Electrician's Career Path - PLC's? Engineering?

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I've got 8 years in as an electrician, but I've got to say that construction is not where I saw myself in life. I went to college after high school as a computer science major, but screwed it all up. Biggest regret of my life. Being an electrician, I tend to like the service side of things more than construction, but I've noticed that my strongest interests have been working with controls. I did 3+ years of my apprenticeship doing service style work (new installations as well) in an industrial processing facility. I learned quite a bit about relay-logic and a little about PLC's (never programming unfortunately). "Engineering" simple ladder-logic controls for this customer is BY FAR my favorite thing I've done in my career. I like to think and use my head. That fact tends to work against me on the job site...

I have a strong interest in computers and technology, so it seems like getting into PLC programming could be the answer for me, but my question is: Can PLC programming alone open very many doors for an electrician? I understand it would increase my skill-set... but I don't want to just be a construction electrician that can also program PLCs... I want to move on to something that suits me a little bit better.

The other consideration I've had, and what I'd really like to do, is going back to college. At first I figured I could try for Computer Science again, but then I'd be wasting years of my life dedicated to learning the electrical trade... so that brings me to Electrical Engineering or maybe even Computer Engineering to hit some middle ground. What about Electrical Engineering Technology? How does it stack up against it's big brother? The problem is that I'm already 29 and supporting a family. A 4 year program starting from scratch at this point in my life seems like a near impossible feat... but if I could accomplish this it would undo my greatest regret.

Has anybody been in my shoes? What paths did you take? I know that ultimately it's my decision to make and a few of you may tell me just this, but I'm just looking for opinions and to possible start a discussion about this. Thanks guys!
 

fmtjfw

Senior Member
I did the reverse

I did the reverse

I worked as a software engineer for 30+ years, then "retired" and worked for 5 years as an electrician. Most of my work was in maintenance, but I build several relays based control systems.

It seems to me that getting into PLCs is the way to go, if you don't want to spend the years in college for a CS degree. The combination of practical experience and good PLC skills could be used to get into plant maintenance or commissioning.

You might also look into distributors who carry PLCs and support them. Another area is Variable Speed Drives.

Another area that will grow is the use of PLCs to control building systems for load control and LEEDS.

I believe there is a future over and above construction and even maintenance electricians for you if you put the effort into learning.

Good luck,

/s/ Jim WIlliams
 

charlie b

Moderator
Staff member
Location
Seattle, WA
Occupation
Electrical Engineer
The problem is that I'm already 29 and supporting a family. A 4 year program starting from scratch at this point in my life seems like a near impossible feat... but if I could accomplish this it would undo my greatest regret.
OK, so you will be 33 when you are done. But how old will you be in four years, if you don't do it? :huh:

Regarding regrets, please be aware of the things in your life that you do not regret. There are things, such as your family, that would not be what they are today, had you made different decisions earlier in life. I like to put it this way: If you are happy about where you are, then you cannot rationally regret the path that brought you there.

My suggestion is that you stop by your local library, and have a long chat or two with the reference librarians. They are trained in the art of finding information. They can tell you anything you want to know about schooling programs, about after-hours or Internet classes, about the job market, about who is hiring for full and part time positions, about salary ranges, about whatever you need to know, in order to make your next big decision.

Best of fortune to you.
 

jim dungar

Moderator
Staff member
Location
Wisconsin
Occupation
Retired Electrical Engineer - Power Systems
You need to clarify what you want to be doing on a daily basis.

I know some PLC programmers, for OEMS, that sit in an office all day and stare at a computer screen. Others work down on the shop floor and debug code and machine operation. Then there are the maintenance guys that keep machine running yet have never written any code more complicated than a on-delay timer. Still others work for one-off companies and are involved in PLCs from many different manufacturers.

And, of course there is always the serivce side of our industry, it seems troubleshooting 'automation products' is becoming a lost skill set.
 
I have spent years working on industrial machinery and my PLC training has come in handy. I don't think I would like writing it though.....very boring.

I also suggest you learn CNC. I know enough to be dangerous and I also know I would have much more work if I was actually skilled at it.
 

sameguy

Senior Member
Location
New York
Occupation
Master Elec./JW retired
Controls as a whole, plc, drives, bms/ems, fire alarm, better than running 4" galv. (unless you have some young bucks).
 
Thanks for the responses! As I said - I just wanted to get a little discussion going about it!

