Working as an Electrician
“I am a fully qualified electrician (18th Edition) and worked as an NICEIC registered electrician for 9 years. As less than one in every thousand electrical contractors is a woman, I often get asked how I got started (and how I find it on site). Here I answer some of those questions...”
- Eleanor Bell
Why did you decide to become an electrician?
I love light! I love the way it can transform the atmosphere of a space and it can change the way we feel.
I first started working with light during my Art Foundation in 2004. I went on to study Contemporary Crafts at Falmouth University and for my degree show I made an art installation which included kinetic sculpture and moving light. I taught myself basic electronics to make the work but my knowledge was very limited. I had given up physics before GCSE and did not know my Ohms from my Amps!
When I graduated in 2007, I knew that I wanted to stay in Cornwall and to make a living from being creative. I loved working with light and but I thought it was unlikely I could earn money from sound and light installations, so I looked for a more commercial application for my skills. During my degree I had been frustrated by my lack of technical skills. Becoming an electrician meant that I would increase my practical experience and technical understanding, both of which ultimately would make me a better designer. It also meant that I had an income whilst I completed my lighting design training and got my business off the ground.
Where did you do your training?
As I had just completed an undergraduate degree, and I was a mature student, the usual apprenticeship route was not open to me. There were various fast track courses available, but they did not feel substantial enough. In the end I chose to combine onsite experience with a six week course spread out over two years. I started in September 2007 and completed it in August 2009. Every few months I would spend a week in an industrial estate in Watford taking electrical exams and in that time I passed my Wiring Regulations, Part P qualification, and various City and Guild qualifications including the industry benchmark 2391.
How did you get your first job?
Once I had passed my Wiring Regulations in February 2008, I phoned round every local electrician to see if I could get a job. I had no success! At the beginning you are more of a liability than a help so it is hard to get that first break. Fortunately a friend of mine had just built his own house and told me to get in touch with his electrician. I gave him a call and he said that he could offer me some work experience. He told me to turn up at 8 o'clock the following Monday and that was it - I was on site, where the real learning happens! It felt so exciting.
I worked for him for several months and then started off on my own doing small domestic electrical jobs. I had lots of support around me - people I could phone and ask for advice. I feel really grateful to those who helped me get my foot on the ladder at the beginning.
Once you have your first job, the rest takes care of itself. Through word of mouth the work started to come in and I did electrical work full time for several years - rewiring houses, lighting gardens and doing electrical testing. I registered with the NICEIC as a Domestic Installer in 2010 and the following year became and Approved Contractor. Alongside that I was doing residential lighting design for the projects I was working on and studying to get my commercial lighting design qualifications.
How long did it take you to train?
It took me two years to complete my electrical training, but it was about 3 years before I felt really confident in what I was doing. Having the qualifications and technical understanding is important, but the real competence comes from onsite experience.
I started my Art Foundation in Sept 2004 and I completed my Advanced Lighting Design Certificates in January 2012. So overall it took me 7 years to complete my art, electrical and lighting design training and get all the pieces in place. Finally my training was over!
I have recently taken my 18th Edition Wiring Regulations exam. With rapidly changing technology and resulting regular updates to the wiring regs the learning never stops.
What do you enjoy about being on site?
Having done an degree which focussed on making, I was used to spending every day in the studio working with plaster, metal, glass and clay. Being on site is not so different. I love being practical and making things and seeing the fruits of my labour at the end of the day.
I enjoy being part of a team and it really excites me to witness a house or building being created. I really admire all the different trades and the skills they bring to the job. I think plasterers are the unsung heroes on site - a smooth wall is a thing of great beauty!
Are there other women on site?
Occasionally. I have come across female painters and plumbers but not another electrician here in Cornwall. I recently worked with a female builder which was a first.
How do people react to you on site?
Often people don’t quite know what to make of me at first. But that might be because for a long time I had pink hair! At the beginning it felt like the builders didn’t really believe that I could be an electrician, so they would watch me working. I felt so nervous and my hands would be shaking but I soon got used to working with an audience! Once they saw that I was serious about learning, they quickly accepted me and my confidence grew.
Now when I go to a new project as a lighting designer, the electrician may be slightly guarded when we first meet. But once they realise that I can talk the same language and we’re on the same side, things are fine.
All trades and designers have to prove that they can do their job before earning the respect of the others on site and being a woman makes no difference to that process.
Do you get teased on site?
No more than any other new tradesperson. It’s part of the culture and certainly in Cornwall it is good natured banter. If I am teased by the builders I see that as a sign of acceptance and take it in good spirit. I was ready if I was asked to buy things like tartan paint, but when I got asked to get a right angled screwdriver, I thought they were joking. But it turns out they exist! I now own two and they are really useful!
What would you say to someone who is just starting out?
The great thing about an electrical training is that there are so many different areas in which to specialise and so many opportunities - particularly with the rapid developments in renewable technologies. Electricians are in constant demand and there is definitely a market for female electricians. A lot of the electrical work I do is for women, who feel more comfortable with a woman working in their home. There is no reason why a woman cannot do this job. It is physically demanding and hard work but also really rewarding. I always get a thrill when I switch the lights on for the first time and see my designs come to life.