As the economic recovery continues and the construction market picks up, electrical contractors will have to deal with work force shortages. The problem doesn’t lie just with the aging of the industry, but also the fact that many contractors went out of business and many workers left the construction market during the recession. With fewer people available to perform all the work when construction ramps back up, and with the potential economic damage of sequestration, contractors are going to have to learn how to be more productive to get everything done.


General trends in software and productivity


Cloud computing may have become a buzzword, but it really is revolutionizing the way people are working, according to Wayne Newitts, marketing director at Dexter + Chaney, Seattle. The concept of cloud computing is not new, but for electrical contractors, the power of shared computing resources would enable the contractor’s diverse, distributed, and collaborative work force to easily access and process information regardless of location or the device they are using.


“The Internet and cloud computing also gives software developers a common platform on which to develop their software that is easy for contractors, as well as the other trades, vendors, and project team members, to use, and that can be used on multiple devices by a far-flung and diverse work force with different technology skill levels,” Newitts said.


The attitude toward cloud computing has changed over the last several years. Electricians and operations personnel are realizing the efficiency of being able to download and upload data from the field.


“Contractors and electricians now see how the cloud enables them to get information quickly with tools that they already understand,” said Jeremy Larsen, senior product manager for Viewpoint Construction Software, Portland, Ore. 


The entry of younger workers into the industry also is propelling technological change because they expect to have and use a smart device on the job.


The mass adoption of smartphones and tablets is driving mobile communications and allowing the ability to access the cloud in the construction industry, according to Larsen.


“Software providers are responding by developing apps for use in the field that improve productivity,” he said. 


The apps are mostly specific to work flow, such as productivity and job progress reporting. These apps also improve payroll accuracy and enable project managers to better monitor the status and change course accordingly.


“Task-based tools being developed for electricians also enable them to access repair and customer histories, to review and process work orders in the field, and to transfer that information back to the enterprise business management software through combined cell and cloud technologies,” Newitts said.


Unfortunately, many construction companies today lack exposure to the key data and metrics that could help them make critical short- and long-term decisions and be more productive, said Dennis Stejskal, vice president of product management for Sage Construction and Real Estate, Beaverton, Ore.


“Without sufficient visibility into project and business details, a company may be forced to make critical decisions with only a small portion of the information,” he said.


There are five types of visibility every construction firm should have: reporting, to know what happened in the past; monitoring, to know what is happening now; analyzing, to understand why things happened; predicting, to know what might happen; and mobilizing, to access key project data from anywhere.


Construction-specific software solutions that feature dashboards, alerts and mobile access to data provide the tools required to gain visibility and run the business more efficiently.


“Mobility is especially crucial as access to project information any time and anywhere will soon be the norm and can provide the competitive edge a firm needs to secure new business,” Stejskal said.


Specific software tools


From a business standpoint, the goal of construction management software (CMS) is to increase efficiencies; provide information transparency; reduce or eliminate paperwork; increase process automation; and integrate data, processes and work flows through different departments.


“CMS impacts a contractor’s productivity by enabling the company to turn paper into electronic communication and to make it easier to access, transfer and share information,” Larsen said.


With the current pool of niche providers in the market, it may be difficult to choose the right solution to fulfill the contractor’s needs. Larsen advises contractors to find a good reference, possibly through peer groups and associations.


“In choosing a solution, consider its functionality and ability to support the business and make sure the vendor’s culture aligns with your own,” he said.


According to Kelly Grant, MIS director for EC Co., Portland, Ore., CMS has completely changed how the company performs work.


“Now all processes and data are standardized and centrally stored, enabling the company to manage more work per project manager as well as reduce the time spent in project management,” Grant said.


Software plays an especially important role in the reporting and monitoring aspects of business visibility. To best run a business, it is essential, according to Stejskal, that a company has a clear picture of what is happening. Dashboard tools provided within today’s software, for example, provide an instant picture of where the organization stands in the critical areas that most affect the company’s success. Business visibility software can also alert the company through e-mail when operations or projects hit a critical point that demands more attention.


“For example, an alert can notify management when a project’s anticipated profit threshold will be less than a specified percentage, given the project’s current conditions, enabling a course correction as soon as possible,” he said.


Gaining greater visibility in the business doesn’t happen overnight. While software and other computer technology can help achieve better visibility, the concept is driven by the business owner and his or her vision for the company. And choosing a solution requires understanding its functionality and price.


“Never underestimate, however, the value associated with customer support, industry experience and the networking and learning resources provided by the vendor,” Stejskal said.


According to Kurt Koenig, vice president of product management for Penta Technologies Inc., Brookfield, Wis., the main business drivers for electrical contractors to use mobile field service software are to provide better service, to upsell more services and to improve productivity.


“The software provides the electrician with mobile access to site-specific instructions, history of previous work performed, project location, and equipment specifications, instructions, and detailed inspection and repair procedures,” he said. 


Productivity naturally improves when the technical information is available in real time, and the electrician knows exactly what equipment and tools will be needed to effectively perform the job. Real-time collection of data from the field improves productivity and billing and collection cycle times.


Mobile field service software is trending toward “device independent software,” that is, software that operates on multiple smart device platforms.


“The challenge for the contractor is finding the right soft ware for its needs and deploying that solution on devices that employees want and expect to use,” Koenig said. 


Look for a vendor, he said, that understands the subtleties of the electrical field service market and that has a history of fulfilling similar needs of similar companies.


In the area of estimating and scheduling software, digital take-off is a function everyone is interested in right now, according to Karl Rajotte, director of product management—MEP for Maxwell Systems Inc., King of Prussia, Pa. With everything available electronically, estimators can use the software to perform measurements, complete device or fixture counts, incorporate notes and other annotations in an intelligent software program, and quickly incorporate project changes and get them to the field for immediate use.


“Schedulers can then use the software to phase and schedule the work most effectively,” Rajotte said.


Improved productivity will also be achieved through being able to better track project status and progress, better coordinate and schedule work with other trades, and improve communications for a smoother running project. The challenge, Rajotte said, is in ensuring that the vendor has a structured and detailed implementation plan and will stand by its product.


“Other factors to consider are ease-of-use and the vendor’s experience with complete solutions and with other contractor customers,” he said.


Timekeeping software is another tool that improves productivity for the contractor. For example, timekeeping software enables a supervisor, using smart devices in the field, to manage an entire crew by inputting time clock data, assigning job tasks and tracking performance.


“Time-tracking software is more robust than ever before and, in conjunction with smart devices, enables contractors to pay for hours actually worked, eliminates the time and expense of paper time cards, streamlines payroll and more effectively manages overtime hours,” said Casey Powers, vice president of marketing for ExakTime Inc, Calabasas, Calif. 


And, in conjunction with mobile technology, timekeeping software allows electricians to take photos of the installation, create GPS stamps and voice recordings, perform Internet research, and talk and text from the field, enabling them to do more and communicate more effectively in real time.


Using new software today, contractors can manipulate complex levels of data in the field with small, portable devices; it puts powerful software into the hands of project and service managers and electricians wherever they are working and enables field personnel and project mangers to better manage projects and schedules, plan ahead, and implement and improve productivity. 


“Contractors should ensure that any software being considered takes into account the company’s workflow and will improve productivity in the areas needed. In addition, it should be designed specifically for use in a cloud computing environment rather than be client-server-based,” Newitts said.