By all accounts, the electrical contracting industry is facing a significant shortfall of qualified workers, and this situation will become even more serious over the next 10 years.

A recent study published by the Washington-based Construction Labor Research Council (CLRC) reports the need for union electricians will increase from 11,000 to 14,000 workers per year over the next decade. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a need for 207,000 union and nonunion electricians through 2014.

“Two forces are driving this shortage,” said Geary Higgins, the National Electrical Contractors Association’s (NECA) vice president of labor relations. “First, there has been the incremental growth of the construction industry, and secondly, the electrical content of the average project has grown from 10 percent a dozen years ago to over 20 percent thanks to technological advances such as the high-rise intelligent building.”

And the sheer number of construction projects—either on the drawing board or approved and waiting to be built—is staggering. According to one industry source, there are approximately 25 power plants on the books, and there aren’t electricians available to build them, never mind the airports, schools, roadways, and standard year-in-year-out commercial, industrial, and residential projects that need to be done. Not that it’s any consolation to contractors in the United States, but the need for workers in the electrical construction sector is global and approaching pandemic.

At the annual meeting of the 16-nation European Union of Electrical Wholesalers (EUEW) in Berlin in June, the organization’s president, Markku Nihti, stated that, “While distributor sales volumes and profitability have increased, the lack of skilled installation workers has been limiting contractor and distributor growth in many markets.”

After attending the AIE European multinational annual meeting of electrical contractors in Rome in September, NECA president Milner Irvin said, “It’s striking how similar our problems are, and getting the right labor force on the job has to be one of the most critical global issues we all need to address.”

Contractors who serve on NECA’s Workforce Development Committee target three possible sources for recruitment to fill the dwindling ranks of workers in the field:

  • Inclusion of currently nonunion workers in a new job classification and recruitment program that already has proven successful in many geographic markets

  • More effective interaction with the academic community to increase the visibility of the electrician’s trade

  • Carefully exploring an efficient and equitable way to recruit labor from abroad, as needed, without undermining the position of the American worker

CW/CE classifications

In November of 2005, NECA headquarters sent out a memorandum describing two new worker classifications in the contractor labor ranks—construction wireman and construction electrician.

The memorandum stated, “The construction worker/construction electrician (CW/CE) classifications are tools to be used to address the needs and concerns of IBEW local unions and NECA chapters to better position our collective efforts in areas subject to the erosion of market share. The CW/CE classifications may be implemented by local parties who jointly agree that it is a reasonable means to address the loss or retention of market share.”

In short, the CW/CE program is an avenue of recruitment that allows a current nonunion worker to be employed on jobs along with union workers, provided the nonunion worker meets the qualifications, training and work experience requirements set forth in the memorandum.

The 2005 memorandum summarized the program by stating, “The CW/CE classifications will provide signatory employers with properly classified nonjourneyman-level workers at an appropriate pay level and provide local unions with a means to responsibly recruit individuals with electrical experience. It is of the utmost importance that these individuals receive a fair and honest evaluation.”

According to Higgins, this program allows both International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and member contractors to offer nonunion workers a better employment opportunity than they currently have.

And from an economic standpoint, the contractor’s competitive position is improved by fielding a mixed crew at lower composite hourly wage costs—in some cases a savings of as much as 40 percent.

The CW/CE classification system grew out of an strategy called the Florida Initiative, which was the working model for the program that now has been adopted by many locals throughout the country.

“It’s a win for the employees, the contractors and the union,” said Jeffrey Henderson, business manager of Local 1205 in Gainesville, Fla., in an interview in the IBEW Internet newsletter.

Other strategies

But there is no such thing as a one-size solution that fits all work force needs and geopolitical circumstances.

“The CW/CE program can’t work for us in Oregon, Washington and Alaska,” said Wayne Tyrell, president of Prime Electric Inc., Bellevue, Wash. “In these states, there are licensing laws that require a worker to have 8,000 hours of OJT and to have passed a state-administered test. No sub-tier journeymen are allowed.”

So the association and the union have been focusing on nonunion workers and putting them through a program called Craft Certification Labs to bring them up to speed as quickly as possible so that they can become licensed.

And that licensing can’t come soon enough, according to Tyrell, because there are a dozen high-rise construction projects under way in Bellevue, Wash., alone, and both Microsoft and Google are building major operational sites in the eastern part of the state.

A major problem contractors face anywhere when recruiting workers is the notorious boom-or-bust nature of the industry.

“One of the more successful tools we use when we have a large job coming up on which we can put people to work immediately is what we refer to as an Industry Night,” said Ron Autrey, president of Miller Electric Co., Jacksonville, Fla., “We promote these meetings heavily, and nonunion members turn out in significant numbers. We explain to them the options they have within the system with various contractors and local unions, and they respond well because it’s clear information about how they can be recruited depending on their level of expertise.”

Miller Electric has established two work force development initiatives of its own. One is called “Miller University,” which involves selecting people from field supervision and training them for managerial positions, identifying what additional skills they may need, such as EDP capabilities or human resources management.

The second is a mentoring program in which young candidates are identified as having supervisory potential, and then a custom career track is structured for them so that their training and fieldwork run parallel.

Education and immigration

As a profession, electrical contracting has such a low profile that it isn’t picked up on the career-planning radar of most educators or young people. Greg Stewart, CEO of The Superior Group, Columbus, Ohio, believes a concerted effort is needed to inform the academic community of the opportunities the electrical industry offers.

“We have to make ourselves known and start communicating with guidance counselors on the middle school and high school levels, so they can channel people toward our trade instead of just toward college,” he said. “Most of our apprentice programs offer an associate’s degree, some in conjunction with a local community college. And in some cases, those credits could be transferred to a four-year institution. In other words, a student could earn his or her way through college on what might be called an electrical scholarship.”

Another phenomenon that Stewart has noticed is the case of the student who was encouraged to earn a college degree, but is now in debt, has no real marketable skills and needs a decent job.

“This could be another resource for us,” he said, “because here is an educated person who often has good leadership potential. As an industry, we have to develop local and national programs to publicize our profession and make ourselves known.

With regard to entry-level workers, industry sources agree that efforts have to be intensified to attract minority groups, including women. But some believe another virtually untapped—and politically sensitive—source of workers should be carefully explored by the industry, and this is the immigrant population.

“The fact is that we need electricians, and we should try to work … to set up an equitable system to help fill our work force needs,” said Gary Walker, president of Walker Communications Inc., Fairfield, Calif.

“This is obviously a touchy issue, and there are politics involved.But the point needs to be made that this is not displacing people but filling a void. What we need is a fair and legal avenue for people to cross our borders with a work permit, be tested as far as their qualifications are concerned and then go to work in a union shop.

“If we can figure out how to do this, then they will not be taken advantage of, and we will have access to much-needed qualified workers,” Walker said. “What this will require on our part is for us to forget about preconceived attitudes, open our eyes and look at things a little differently.”   EC

QUINN reports on a broad range of business and industry issues for journals in the United States and Europe. He can be reached by phone at 203.323.9850 or by e-mail at mirabel@snet.net.