Because all I really know is being an electrician (I currently work for a commercial/industrial contractor), it's hard for me to tell you exactly what it is I would like to be doing. As I said before, my major in college was Computer Science. If that had panned out for me, I could be programming software - something I really wish I could do. Tinkering with computers is what I like to do. Go ahead - call me a geek lol. I've considered pursuing a path in IT, but it's hard for me to justify starting over from scratch as a help desk tech making $9 an hour. Doing the programming side of a PLC would not at all be boring for me. I love this kind of stuff and I love working on computers. If someone says, "I need this to do this when this happens, but not this. Oh, and don't forget that I want that other thing to happen too.", and then I write the logic to make it happen - that sounds like something I would like to do. This is based off of my experiences mentioned earlier - except there I was engineering the solutions using relay logic - not PLCs. Just being a maintenance electrician somewhere that occasionally debugs a PLC isn't really what I have in mind...

I guess I'm just trying to find out for myself if PLC training alone could land me a job that fits me a little bit better or if I should start pursuing a degree. In the past when I've done job searches, it seems any job that has looked interesting to me or along the lines of something I would like to do wants that 4 year EE degree... Unfortuntely, I don't think I could have the degree by 33 as I wouldn't be able to go full time. I mean I could hit it as hard as possible after hours, weekends, and whenever, but I'll still have to work my job.
 

jim dungar

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Location
Wisconsin
Occupation
Retired Electrical Engineer - Power Systems
From what you have said - get a 'tech school' degree in automation with an emphasis on PLC's. Most schools will force you to learn Rockwell, but try to get exposure to other systems as well. As others mentioned don't forget motion control and CNC programming. In some parts of the country it is hard to find service people with 'wrench trurning' and 'computer' skills.
 

realolman

Senior Member
I was in your shoes once. I think often along the lines of what Charlie posted. My family is wonderful ... I love them more than anything . they are the joy of my life... had I done anything else, our family would not exist.

If you don't like what you are doing you should try to do something else. I sadly must admit to just wishing I could retire. I love electricity, computers, and electronics. I would love to do that forever. I feel I am very competent mainly because I have loved it so much, and have studied it so much. I know there are many of you who will wonder who this is, because I just seem like a dunce to many of you, but if you worked with me for a while you would understand.

I have worked as an electrician, a lineman, and have spent the last 33 years as an industrial mechanic. That involves many other things besides electricity, and I have always thought I was more competent because of that. Everything is related. There is mechanical stuff out there too. In many ways it is more difficult than electricity.

I tell you, and many of you will not like it. Much of this safety stuff is ruining the field. I recall someone posting in a thread about working in the heat about electricians being forced to wear long sleeved shirts... etc.etc. Working in miserable heat every day will kill your spirit quickly... I can tell you that first hand. Especially when it does not have to be. You wear all this crap, and nothing ever happens to justify it... nothing... ever. It doesn' t have beans to do with safety. It has only to do with companies trying to avoid liability, and employee misery be damned. And I know what somebody is going to say. Spare me.

If you can work in the air conditioning, or even a reasonably cool place, that is huge. Companies are treating people like dirt these days because they know its an employer's market... especially people in the "bargaining unit".

29 is old to go to college, but you will get a lot older quicker than you think, and you don't want to end up somebody who is too young to retire, but too old to go anywhere else, and just wishes he could quit and get the hell away from what he loves, because all these other people make the conditions awful.
 

fmtjfw

Senior Member
Check local "technical & community" colleges. They offer 2 year or less programs. They often cater to non-traditional students (such as you).

If your interested in programming and electrical work PLCs sound like the ticket. Some PLCs also have a programming language in addition to ladder diagram input. You might also look for an employer who would support you in upgrading your skills, just a thought.

Designing and commissioning elaborate (plant wide) systems would be very interesting, provided you can travel and stay for extended periods of time on site.
 
I actually have already applied and been accepted to a community college here last winter, but never signed up for classes. Work was slow for me and I had the idea of taking some core classes to start working towards my bachelor's... something... anything. Work picked up and I never did anything. Well, this school actually does have an 18 hour automation certification class. Maybe this is the best place for me to start? Does this look beneficial or more like a waste of time? Here's a link to the curriculum:

https://wwwapps.ivytech.edu/cgi-bin/curr/gpcurriculum_print.cgi?currlinkid=2743&campusid=4

I do have a PLC text book that I've been thumbing through and I've found some basic tutorials online and tinkered with the LogixPro simulator. Not sure if there's any credibility in learning on your own...

I guess I'm concerned about wasting my time going to school for something if I should be spending that time going for something else (time wasted on automation classes if I should just be going after EE). Having made terrible decisions in the past keeps me from being confident in my choices now.

Again, I know that none of you can make the decision for me, but I greatly appreciate the feedback!
 

__dan

Senior Member
Thanks for the responses! As I said - I just wanted to get a little discussion going about it!

