE, over 900 employees, would earn, what, $1 million salary per year (+ very generous fringe benefits).

    • says

      $140k doesn’t sound like much, you are right compared to the private sector. The income spread really widens the more senior you get.

      But for most of us, working for the government seems like a great way to go.

  21. says

    Wow, I was initially very surprised by the story, but I was thinking good on Leroy, he’s really living the dream and seems to have his life really sorted.

    I also took from the story the fact that those of us that have been to uni (I’m from the UK) tend to assume those that work trades earn less, which isn’t always the case as Leroy’s case proves.

  22. Kathy says

    In addition to making a very nice salary, those who go to trade school do not incur the massive student loan debt that those who go to university accumulate. Their school tuition is much more reasonable and since many programs get them certified in two vs. four years, the debt is much more reasonable to pay off. And the employee is in the workforce sooner, putting them ahead of the four year university student, at least in terms of seniority, and possibly even total lifetime earnings. Personally, I’d much rather pay an electrician or plumber a high hourly wage instead of someone who majored in gender studies, or art appreciation in college.

  23. says

    No wonder governments have a hard time balancing their budgets. With $150k/yr electricians on the books, I’d go broke too!

    When asked for advice by those nearing high school graduation, I don’t forget to mention trade schools as a legitimate route to wealth. By age 19 or so, they can be out earning (and saving) money with a useful skill. Get good at what you do (mechanic, HVAC, plumbing, electrician, carpenter, etc) and you can have your own shop (assuming you saved capital to invest in your own business) by the time you’re 25 or 30.

    Let’s face it, most tradespeople don’t make $150k+/yr like Leroy, but if you’re good at what you do, it won’t be too hard to come close. Especially if you start your own business. It’s hard work though, and that might be why white collar jobs are much more appealing.

    I encountered a little of this mismatch in what you think people earn while working as a construction engineer. I’d have mud on my boots as the Director of Engineering for a government entity, and had a lot of respect that came with the title, but I didn’t have a salary as high as some of the heavy equipment operators on site. They probably didn’t know I made 30% less than them!

  24. says

    I’m not surprised because I have a good friend here in Vancouver, BC who is a Union electrician and he CLEANS HOUSE. Easily pulls in +$100k before overtime and side jobs.

    This was the friend among our group of friends who was never the most academically skilled. He literally almost failed high school. He went on to apprentice as an electrician and now, among my friends in our age cohort (mid to late 20s) he is making the most money.

    All the while us “smarter” kids went to college (undergrad/grad school) and don’t even make what he is making!

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