Although preconvention workshops begin Friday, Oct. 21, the major kickoff for NECA 2011 San Diego is the first-of-its-kind program scheduled for the next day—the NECA Energy Forum. The information about the forum at www.necaconvention.org opens with this irrefutable statement: “Virtually every new building and energy technology increases demand for electrical contracting expertise, while challenging electrical contractors to develop their knowledge and skills.” Can’t argue with that.

Neither can you argue with the notion that the Energy Forum is a symbolically fitting start for a multiday learning adventure focused on developing knowledge and skills among professionals who can rightly be called “energy managers.”

Installing power distribution systems and lighting fixtures is, of course, still the mainstay for most electrical contractors. In fact, 94 percent of the respondents to this magazine’s “2010 Profile of the Electrical Contractor” said they do traditional power and lighting work. But they are filling in the gaps left by the drop in traditional work with systems integration to make buildings perform better and more efficiently than ever as well as power quality work, sustainable building projects and service/maintenance contracts.

In general, those contractors who have not only survived but actually thrived through the economic downturn have made serious efforts to diversify the type of work they perform. In tough times, you have to take a step back and think about what your company’s goals are, review everything you may have taken for granted and maybe make some changes you wouldn’t have considered before. That can be a good thing.

But don’t think that when the economy bounces back the electrical contracting business will return to doing only what was considered traditional work a few years ago. Performing nontraditional services involving energy management, in one way or another, is the new norm. An improved economy will bring more opportunities for us to provide energy solutions to our customers—all the more reason for contractors to develop their knowledge and skills as energy managers now.

The truth is, the construction economy is starting to improve in some areas, though the recovery is uneven. We see an emphasis on energy management wherever electrical construction is making gains. A case in point is the line construction industry, which is beginning to experience a major turnaround.

This summer, there has been a 19 percent increase in heavy construction, led by the start of several large electric utility projects, according to the economists at McGraw-Hill. We also can expect power projects to increase dramatically in 2012 and beyond, now that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has adopted new rules to remove barriers that have stymied construction of new multistate transmission lines and renewable-energy projects feeding the grid. FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff said about 60 percent of the new U.S. generating capacity put in place by 2019 will consist of wind and solar projects, and many of these projects will need miles of new transmission lines to succeed. (We’ll undoubtedly hear more about this dramatic development at NECA’s Energy Forum in San Diego, where Wellinghoff will deliver the keynote address.)

Building new infrastructure is a necessary first step to building the smart grid, which is intended to provide for the efficient delivery of reliable, economic and sustainable electric power. A smarter grid will result in increased coordination between the outside and inside branches of our industry—and more work for both.

Opportunities in nontraditional service areas are coming from many other sources, as well. For example, as long as the need for faster transmission speeds and additional bandwidth to support all types of voice, data and video applications exists (and the need shows no signs of abating any time soon), ECs can find work installing, maintaining and upgrading all types of networks supported by low-voltage and fiber optic cabling. As long as new building automation technologies keep appearing on the market (no letup there, either), contractors can make a nice living installing, maintaining and upgrading systems for controlling building temperature; heating, ventilating and air conditioning equipment; lighting; fire/life safety and security; and the list goes on. And, don’t forget, all those systems need to be integrated by knowledgeable electrical contractors for optimal performance.

Those are just a few examples of emerging markets for our services. My point is electrical contractors need to keep learning in order to keep up with the introduction of new opportunities in our technology-driven industry. Learning all you can about energy management and how to deliver energy solutions to customers is a good place to start.

It never ends. It only changes.