As I said before, my major in college was Computer Science. If that had panned out for me, I could be programming software - something I really wish I could do.
Interesting thread with typically great replies.

One thing I would add is to target the employer who is already doing the work you want to do, they will most likely support your going to school, and then the first job in the door matters a bit less. What matters is if the employer employs ten, or hundreds, or thousands of engineers and programmers doing what you want to do. Target the employer, get hired there working close to the smart guys, and go to school on their dime.

Look at where you are now and ask your employer about the possibilties of working under, being mentored by, or assigned project work consistent with engineering and programming - from what you have posted the answer is probably - never.

For the employer with the work, the answer would be - you are only limited by your own imagination. Software, you can still get in with no degree if you have experience. EE requires a four year degree, and instrument / electronics tech is a two year associates, community college degree. I've been looking at taking a few community college programming courses myself.

Target a company that has hundreds and thousands of engineers on staff, where you can move up and sideways in the company.

You may laugh like it's a joke, but in another thread I posted a link to electrogravitic and antigravity research. Formation of a hyperbolic electron is predicted to have antigravity properties.

Now let's say you want to do that for work, you would need a Phd and proof you were one of Obama's undocumented offspring. Or ... a little googling yields names of companies rumored to have done some work , Lockheed, Northrup, SAIC. Do me a favor and go to those company's websites and look at the job offers listed for programmers. The sites have 20 pages of job offers for programmers, nothing for electricians.
 
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realolman

Senior Member
Not sure if there's any credibility in learning on your own...
Except for your own gratification, there isn't... Used to be a TV commercial showing Abe Lincoln applying for a job.

I guess I'm concerned about wasting my time going to school for something if I should be spending that time going for something else (time wasted on automation classes if I should just be going after EE).
If you have kids, make darn sure you spend as much time as possible with them. They are a gift to you from God. They will grow up in the blink of an eye, and you won't want to have spent your time with them in the next room studying.

It's funny how choices made when you are young stick with you the rest of your life, and how hard it is to change course.
Good Luck
 

jim dungar

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Location
Wisconsin
Occupation
Retired Electrical Engineer - Power Systems
If you are so unsure about a EE degree that you are asking for opinions, then it probably is not for you. About the only non-research people that need a BSEE are those that will eventually need to be become licensed as PE's.
 

JP490440

Member
Location
NW Oklahoma
They guy I work for is 35 or so. He doesn?t have anything but a contractors license. He is ? the? man to call around here if you are putting together control systems. Pretty much word of mouth did that for him.
He seems to have an affinity for it, but he got good by working with it and of course the time honored "tech line" classes where you're troubleshooting automated control systems on a oil rig or motor controls in the middle of the night. Things learned that way tend to stick with you.
 

BPoindexter

Inactive, Email Never Verified
Location
MT Vernon, WA
I was 29 once LOL. And I was in a similar situation where I was tired of construction. I learned PLC programming hands on. I took a a job on a lark to get me thru the winter as a maintenance electrican in a sawmill. We were tasked with ripping out all of the old relay controls and installing PLC's including programming them. May I suggest another field if you like controls and automation- look into being and Instrument Tech. All types of controls including automation. You can go as high as you are motivated to do.

And 29 is not that old though it may seem like it. I know a couple of electricians who went back to college in their late 30's and got degrees. Yea it could be a tough road aho while you are doing it. But just think- you could change your family tree! I wished I would have done that but I was distracted with other desires.

If you absolutely cannot go to school I would suggest looking for maintenance jobs. You will definitely learn to troubleshoot. Also look around your area for industrial controls contractors and talk your way into a job. Might have to take a paycut but would be worth it in the longrun.

Two thing I have learned- never pass up on a training opportunity or the chance to get a certification. I have a wall full of them and everyone of them has helped me advance my career. Never waste an opportunity to invest in yourself.
 

readydave8

re member
Location
Clarkesville, Georgia
Occupation
electrician
As I am 58 years old my perspective if that if I had started something at age 29, I would have the following 29 years to reap benefits. And I'm not even old! (yet)
 

JakeW1

Member
Location
Utah
I'm 32, and I was feeling the same way you are about construction a few years ago. I was looking into the EE programs and actually registered for an electrical automation program(my wife put an end to that). I'm currently working on my BS degree part time. I'm a senior now, but it's taken a long time. My degree won't do anything for me except for me to know I have one. I was able to get into estimating and have moved into project management as well. I really like the motor controls and PLC aspect of electrical wiring like you. I thought I would miss that, but I've learned as much in the office as I ever have in the field. We do a lot of design build projects, so I've been fortunate to be involved in the design process. I also really like learning the business side of construction. It's been very fulfilling. It wouldn't hurt to look into it. Especially if your into computers.
 
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