Anyone who has attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony knows what they are about to hear when local government officials head for the microphone. Two phrases, “on time” and “on budget,” often reverberate, and those with project or industry knowledge might wince, as the speaker enthusiastically praises everyone who completed the monumental public project. Often, unfortunately, neither term is accurate.

“On time” and “on budget” are favorite phrases in the construction industry. They are so popular that, when Googled, more results appear than one could possibly read in an entire lifetime. They are terms that directly relate to one of the most-coveted goals in construction: project completion.

In very simplified terms, the goal of many construction firms is to get in, get done and get out, fundamentally differentiating construction goals from those of service firms. The former aim to build an ever-growing contract backlog, do what’s necessary to complete it and move on. In contrast, the objective for service-based firms is to build an ever-growing customer base and do what’s required to keep it.

In the electrical contracting industry, the key ingredient in a service-oriented winning recipe for developing and maintaining enduring customer relationships—and the recurring revenues that result from them—is simply developing and maintaining a great service organization. In our last column, we stressed the need to make the service organization a completely separate entity, set apart from the construction operation. This time, we focus on the critical need to staff that service team with the right players.

“This is a people business,” is one motto of the electrical contracting industry. Yet, it is remarkable how haphazard and unsystematic the process of staffing such organizations can often be. Although it is complex, we break the staffing process down into a four-step sequence to simplify the discussion: 1) recruitment and selection, 2) hiring and orientation, 3) education and training, and 4) evaluation and advancement.

While every contractor should implement each of these processes, these four steps will always require more of a constant emphasis for the ongoing staffing of a service-based electrical contracting business than one that is project-based.

The idea of recruitment may, at first, sound out of place in the unionized sector of electrical contracting because most employees—electrical workers—originally arrive at their employers’ doorstep through the union referral system. Recruiting that brings electricians into a service department often draws from the construction group of the same organization as well.

When it comes to selecting the right people, Brian Kiley, president of Edgewood Electric, Madison Heights, Mich., said, “It takes a certain quality person to perform service work. The service technician needs to be a self-starter who can function with little or no supervision. This person also needs to be able to understand how to communicate with a customer.” Over the years, his foremen, customers’ representatives and distributors’ salesmen have nominated some of the best candidates for service positions.

Paul Brown, vice president of Kelso-Burnett Co., who directs his company’s operations in Chicago, said that, in the demanding environment of customers’ center-city facilities, “Service electricians must maintain a professional appearance. They have to convey a sense of technical expertise and possess a certain amount of sales acumen.” To be prepared to perform in such a professional way, Kiley said that every newly hired person going into a service position must have the benefit of orientation and training.

“Everyone must undergo a probationary period before permanently becoming part of the service organization,” he said.

However, traditionally, many electrical contractors have been reluctant to make direct investments in “in-house” education and training for their own work force; they ask, “What if we train them and they leave?” Consider this: what if you don’t train them and they stay?

A strong proponent of service--oriented training, Dave Wallace, senior vice president of Dayton, Ohio-based Chapel Electric, stresses other needs. For example, in providing field service electricians with good troubleshooting acumen, he said, “some of this can be taught; some of it requires on-the-job training.” Wallace said the never-ending need for learning about innovative products, tools and the latest technologies that might provide competitive advantage is closely associated with both kinds of training.

As electrical contractors, “best-in-class” firms evaluate—and appropriately reward—individuals across their company not only for performance in the field but also in continuing education (CE). Just as the top-performing electrical contractors have well-planned routes of advancement and CE for top-performing staff and management, so too should they translate this asset for field operators. It can be a major advantage: people are the source of more than half of an electrical contractor’s operating costs and 100 percent of its success. Nowhere is there more of such a success factor at work than in a service-centric electrical contracting organization.


MCCOY is assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. Contact him at apmcoy@vt.edu. SARGENT, a 40-year veteran of the electrical contracting business based in Pittsburgh, can be reached at fred@sargent.com.