Here’s the good news: The need for electricians is growing. In fact, the demand will continue to increase across the next decade. “As the population and economy grow,” a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics states, “more electricians will be needed to install and maintain electrical devices and wiring in homes, factories, offices, and other structures. New technologies also are expected to continue to stimulate the demand for these workers.”

Now for the bad news: The work force of skilled electricians is shrinking. In order to take advantage of this growing need and not become a victim of the shrinking talent pool, it will be essential for even the smaller contracting firms to develop a hiring strategy. The challenge is to never be in the position of having to scramble for warm bodies just to fill positions.

A simple plan

A business is only as good as its employees, but every contractor knows finding and hiring great electricians isn’t simply a matter of placing an ad in the Help Wanted section of the local newspaper. Hiring great electricians requires a well-thought out recruiting strategy. Here are four steps to follow in developing such a strategy.

Step 1. Know why you’re hiring—Designing a strategy involves answering the question, “Why am I hiring?” Perhaps the answer seems obvious, but it’s important to acknowledge what you intend to accomplish. Determine how this new hire helps you in your bigger plan. How will it bring you closer to achieving your business goals? Your decision to hire could be based on current or future growth. Or it could be to capture business from a competitor. Or you could be broadening your service offerings by moving into another market, such as fiber optics or security systems. Of course, you could simply be replacing a worker who is no longer on the payroll. Knowing why you are hiring helps shape your efforts.

Step 2. Write a customer-centered job description—Most electrical contracting firms don’t bother writing a job description. “What’s to describe? We’re hiring an electrician,” they say. And while it’s true you want someone with those technical hands-on skills, your primary concern is the quality of work delivered and how the individual interacts with customers. Most customer-service problems aren’t the result of a lack of technical skills. They are the result of a lack of communication skills between the employee and the customer.

Don Andersson, author of “Hire to Fit,” advises owners and employers to develop a customer-based job description. Obviously, the content will vary with the markets you serve. For example, the expectations of a residential customer are different from those of a factory owner. As Andersson writes, “Look at who the customers are, then customize the job to those expected behaviors. Place measures into the description.”

Next, it’s a matter of determining if a job applicant has the behavioral characteristics to successfully meet the expectations of that customer. Those traits may include verbal communication skills, high energy, enthusiasm and work ethic. You may consider using a personality assessment survey or developing interview questions that focus on uncovering behavioral traits. Finally, make your job description all-inclusive. There are a growing number of women electricians, and this is a rich source of talent often overlooked in a male-dominated industry.

Step 3. Prioritize your hiring needs—Apprentice, journeyman, laborer, office worker? Don’t assume if you hire enough people the job will get done. It has to be the right people. Now that you have written a job description, you know what performance level to target. Naturally, it would be ideal if you could always hire top performers, but in the real world, that’s not going to happen. Sometimes it is a matter of choosing from the best of available candidates.

Step 4. Identify future hiring needs, when possible—For instance, when the firm wins a project requiring a bigger work force, obviously more workers will be necessary. Don’t wait until the job is about to start. Begin prescreening applicants right away. Another example of planning for future needs is when you’re having disciplinary problems with an employee indicating a potential upcoming vacancy. Consider designing a service-level agreement for new hires to sign. Base it on the job description, and then employees know exactly what is expected of them.

Where to look

Don’t overlook the development of people who already work for you. Do you have an apprentice who shows more promise than the average worker? Invest in training, and develop your own talent pool. Offering training to eager employees can help retain workers and improve morale. And it serves as a barometer for workers, because most employees won’t take advantage of training offerings. The ones that do will be your more ambitious workers.

An obvious place to look for skilled electricians is in the work force of your competitors. But, keep in mind that a worker who will leave a current employer, if given the right offer, likely will leave you, as well. Besides, you don’t want someone else’s unhappy employee. So how do you know when it’s worth taking a risk on an electrician from a competing firm? Ask your employees. Chances are, they know who the best electricians are in your community. If you’ve been in business for five years or more, you probably do, too. Make a point of getting to know these top performers. Your employees can be helpful in putting you into contact with the electricians in other firms.

