January 2014

Life, limbs, and licensing: occupational regulation, wages, and workplace safety of electricians, 1992–2007


The number of deaths and injuries incurred by electricians is among the highest in the construction industry.7 However, as shown in figure 1, the death and injury rates for electricians declined from 1992 to 2007. A large decline took place in 1996, and following that steep fall there has been a steady decline in both deaths and injuries for electricians. According to the Center for Construction Research and Training's Center to Protect Workers' Rights (CPWR), the secular decline occurred for a number of reasons. First, from a public policy perspective, in 1993 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) set standards that were implemented during the 1993–1996 period. The standards required electricians to reduce their work with live circuits, increased the use of aerial lifts as opposed to stepladders, and introduced underground utility mapping and verification requirements.8

Second, as figure 2 shows, the number of states that require licensing for electricians at the state level has increased over time. During the same timeframe, unionization has declined in the occupation. Similar to national trends, the decline in the number and percentage of union members has occurred at the same time as the growth in the number of states covered by licensing:9 the number of states that license electricians grew from 38 to 45 from 2000 to 2007, while the percentage of electricians who are members of unions declined from 39.0 percent to 34.2 percent over the same period.

Third, not only has the level of licensing increased, but the process of becoming licensed has become more difficult. Conversations with key officials at the CPWR, as well as with focus groups composed of practitioners from the construction industry, have identified five central items as important in becoming licensed: a general age–education requirement, an apprenticeship, a written exam, a practical performance exam, and a continuing education requirement. These elements are the basis for constructing an index of the rigor of the licensing process, in addition to the type of licensing (i.e., state or local). Using a box-and-whisker graph of the sum of the five key elements of the licensing regulations for electricians, figure 3 traces the evolution of the intensity of the licensing index from 1992 through 2007. The results show an upward movement in the mean values, and a narrower spread in the variance, of the licensing provisions. More precisely, occupational licensing is growing among states and its provisions for entering and maintaining good standing as a licensed professional are becoming more stringent.

The path to becoming a licensed electrician generally involves 4 years of training and includes being an apprentice, a journeyman, and then a master electrician. (see the accompanying box for further details.) The path usually includes full-time work and going to school in the evening for classes several nights a week. Pass rates vary by region and often confer local licensing beyond the state-level regulations for each of the stages that lead to becoming a licensed electrician. About 10 percent of electricians then become contractors and open their own business. For states that license individuals, only licensed electricians can certify the quality of electrical work in construction and are allowed to perform wiring procedures on construction sites. Given this institutional background on the labor market for electricians and the pathways to becoming an electrician, there are related factors that might lead the workers to earn more, work under safer conditions, and reduce their number of job-related injuries.


7 For data on fatal injuries, see the relevant charts from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.

8 Xiuwen Dong, Xuanwen Wang, and Brett Herleikson, Work-related fatal and nonfatal injuries among U.S. construction workers, 1992–2008 (Washington, DC: Center to Protect Workers' Rights, 2010).

9 Morris M. Kleiner and Alan B. Krueger, "The prevalence and effects of occupational licensing." British Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 48, no. 4, 2010, pp. 676687.

prev page3next page

View full article
About the Author

Morris M. Kleiner

Morris M. Kleiner is Professor, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, and Research Associate, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA.

Kyoung Won Park

Kyoung Won Park is an assistant professor in the College of Business and Economics, Hanyang University, Kyeonggi-do, Korea.