There’s going to be a skilled worker shortage later in this decade. If the economy continues to rebound, shortages might well become severe. What is being done? What might be done? If there are solutions, when will they kick in? This is the second-part of a series looking at the projected problem.

As a feature in June’s ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR demonstrated, this industry faces an electrician shortage in 2006-08. IBEW, NECA and the Independent Electrical Contractors (union, union contractor association and non-union contractor association) all agree. There are no short-term remedies: Apprentices who will graduate as journeymen from the four-year IEC apprenticeship program of 2006 and NECA-IBEW program of 2007 are already enrolled; their numbers cannot be augmented. In fact, with significant 2002-03 apprentice layoffs, those classes are likely to be smaller than one might have hoped.

What, then, is being done?

Industry-wide problem

Electrical contracting’s problem is not isolated. The construction industry as a whole is will suffer devastating shortages in the 2000s. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, as analyzed by the Construction Labor Research Council, project that three out of four new recruits into the construction industry “will be required to replace current workers who are leaving the industry,” according to a Federal Mediation and Counciliation Services white paper.

Even worse: “Data suggest that between 70 percent and 80 percent of the vacancies will be for skilled craft workers,” FMCS reported.

Can construction trades (union and non-union) simply recruit people and train them? Well, no. Here’s why:

1. The projected worker shortage extends beyond construction.

2. As seen in Figure 1, construction wages have plummeted, relative to “competitors” for similar skill sets. In 1967, construction worker pay topped those in comparable occupations. Thirty years later, construction was the low man on the totem pole.

3. Most importantly, construction’s image is abominable. The FMCS white paper notes that the Jobs Rated Almanac lists the 250 best and worst jobs in the economy, with “construction worker” on the 10-worst list.

Even more devastating: “It is ranked 248 out of the 250 occupations that were rated by young job seekers.”

One standard request of the audience, in presentations to groups of electrical construction personnel on this subject, is: “Please raise your hand if you want your kids to pursue a career in the construction industry.” Typically, not a single hand is raised.

Plan of attack

The biggest investment of any in construction in changing that “image” has come from the National Labor-Management Cooperation Committee of IBEW and NECA. Since 2000, the NLMCC has sought to educate high school students on this industry.

NLMCC claims to have invested just short of $2 million on the national level in the 2000-2003 period. The dollars have funded “Career Action Kit” mailings to high school guidance counselors-29,000 in early 2001, followed by 39,000 that fall.

Additional funds go to filling orders from guidance counselors for additional “Kit” materials; close to 2,000 orders have come in. “Kit” materials (including CD-ROMs) connect students with the “59 careers” to which an electrical apprenticeship is the front door—from journeyman or lineman to foreman, inspector, contractor and more.

Following up on this, the NECA-IBEW team began advertising last fall directly to students in Careers & Colleges, a quarterly publication. Boxes of C&C are provided to guidance counselors at 4,500

high schools; they distribute the issues to juniors and seniors.

In November 2002, the NECA-IBEW team inserted a CD-ROM on electrical careers in a plastic bag with each magazine. It cost more than $300,000 just to duplicate the 800,000 CD-ROMs needed. Additionally, three full-page ads promoting electrical construction apprenticeship have appeared in every issue of the magazine since that first one—and will continue to do so, at least through the first issue of next year.

So the program thus far has included:

1. Three full-page ads in each of 3 million magazines aimed at high school juniors and seniors

2. More than 750,000 CD-ROMs distributed with that magazine for students

3. About 3.5 million student handouts provided to guidance counselors through the Career Action Kit effort

Nothing approaching the scale of this effort has been observed anywhere else in construction the past three years. So while electrical contractors can’t do much about changing the 2006-07 graduating journeyman outlook, there is work being done for the future.

Electrifying Web site

What comes next for the IBEW and NECA? Their cooperative organization recently put www.electrifyingcareers.com online. Target audiences: High school students, their parents and their guidance counselors.

With nonresidential construction down lately and local apprenticeship programs not necessarily increasing apprenticeship enrollment, why is the NLMCC adding to this substantial investment in changing the industry’s image?

“This is not a one-year effort—it has to be long-term,” explained Geary Higgins, NECA’s vice president of labor relations and one of four NLMCC trustees. “In the short run, even if we take in fewer apprentices, we should be able to raise the quality of person.

“In the longer term, many of these high school juniors and seniors will go on to enroll in college. But more than half of them won’t graduate. Some of those will remember our ads and materials—and the great opportunity that we offer.”

Added Mark Ayers, director of Construction and Maintenance for the IBEW and also a trustee: “The statistics show that, of those age 25 to 29 in 2002, 86 percent graduated from high school. The data show that 60 percent to 67 percent of our younger age groups go on to college.

“But only 29 percent of those in the 25 to 29 group graduated from a four-year college. More than half of those who enroll in a two-year or four-year school do not get a four-year degree before age 30. Some of those others have to be looking around for other opportunities.

“We want the best of them to find us.” EC

SALIMANDO is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. He can be reached at jsali@cris.com.