And if you’re looking outside the company, job fairs are still around for a reason. They’re an effective way to expose your company to scores of job seekers in a condensed amount of time. Regardless of whether you hire someone, it’s an opportunity to start some positive word-of-mouth marketing. Before committing to a job fair, check the credentials of the event planner.

“Ask for references of companies that attended in previous years,” said Eileen Levitt, president of consulting firm The HR Team. “Ask the sponsors about how they plan to promote the fair to candidates.” This will help determine if the job seekers will be a good fit for your company. Remember, your booth is a marketing tool and needs to be creatively designed to attract your potential employees.

Of course, to plan for the future, become involved in the community, and you’ll plug into a network of resources that could possibly help you find potential workers. The Chamber of Commerce and service clubs are places where you can get to know the business leaders of the community. You’ll learn how other owners are dealing with hiring issues. You’ll learn about career day at high school or the job fair at the junior college. Check into the work-placement program in high schools. Though this often is only a “job shadowing” type program, it could spark an interest and result in a future employee.

And along those lines, it’s important that you always stay in the recruiting state of mind. As the talent pool of skilled workers continues to recede, it will be unlikely that a firm will ever have too many electricians.

Dr. John Sullivan, a leader among human resources advisers, designates this as an “evergreen job, a mission-critical job where hiring is continuous,” regardless of whether an opening exists. By always interviewing promising job prospects you can prequalify candidates for possible future openings, thus speeding up the hiring process when the job becomes available. Sullivan reminds owners to always be alert for good people. By looking outside the industry, you can start fresh with someone who doesn’t have preconceived ideas about the job requirements of an electrician.

“I hire based on work ethic, rather than skill level,” said Dwayne Childer, an electrical contractor. “When we’re working against a deadline, I need to know I can depend on someone to stay late on a Friday night until the job is finished. To someone who’s willing to learn, I can teach the skills needed to be an electrician. But, it’s almost impossible to teach a work ethic. They’ve either got it or they don’t.”

Finally, enlist employees as job recruiters. Post a referral program that rewards employees who bring in new hires.

Optimizing the work force

Most contracting firms today operate lean and hungry, expecting more from a slimmed-down work force. The need for efficiency has required a re-evaluation of the journeyman’s job description. Routine and mundane tasks have been removed and reassigned to assistants and apprentices, freeing the journeyman to focus on the high-skill elements of the work at hand. Cross training is encouraged among the apprentices and trainees to create a flexible work force and provide built-in resources for backup accommodations when workers take sick days or are on vacation.

Employment service providers, known in the past as temp agencies, have evolved into a resource for recruiting skilled workers. Most of these providers offer a flexible trial period allowing an employer time to determine if a worker is a good fit for the needs of the company. Flexibility is the key word. For example, you could hire several people for a specific project with a clause for permanent employment based on job performance. Supply a profile of your company and copies of job descriptions, and the service provider can become a recruiting and training agency. With this information on hand, the employment services specialist always is aware of the contractor’s needs. Outsourcing your recruiting and hiring team allows you to focus on the more pressing issues of the business, such as bidding jobs and project management.

The future is now

“As our field is growing and changing, we need to grow and change with it,” said Kenneth C. Zack, VP/PS IBEW Local 41. “The knowledge we had yesterday may not be good enough for the task at hand tomorrow. We need to keep our skill levels up if we hope to stay competitive. I urge all our members to take full advantage of any and all of the journeyman education classes available to you.”

So there is some more good news: Your competitors aren’t going to take the talent shortage seriously until it’s too late. It’s just easier to procrastinate and scramble for warm bodies as needed. It’s much harder to focus on skills development, strategic planning and constant flexibility. But, developing strategies for hiring and keeping the best of the best can give you the competitive edge in the war for talent.

And the contractor with the most talent wins.  EC

DANDRIDGE is a professional speaker and writer with more than 20 years of experience in the electrical industry. He can be reached at md@mikedandridge.com or www.highvoltageservice.com.